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A reader asks:

A lot of cultures tattoo themselves as oaths or offerings to their Gods. Did the Ancient Egyptians do anything of this sort?

While many instances of tattooing are fairly well-documented, evidence is scant in regard to tattoos being a cultic expression of devotion or self-dedication within Ancient Egyptian religion and culture. There is some tangible evidence of the latter, though it is not at all definitive, plentiful, nor particularly descriptive evidence.

Penmerneb with an image of Amun(-Ra) as a ram's head on a plinth and bears the inscription: "Servant on the site of truth." Dynasty XIX (14th -12th century BCE), New Kingdom Period.  Museo Egiziano, Torino, Italy.

Penmerneb with an image of Amun(-Ra) as a ram’s head on a plinth which bears in its inscription: “Servant on the Site of Truth.” Dynasty XIX (14th -12th century BCE), New Kingdom Period.
Museo Egiziano, Torino, Italy.

There is one particular sculpture of a Theban/Wasetian dignitary by the name of Penmerneb, who is shown kneeling behind a bust of the Ram God Amun(-Ra), which may attest to the practice of devotional or dedicatory tattooing. On his upper left arm, we can clearly see the silhouette of a female deity wearing a double-plumed headdress and bearing a wās scepter. We cannot know why or how this man acquired this tattoo simply by looking at this statuette, much less know for certain if that is an accurate likeness or simply a decorative detail of the statuette itself. We can, however, say with certainty that Penmerneb was a man of some means and importance, given that he could afford to commission a statue of fine quality in the first place, and is depicted by the image of a God (especially one so prominent and lofty as Amun!) in this fashion. Granted that the likeness is indeed accurate, which it may not be, this sculpture may cast some doubt onto Goelet’s assertion that tattooing was “a practice limited to servants and the lower classes.” (Goelet, 1993) Generally speaking, however, extant evidence tends to suggest that tattooing was reserved for servants, slaves, and other members of the lower and marginalized classes of society. This was not simply the case with Ancient Egyptian society alone, but true of the societies of the Ancient Near East as a whole.

This having been said, the practice of tattooing and how it relates to “service” and “slavery,” we must look further East for additional insight. While various Mesopotamian cultures cannot be considered at all “the same” as Egyptian culture, there was a measurable degree of diffusion, and a number of significant similarities shared between them. Egypt, while in possession of a distinct culture much unlike that of its neighbors in manifold ways, was still part of the greater Ancient Near East, and shared a number of the greater Ancient Near East’s conventions. This is especially true of Ancient Egypt’s and much of Mesopotamia’s approach to slavery and its treatment of prisoners of war.

FOR SERVICE AND SLAVERY

Mesopotamia

Within Ancient Mesopotamian cultures, the concept of “dedicating” human beings to the cult of a God arose from institutionalized slavery. Slavery was something which, as the late Jeremy Black notes, was “taken for granted.” (Black and Green, 62) Freemen looking to curry favor from a God and His/Her cult would “donate” a slave or two to a cult to be used as its priesthood saw fit. In like fashion, parents, particularly those of noble families, would give one or more of their children to a temple as oblates — not unlike Medieval European Western Latin (Catholic) Christian Monastic custom, with which many Moderns Westerners are more familiar.

Slavery of any kind within Ancient Near Eastern cultures, including but certainly not limited to Egyptian culture, was never called into ethical question. Slavery was considered to be a “natural” component of ordered, civilized societies. These ordered, civilized societies were in large part and from an early date predicated on gift economies, and for all those cultures’ many scientific, economic, and social advancements, the spirit of the gift economy was there to stay, as they expanded their borders through military conquest and made slaves out of those they defeated. The idea of forcing human property into the service of a God in order to curry Divine favor for oneself, one’s family, one’s city-state, et cetera, was only par for the course.

