Sacred signs on the body: the art of tattooing among the Slavs

Since ancient times, tattooing has had a sacred meaning. Priests were covered with drawings before a ceremony, hunters, going out to hunt, or war, before participating in a battle.

The use of tattoos by our ancestors, the Slavs, still causes controversy among historians. To date, there are no reliable archaeological finds, and there are no credible references in the annals or other written sources.

And yet we will try to understand this issue.

The history of tattoos and other ceremonial signs, such as scarring, goes back millennia, during the early Iron Age. Scientists indicate a more accurate dating – “indelible marks” were known already 5000 years ago in the vast territories of settlement of representatives of the tribes of the Indo-European community.

Since direct evidence of the existence of a tattoo among the Slavs has not yet been found, let us turn to circumstantial evidence. Let’s look at the archaeological finds from the “neighbours” of the Slavic tribes. It is not by chance that I put the word “neighbours” in quotation marks – Pazyryk cattle breeders, ancient inhabitants of the Taklamakan desert and the Tyrolean “ice” man are related to the Slavs by belonging to the Indo-European community and an extremely defined geographical neighbourhood. In the article, I deliberately do not consider the art of tattooing among the tribes of Polynesia or the natives of Australia in view of their significant geographical distance from the territories of settlement of Slavic tribes, as well as of a different origin than Indo-European.

So let’s get back to the facts.

In 1991, in the Alpine mountains, on the border between Austria and Italy, the body of a man was found. And there would be nothing remarkable in this fact, but the man passed away … about 5300 years ago. The mummy, found in the ice of the Alps and named by scientists Etzi, belonged to a man who lived in the Copper Age in this area.

According to research by scientists, Etzi most likely died during a fight, possibly with fellow tribesmen or representatives of neighbouring tribes. On the body of the mummy, large fragments of clothing are perfectly preserved, shoes are partially preserved and weapons are completely preserved – a copper axe with a yew handle, a stone knife with an ash handle, a quiver with 14 arrows with bone tips and viburnum and cornel shafts, as well as a 182-centimeter yew bow.

But this is not why we are interested in the “ice man”. Since the body, frozen into the ice, escaped decomposition, the skin with many tattoos is well preserved.

About 57 tattoos of dots, lines and crosses were found on Etzi’s body. These marks cover the body of the mummy from head to toe. Moreover, they were made not in a modern way, but without the use of needles: probably, small incisions were made on the skin, into which charcoal was rubbed. Line and cross tattoos are most often found on those parts of the body that were most susceptible to injury or possibly pain, such as the joints and along the back. Some researchers believe that tattoos on Etzi’s body could indicate the points of ancient acupuncture, according to others, the patterns on the body meant the transition of a young man into adulthood, his recognition as a man.




Etzi’s social status also raises a number of questions: some scholars classify him as a priest or shaman, others as warrior, while others believe that the “ice man” was a simple shepherd.
Be that as it may, the study of the “ice man” mummy continues, and, perhaps, in the very near future, new details of the research will become known, and the mysteries of the ancient man will be revealed.

Now we will make a small imaginary journey through time and space, and find ourselves in the Taklamakan desert, not far from the borders with modern Mongolia, 2000 years BC. Here, in the fertile oases, there was a civilization of people of the Caucasian type. But over time, the climatic conditions in these places changed a lot, and people left the once fertile lands. The sands of time covered the abandoned settlements, leaving scientists with only huge mysteries.

In the ’70s of the XX century, during archaeological excavations in these places, the remains of settlements with a large number of burials were found. Scientists dubbed the “inhabitants” of these places Tarim mummies, along the Tarim river flowing in a valley nearby, or pseudotokhars – carriers of the Tocharian group of languages.

This Caucasian population appeared in western China 1000 years before the Mongoloid. A probable source of migrations of speakers of the Tocharian languages ​​to the Xinjiang province and the Taklamakan desert was the Minusinsk steppe – the zone of distribution of the Afanasyev culture. Presumably, the culture was created by migrants from Eastern Europe, in particular, bearers of the ancient pit culture, who assimilated the local population.

