Even today tattoos hold traces of their ancient powers. We've all had the experience of seeing a tattoo that has a strange fascination --that seems alive somehow. Sometimes, when a tattoo is created thoughtfully and carefully by both the artist and the bearer of the art, the old magic is awakened.
But only sometimes.
Modern science has removed many of the terrors that haunted our ancestors. We know, even as we watch the sun dwindling in the sky at Halloween, and even as we shiver when the winter crone throws her white shroud over the world, that the warmth will return. To our ancestors, the return of summer was a privilege to be gained only by performing the proper rituals at the appointed times. If all went well and the Gods approved of their ceremonies, the sun would draw close to the earth again, the fields and the people would warm and turn fertile and the tribe would be able to live through one more round of the seasons.
We modern primitives live in temperature controlled dwellings and feel the bitter cold for only for controlled periods of time. Electric lights cheer our snug homes even during the darkest tide of winter. Food is always available at the supermarket. Everything is planned and controlled. We think we have conquered nature.
But then something happens that reminds us that we are only small specks in a huge, interconnected web of life. Floods, fires, earthquakes, plagues -- we are no safer than our ancestors were. Civilization is a thin veil that only blurs the reality of the natural world.
Although these days neo-Pagans have the luxury of performing magic for lofty purposes such as self realization, way back when the world was young magic was a matter of survival. Nowadays, it would behoove us to look back and see what great-great-great grandma knew, and where it fits into our modern world. Certainly the last few generations haven't proved themselves to be especially skilled at living in the world without causing harm to it.
Tattooing is one of the sacred magical arts that has been around for ever. Seems like every time some anthropologist stumbles over the "find of the century" we get to tack another thousand or so years onto the history of tattooing. Remember the Iceman, who turned up a few years ago? His corpse had been trapped inside a glacier for 5300 years. His tattoos -- blue parallel lines on his lower spine, a cross behind his left knee and stripes on his ankle -- survived the centuries of deep freeze. The anthropologists were interested in the fact that these tattoos must have been personal symbols, not identification marks, as they would have been covered by the Iceman's clothing.
Before the Iceman the earliest known example of tattooing was on the 4,000 year old mummy of a royal Egyptian child. The youngster had a Sun God design pricked into his body by a tattooist who had used a bone needle to puncture the skin and then rubbed a mixture of animal fat and soot into the wounds to make a permanent design.
So from the Iceman in 5300 BC, to the reports that the bullet which started World War 1 passed through the snake tattooed on Archduke Franz Ferdinand's body, tattooing has always been part of human history. It passes in and out of fashion, and is occasionally banned altogether, but nothing has ever managed to thwart our human urge to customize our bodies, influence the fates, and perform tattoo magic.
Skin art amulets traditionally had two major purposes -- to protect the living and to aid the dead. They're certainly the perfect talisman for the forgetful -- you'll never misplace your tattoo. And the process of obtaining ink, going through the vision quest of finding the perfect design (or having the shaman/tattooist do it for you) and then enduring the ordeal of actually getting the tattoo fits perfectly into the accepted procedure for rites of passage. These procedures survive even now in traditional cultures and, in "civilized" cultures like our own, in fairy tales, myths and folklore.
Think about the traditional quest story. It invariably involves a young person ready to strike out on his or her own. This person leaves home in search of something; a symbol, a person, that will transform his or her life. Along the way they meet magical helpers, have to confront the unknown and must deal with a formidable character or two. If they've behaved properly they are rewarded at the end with a tangible symbol of their bravery. Read between the lines and you'll see the story of getting that first tattoo; the decision to claim your life (and body) as your own, the quest for a personal symbol, the confrontation with the unknown ("but does it hurt?") and the encounter with the formidable person (many tattooists are somewhat intense folks). In the end, if you've completed your quest with care and thought, you and your tattoo can live happily ever after. Of course the careless will have met the evil sorcerer/scratcher and been transformed into something ugly -- until the good witch comes along and sets things right with a cover-up, but that's another story.
As far as specific powers that have been attributed to tattoos, let's start at the end, which is just another way of starting at the beginning. People have always hoped that life did not end at the death of the physical body. The Aztecs referred to the body as the tomb of the soul, and in almost all religions the soul is the essential part that travels on through the centuries until it returns, purified, to the source of life. Some believed that the soul resembled the body that housed it, and retained this appearance even after death, including the person's tattoos. In other cultures it was believed that death changed the person's appearance so drastically that your tattoos were the only form of identification that would be left to you after death. No tattoos and you'd be doomed to wander forever in the afterworld, as your ancestors would not be able to identify you and welcome you to your new home without those all important clan markings.
Tattoos also functioned as passports into the other world. The Maoris believed that their elaborate facial tattoos would be consumed by a dreadful hag that they would encounter after their death. After she ate the tattoos she would pass her hand over their eyes, giving them the vision to find their way to the next world. If there were no tattoos, she would eat their eyeballs instead, blinding the soul for all eternity.
The same belief is found in many native American tribes, although the tattoos in question are located on the wrist. Lakota tradition teaches that the dead soul starts her journey to the other world on the starry spirit road (the Milky Way). Along the path she will have to pass Owl Woman, who inspects her wrists for the tattoo. If she can't find it, she throws the soul from the Milky Way into bottomless space.
And even in many of the primal Christian traditions, tattoos were collected during pilgrimages. These marks, signifying that you had fulfilled your religious obligations to visit the sacred sites of the religion, were potent markings and were needed to gain access to heaven.
Modern tattooing is still filled with images of death, how many grim reapers and grinning decorate your skin and that of your friends? Why? I think it's because giving shape and form to our deepest fears enables us to think we have some control over when we will be visited by them.
Tattoos were not only companions in death, they were also thought to be helpers in life. Many cultures ascribe to them the power of healing. In the Ainu culture of old Japan, tattoos were employed to protect oneself against the plague. In Bengal tattoos relieve headache, toothache, and rheumatism. Both Egyptians and Japanese believed that tattooing placed near the eyes (specifically, in the case of Egyptians, tattoos of birds) would restore failing sight.
Does it work? The ancient practice of acupuncture, rapidly gaining respect even in western medical circles, would seem to bear out the theory that needles inserted in the right places can encourage the body to heal itself. I know people who have had tattooing done to control arthritis and various other joint afflictions and all but one of them have been amazed at the results.
There is also a theory that training the body how to heal itself can be achieved by wounding it repeatedly in a controlled atmosphere. Then, if and when you are injured in one of life's battles, your body will know just what to do to heal itself. Practice makes perfect!
Tattoos were also looked at as a type of body armor. The Aborigines of Australia got tattoos on their arms to repel boomerangs. The Burmese got their thighs tattooed to give them invulnerability in war. Part of the tattoo ritual in Burma may still include the tattoo master plunging a knife into the newly tattooed skin. Invariably the point of the knife breaks on contact with the skin. Trickery or strong magic? Make of it what you will, but either way I think an unshakable belief in one's own power is always the foundation of successful magic.
Traditional cultures have a more pragmatic view of magic than we do. They don't expect it to work all the time. After all, nothing works the same way every time. Tattoo amulets aren't absolute protection against the slings and arrows of fate, but at the very least they help tip the odds in your favor.