Many if not most priests within Mesopotamian city-states likely entered cult service through being dedicated to that service by an authority figure, rather than through their own free will. (Black and Green, 150) During the Old Babylonian Period, some daughters from wealthy families would be given to a temple and effectively confined to “cloisters.” While these women were not permitted to marry and were not free to exercise many personal liberties, they could own property, though their right to bequeath any manner of inheritance in a legal will was effectively dissolved. This arrangement was very similar to the circumstances the Egyptian Gods Wives of Amun faced, though there was only one God’s Wife of Amun at any given time. In later periods, a specific order of dedicated male and female slaves called širkūtu emerged within Mesopotamian cultures. These usually belonged to Marduk, Nabû, Šamaš (Utu), Nergal, or Ištar (Inanna), though it’s conceivable that the cults of other Gods possessed this order of persons-who-are-temple-property. (Black and Green, 62)

Recognizable symbols and "Divine animals" of the Gods featured on Kassite Babylonian kudurru stones. Image source.

Recognizable symbols and “Divine animals” of the Gods featured on Kassite Babylonian kudurru stones. The “Divine animals” of the Gods and/or images of shrines were not usually tattooed on temple slaves. Image source.

Above all, being property, these human commodities were branded or tattooed, usually in addition to being forced to sport the telltale abbattu lock of hair on an otherwise shaven head (not to be confused with the Egyptian “sidelock of youth”). This was a well-recognized mark of slavery, as the Eshnunna Laws attest. The term for the tattoo itself is šimtu, which Hurowitz states is a loan word from Aramaic šenîta’ found in Egyptian legal papyri from Yebu, better known as Elephantine, though these are more recent sources, dating to the 500s BCE and later. The act of tattooing or branding could be referred to by the verbs eseru, kamasu, šataru, šamatu, and naqaru, and these tattoos would be “inked” on the most visible parts of the body: the hand, or the face. (Hurowitz, 1992) In the case of the Mesopotamian širkūtuthose who belonged to Ištar’s cult would be tattooed with Her eight-pointed-star symbol; those who belonged to Nabû’s would be tattooed with His wedge stylus symbol; those who belonged to Šamaš’s would be tattooed with His solar-star symbol; and so on down the line. (Green and Black, 62) The main purpose of marking of the body was not necessarily punitive, though there were circumstances — particularly during later periods, namely for slaves prone to disobedient behavior — where it could be implemented and construed as such. Often, tattooing or another form of distinctive alteration of physical appearance was done as soon as the transfer of ownership took place. However, it was unanimously and intentionally degrading. It was designed to both affirm the owners’ rights to retain their slaves, and to prevent slaves from fleeing. (Hurowitz, 1992

Egypt

levantThe Ancient Egyptians did have a tattooing practice tied to slavery, quite similar to that of much of Mesopotamia. The Egyptians did not simply possess loan words from other Ancient Near Eastern languages for the practice dating to later periods of history. Donald B. Redford mentions that “Asiatics” (residents of the Levant) brought back to Egypt as the spoils of foreign conquest were “branded with the name of the king or God [they were] to serve.” (221) This practice had been well-established within Egypt for many centuries, but some of the most detailed sources regarding the acquisition of slaves come from the 18th and 19th Dynasties. From nineteen years’ campaigning, Thutmose III “donated” 1,588 “Kharians” to the Temple of Amun. Ramses III boasts 2,607 captives were given over by his command to the Wasetian (Theban) temples, and 205 to the Temple of Ptah at Men-nefer (Memphis). (Redford, 223) The “cliché-ridden allusion” of “stocking (the temple’s) workhouse with male and female slaves of His Majesty’s captivity” was a popular phrase throughout the documents of the 18th and 19th Dynasties. (Redford, 209) The same attitudes regarding the oblation of human property to temples that prevailed among much of Mesopotamia also prevailed among the Ancient Egyptians.

 
Additional Notes on Ancient Egyptian Imperialism and Slavery

In the case of thousands of Canaanite people during the height of the Egyptian Empire, specifically during the reigns of the Thutmoside and Ramesside Pharaohs, many were sold into slavery and exported to Egypt by their own leaders as a form of appeasement or tribute to the Pharaoh. Canaanite mayors were obliged to periodically round up and dispatch to Egypt specified numbers of men, women, and children from their own cities. A number of these became the property of temples, though this was not at all the only line of service captives were forced into.

