With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, we wanted to continue our look at various tattoo traditions around the world and their history. Celtic traditions originated in Central Europe shared by the Germanic tribes who inhabited the region. The iconic imagery we think of, with blue tones and intricate knot work didn’t come until later following Roman expansion into Europe and Saxon incursions from the north.
The interlaced knot with no beginning or end has very strong protective elements according to Celtic tradition. These designs were meant to represent the eternalness of nature and opposites in harmony, ideas of eternity, balance, and protection made Celtic tattoos incredibly important to the warriors of the culture. Combat was one of the highest honors a person could participate in and like the markings they wore, were not gender specific. Men and women joined battle together and made a fearsome display, their bodies covered in the distinct deep indigo tattoos and scars amassed from past victories with little else.
British Celts created their tattoo dyes from the Woad plant native to the Isles and Northern Europe. The leaves of the plant were dried then boiled multiple times until a thick sticky paste was formed. The paste was then applied using a needle-like tool to create a permanent image under the skin. A Celtic warrior would also use this paste along with other plant dyes to form their hair into long colorful spikes that would stand on end; this with their tattooed and scarred near-naked bodies would create a striking picture, instilling fear into their enemies.
Celtic artwork wasn’t just used for warfare, the woven knots had distinct meaning based on their formations and even incorporated anthropomorphized creatures such as dogs, horses, or dragons to reflect their own aspects and properties. These distinctions allowed a pictorial language to form within their cultural traditions. We can see demonstrations of this on picts, monolithic stones carved with knot work and images. Granted the largest surviving pict stone is covered in images of the battle and decapitated corpses, but still it’s their history.