Data from the Pazyryk and Tashtyk cultures, as well as some written sources, testify to the wide distribution of Caucasians in Inner Asia 2000-3000 years ago. For example, Pliny the Elder reports that the ambassador to the court of Emperor Claudius described the inhabitants of western China as “above average height, with flaxen hair and blue eyes.”

Judging by the burials found, embalming was not practiced in these places, and mummification occurred naturally, as a result of climate change and the desertification of oases. Studying the  remains found, scientists made a sensational discovery – the oldest mummy was about 4000 thousand years old, while the very last burial dates back to 200 BC. And on almost all mummies, both male and female, the remnants of tattoos were noticeable.

They covered hands, fingers, faces, backs. Perhaps these patterns reflected a person’s social status or profession. So, on the face of one of the male mummies you can see a solar sign in the form of a half-spiral, and on the cheekbones of an elderly woman – red stripes and remnants of a geometric ornament in the form of corners.


Uyghur archaeologist Dolkun Kimberly, who found the man’s burial, suggests a connection between the solar sign on the mummy’s face and the Indo-European solar cult of the god Mithra.

To date, the study of Tarim mummies has not been completed, but one thing is clear – the inhabitants of the Taklamakan desert looked more like modern Europeans than their immediate neighbors, the Chinese.

Now let’s mentally make one more trip and transfer to Altai. 2 millennia have passed since the “ice” man fell into an eternal sleep in the mountains of Tyrol, and the civilization in the Taklamakan desert still flourished, during the Iron Age, where the Pazyryk cattle breeders lived.

Mummies of representatives of this culture, who inhabited the steppes and foothills of the Altai mountains in the 5th-3rd centuries BC, on the border of modern Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, provided the main evidence of the practice of tattooing in antiquity.

In 1948, the Soviet expedition led by S.I. Rudenko, the burial place of the “leader” was found. The skin of the man’s mummy is perfectly preserved. So, the head of a lion’s griffin is clearly visible on the chest, and the image of a deer is applied on the right shoulder. On the right hand, from top to bottom, there is an image of a fanged predator, a deer with an eagle beak, a mountain ram, a fantastic winged beast with a cat’s tail. On the left hand there are images of two deer and a mountain ram. A fish is depicted on the outside of the right shin. On the inner side of the lower leg, a horned and winged animal with a long tail is drawn from above, below – four racing mountain rams or horses.

On the top of the foot is a fantastic fanged beast with a cat’s tail. In the same place, in the area of ​​the animal’s mouth, circles are drawn. Exactly the same circles are applied along the man’s spine. Is this not the kind of points of ancient acupuncture, like the “ice” man Etzi?

The scientific publication of the results of the Soviet expedition to Altai gained worldwide fame. But the surprises of these harsh places did not end there. Almost 50 years later, a new scientific expedition and research by N.V. Polosmak and V.I. Molodina became one of the largest archaeological events of the late 20th century.

The expedition of the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography chose the southernmost point of the Russian Altai for their research. The Ukok plateau stretches at an altitude of 2.5 thousand meters. Here, according to researchers, the Pazyryk nomadic pastoralists spent the most severe time – winter and spring. In the summer they drove their herds to more fertile places. What attracted nomads to these harsh places? According to N.V. Polosmak, the Pazyryk people managed to master all the riches of Altai, necessary for the life of a cattle breeder. They were familiar with the local deposits of gold, iron ore, copper and tin. Local nomads made amazing fine jewelry. It was as if nature took care of preserving the Pazyryk culture for posterity – not only things and decorations, but also the burials themselves.

Ukok is one of the highest mountain plateaus in Altai, bound by permafrost. In such a frame made of ice, in the summer of 1993, archaeologists found the body of a young woman, whose hands, including some of the phalanges of the fingers, were completely covered with a tattoo. The remains of the deceased, who later received the name “Princess Ukok”, belonged to a girl of very high social status. No joke, 6 horses with harness and saddles were found in the burial.