Some of those impressed into various forms of service were hostages — children of foreign chiefs, most notably of Canaanite chiefs — sent to Egypt and brought up as Egyptians, to ensure the loyalties of the chiefs and prevent rebellion. The children of Canaanite chiefs, as Redford explains, were often trained to be palace guards, or “outrunners before Pharaoh’s chariot.” Some were trained “in the lowest [grades] of priesthood,” though a remarkable few did manage to elevate themselves to a high rank within the priesthoods and other State occupations into which they had initially been forced. (Redford, 224 – 5) Like their enslaved counterparts, these hostages were impressed into some manner of public or royal service. Unlike their enslaved counterparts, these hostages were not necessarily branded or tattooed, even when impressed into religious service, since “hostage” status was not the same as “slave” status. Ergo, the laws and conventions of slavery did not apply to hostages.

It was indeed a common practice throughout the Ancient World, and an effective method of “population control” employed by many different leaders through all ages of human history, to uproot entire settlements and “deport” the inhabitants to various places within one’s own Empire. In this case, they were either sent to Egypt, where power was most concentrated, or to outlying territories whose colonization was not yet complete. Nubia (Sudan) was a popular expedient. (Redford, 208)  These uprooted persons would then be put to various types of work. This helped to both increase the labor force and punish rebellious populations. The type of work assigned was sometimes determined by the individual captive’s skill, though often it was the case that mere numbers were requested for manual labor, and individual skills were not taken into account.

The Imperial Egyptian government went above and beyond many Empires in the Ancient World, however, in regards to taking slaves and impressing many into some level of (religious) service. Entire cities could be confiscated, along with the people inhabiting them, and made the lawful property of Egyptian temples. (Redford, 209) In the Great Harris Papyrus, upwards of 80,000 “serfs” and 56 towns and cities are listed among the property items of the cult of Amun at its height during the 20th Dynasty. (Watterson, 142) The temple of the God Ra boasted 103. (Redford, 209) Redford states that these towns and cities were formerly Canaanite towns and cities. The people of these cities were not necessarily made slaves — and so, presumably, were not branded or tattooed — but essentially functioned as slaves. They were forced to perform unpaid labor as an obligation to the Egyptian State, and to the temples (ergo, the Gods) of the Egyptian State.

FOR SEX

Inasmuch as we know about the practice to date, tattooing in Ancient Egypt outside of institutionalized slavery was primarily exercised with erotic and apotropaic intentions in mind, both in regard to this life and the next. Recipients of tattooing were overwhelmingly of the female sex, based on what we know of fertility heka, and what we’ve learned from some of the female mummies, dwellings, and other substantial pieces of evidence of everyday life recovered from Deir el-Bahari and Deir el-Medina. (Manniche, 141) Tattoos appear to be almost nonexistent among Ancient Egyptian men, given the erotic nature and birth-associations most tattoos possessed, and the tendency in Egyptian art to revolve around women when addressing erotic and domestic themes outside the explicitly religious sphere. (Meskell, 1998)

Two female fertility figurines from the New Kingdom Period (1554-1080 BCE). The figure on the left bears the most obvious signs of erotic/fertility heka tattooing. Faience. Louvre, Departement des Antiquites Egyptiennes, Paris, France.

Two female fertility figurines from the New Kingdom Period (1554 – 1080 BCE). The figure on the left bears obvious signs of erotic/fertility heka tattooing. Faience. Louvre, Departement des Antiquites Egyptiennes, Paris, France.

A number of “tattooed” fertility figurines made from a wide variety of materials dating to many different periods have been discovered among the caches of many tombs — even those dating to Predynastic times — as well as within the remains of home shrines dating to later periods. (Manniche, 140) Beginning in the second millennium BCE, they were found as items dedicated to Hathor in Her temples, and starting in the first millennium BCE, they began cropping up in the temples of Aset. (Pinch, 126) They are usually naked except for simple geometric tattoos on the sexiest parts of their bodies (buttocks, groin, hips, thighs), and for amuletic tattoos or jewelry such as cowrie shell girdles, Heru-falcon charms, and crescent moon pendants. This was done to enhance their fertility-granting heka, and to increase the likelihood of successful births free from demonic harassment. Some of these figurines bear inscriptions begging for the birth of a healthy child, usually a son, or simply to successfully conceive in the first place. (Pinch, 126)

These figurines were included in almost all burials, whether the subject was male or female, adult or child. This was done to help ensure the successful (re)birth of the “Osiris”* in question into the Afterlife, since the sexual acts required to birth a person into this world were also required to (re)birth a person into the next world. Furthermore, it was beyond necessary for Ancient Egyptians according to their beliefs surrounding heka to illustrate success at all stages of human reproduction, from pre-conception to conception, and from pre-natal to post-natal stages of the child’s development. If any fears or failures were explicitly illustrated or written, one risked visiting doom upon oneself and/or one’s potential offspring.