On the left shoulder of the “princess” is depicted an ungulate (deer or horse) with the beak of a griffin, with stylized horns of a ibex and a deer, crowned with the heads of griffins. Below, in a similar pose, is a ram with its head thrown upside down. Behind the ram is a leopard with a twisted tail. Below them is a fantastic animal, with the paws of a predator, the body of a deer and the tail of a tiger. Some of the tattoos are poorly preserved, but the head of a deer with branched antlers is clearly visible on the wrist.

Later, under the leadership of V.I. Molodin, another mound was examined, in which the body of a young man was found. A mythical hoofed animal with the body of a deer, the beak of a griffin and the heads of a vulture on the horns forever “dangled” over his left shoulder.

N.V. Polosmak deeply researched the phenomenon of Pazyryk tattoos. She noted the identity of the style and method of applying images. In addition, there is a certain similarity in the location of the same drawings – in the upper part of the shoulder, both the man and the woman had drawings of fantastic ungulates.


One of the latest studies was carried out in 2005 with mummies found by S.I. Rudenko in 1953 and kept in the Hermitage. The latest advances in science have made it possible to use infrared radiation to study 3 mummies. Numerous tattoos were also revealed on them, repeating the previously found ones in the general composition – these are deer, mountain rams and big cats, as well as mythological ungulates and griffins.
It should be mentioned that all the found Pazyryk tattoos are masterful and have great artistic value. These are not individual symbols – lines or dots, but whole compositions of animals, both mythical and real.
The image of a deer is often found on the body of the “leader” and the Altai “princess.” Most likely, it was a tribal sign, a sign of the guardian of the clan or the ancestor animal.

And what, in fact, are the Slavs? This is not so simple to answer. The manuscripts brought to us the words of the Arab traveler and chronicler of the 10th century, Ahmad ibn Fadlan. “He (Ibn-Fadlan) said: I saw the Rus when they arrived with their trade and settled (landed) on the Atil River. And I have not seen (people) with more perfect bodies than them. They are like palms, blush, red. They do not wear jackets or kaftans, but the husband/man wears a cat skin, with which he covers one of his sides, and one of his hands comes out of it. With each of them (there is) an axe, and a sword, and a knife, and he (never) parts with what we (now) have mentioned. Their swords are flat, with grooves, like the Frankish ones. And from the edge of the nail (nails) of one of them (Rus) to his neck (there is) a collection of trees and images (things, people?) And the like. ”
Ibn Fadlan speaks about the signs on the body of the “Rus”. And here we are faced with the fact that modern scientists do not have a consensus about who these Russians are.
Most of Russian historians believe that the Rus, seen by Ibn Fadlan in the Volga Bulgaria, are none other than Vikings or Varangians. Yes, everything described by the Arab chronicler, including burial in a boat, is more suitable for the northern neighbors of the Slavs, but a number of scholars consider the Rus as the southern Slavs.
So the opinions were divided. Having no other evidence, except for the notes of Ibn Fadlan and distorted references in medieval chronicles, including the “Tale of Bygone Years”, which was copied many times, I will join the majority opinion – the people of the Rus were not Slavs, but most likely were their northern neighbour …

Today there is no direct evidence of tattoos among the Slavs. Human skin is not a very durable material, and the Slavs did not live in deserts or on high plateaus, where climatic conditions would have allowed specific archaeological material to survive. In a word, not a single Slavic mummy has yet been found with preserved skin, on which one could see the tattoo pattern.
With the adoption of Christianity, tattooing was completely banned, including it as one of the manifestations of paganism. In the Bible there are direct references to the prohibition of decorating oneself with symbols and signs. At one time or another, all Slavs underwent Christianization.
But is there really no “evidence” left?
If we talk about more plausible evidence of Slavic tattoos, the facts inevitably lead us to the Balkan Peninsula. The first written records of tattooing among Croatian and Bosnian women appeared with the arrival of the Ottomans in these lands in the 14th century.

A popular tourist version of the origin of tattoos says that the Balkan Slavs wore these patterns in order to avoid forcible conversion to Islam during the Ottoman invasion.
Yes, this custom during Turkish rule saved girls from harems, and boys with tattoos were not taken to the janissaries.
But ritual tattoos appeared much earlier than the arrival of the Turks in the Balkans. This custom is an echo of paganism. And there is no doubt that the crosses are solar signs, and they are still used during the spring equinox, in the week preceding the Christian Easter.
All these crosses, circles and dots are the legacy of paganism, the call of the sun and the fertility spells.

The tattoo was usually done for girls aged 4-5 years, but over the years it changed – new elements were added. If the child was sick, then the patterns were applied for medicinal purposes. When the girl entered the age of the adulthood, the tattoos were supplemented with information that she could be married off. When a girl became a woman, new patterns were added to the previous tattoo. The birth of children, the number of pregnancies, widowhood – all the information was contained in the tattoos.
The tattooing tradition that survived Ottoman rule fell into disgrace during communist times. The communists, who fought against religion, organized a whole campaign to persecute tattooed women. Therefore, women stopped decorating their children with signs for fear of power – and the tradition had all but disappeared by the 1950s. Nowadays, only in some parts of Bosnia and Croatia, women, and very rarely men, continue to cover their hands with ancient symbols and ornaments.

The first to describe and sketch Balkan tattoos was the archaeologist Ciro Trukhelka in 1896. He has published an extensive work, Scientific Reports on Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which one of the articles is devoted to traditional tattooing. According to Trukhelka’s assumptions, the origins of the ornaments used by the Bosnian Croats lie in the Hallstatt culture (900-400 BC), which was adopted by the Celts, Thracians and Illyrians.


However, there are still no serious ethnographic studies on this topic. As if Balkan scholars do not specifically want to touch on this custom, often equating it with the Kurdish tattoo tradition, and seeing in it echoes of the pre-Islamic beliefs of the East.

Indeed, there are some parallels with the tattoos of Kurdish women. But why can’t it be accepted as a reliable fact that the signs on the body of both Balkan and Kurdish women have the same origin, and are the most ancient Indo-European symbols? Yes, the Kurds are also Indo-Europeans, like the Slavs.

However, we are now not taling about the Kurds, but about the Slavs. Taking into account the fact that earlier Slavs were, in essence, a single superegos (definition by L.N. Gumilev), I have every reason to assume the pagan origin of tattoos on the bodies of Balkan women.

The cross is one of the oldest salt symbols along with the swastika. Dots are a symbol of fertility, both earthly and human. Crescent – lunar female symbolism as opposed to solar, solar.

Some researchers of the phenomenon of tattoos believe that the drawings applied to the body were just one of the ways to decorate it, and did not carry a deep ritual meaning. But a tattoo is not an outfit that can be changed or a coloring that can be washed off. A tattoo is a sign that remained with a person for life. It is no coincidence that L.Ya. Sternberg (1861-1927), the founder of Russian ethnology, who wrote an article on the art of tattooing for the Brockhaus and Efron encyclopedic dictionary more than 100 years ago, called tattoos “indelible marks.”

I do not think that our ancestors were so frivolous about applying indelible marks on the body. Like much in the life of our ancestors, tattoos were not just an ornament, but carried a sacred, ritual meaning.

Young men and women, upon reaching a certain age, underwent a series of initiations or rites of passage associated with a change in status. So, the young man became an adult man, and the girl was preparing to become a wife and mother. I will only assume that this was only the first stage of initiation. If a young man chose the path of a warrior, then after the first initiation, with the application of the simplest signs, further stages of initiation followed – after the first battle, after the first killed enemy – and then more complex patterns were applied to the body.

Summing up, I would like to say that M.B. Mednikova, who devoted several scientific works to the study of the phenomenon of tattoos, at one time conducted a survey. According to the results of this survey, the Slavic theme in modern tattooing occupies an insignificant percentage against the background of other styles.

On modern Rodnovers, one can often see tattoos with Scandinavian runes or “valikirians” or “trotters” invented in the 90s.

So maybe we will go back to the origins and choose traditional protective signs depicted on embroideries or objects from historical finds?

Perhaps archaeologists will still be lucky enough to find material evidence of the existence of tattoos among the Slavs. For me, there is no doubt that our ancestors adorned their bodies with “indelible marks.”

By Anastasia Pronina 


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Sacred signs on the body: the art of tattooing among the Slavs

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