Some minor controversy surrounds these fertility figurines. A number of scholars have suggested that they do not include full legs or feet so that the figurines could not come to life and “run away” from their tomb owners . . . with the insinuation that the tomb owners were male, and these female fertility figurines were designed to serve as prostitute-ushabtiu in the Afterlife. However, Geraldine Pinch offers a much more sensible explanation: the figurines usually only included the parts of the female anatomy immediately necessary for reproduction and subsequent (re)birth into the next life, rather than to simply prevent them from “running away.” (Pinch, 126)

There was a definite, visceral association with tattooing and prostitution, however. It is from evidence of this, in addition to the overall view of nudity within Egyptian culture which tended to carry unpleasant connotations relating specifically to poverty and slavery, that Goelet likely arrived at the conclusion that tattoos were exclusive to servants and the lower classes. (Goelet, 1993) Amuletic tattoos featuring the God Bes were exclusive to women of particular status, profession, and interest. (Manniche, 140-1) Bes was a God involved in almost every aspect of Ancient Egyptian women’s lives. In addition to being a God of childbirth and the protection of the domestic sphere, He was, and is, also a God of sex, music, and drunkenness. Painted within the house of Nebamun at Deir el-Medina was a large and rather Dionysian scene of a barely-clothed courtesan playing a “double-oboe,” surrounded by a leafy garland of convolvulus leaves, which the Egyptians considered symbolically erotic. (Meskell, 1998)  Prominently featured on the woman’s thighs were two tattoos of the God Bes.

A blue faience wine drinking bowl depicting a female musician in an erotic theme. New Kingdom Period, ca. 1400 - 1300 BCE, Dynasty XVIII. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Egyptian Collection, Leiden, Netherlands.

A blue faience wine drinking bowl depicting a female musician in an erotic theme. New Kingdom Period, ca. 1400 – 1300 BCE, Dynasty XVIII. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Egyptian Collection, Leiden, Netherlands.

A second example of this convention is an iconic blue faience wine drinking bowl depicting a likewise practically naked female courtesan playing a duck-headed lute, dating to the latter centuries of the 18th Dynasty. She bears a tattoo of Bes on her thigh, and the overall image is riddled with sex symbolism: from the plants surrounding her, to the figural duck on the lute, to the lotus and perfume cone on her head, to the Bes tattoo itself.

The tattooing of performers and prostitutes with the image of Bes, as Manniche and Pinch among other scholars submit, was likely done to ward off the sexually transmitted diseases which usually come with a life of “hard partying.” Tattooing oneself with the image of Bes may have also served as a dedicatory religious practice, though there is virtually no evidence to support this idea.

CONCLUSION

There is enough evidence to prove that tattooing was a common and well-established practice for virtually all of Ancient Egyptian history. There is sound and plentiful evidence which suggests that, within Egyptian society, tattooing was done primarily for women to ward off evil and encourage fertility. Likewise, there is evidence in legal documents of the tattooing or branding of slaves, both within Egyptian and neighboring Mesopotamian cultures. We see tattooing as a (forced) act of dedication to a God, a sign of ownership and a removal of personhood — to be tattooed was to be degraded and permanently marked with shame. There are some artifacts, such as the personal statuette of Penmerneb and the depictions of tattooed courtesans, which give us pause regarding the practice being exclusive to institutionalized slavery. However, whatever conclusions we draw from “monuments” like Penmerneb’s, or the tattooing of the thighs of courtesans with the image of the God Bes, are confined to the realm of supposition.

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NOTES

*It wasn’t until the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman Period that female deceased were referred to as “Hathors.” Previous eras saw the designation of all deceased, regardless of biological sex, as “Osirises.” Overall, masculine creative essences and male sexual metaphors dominated the tone and language of funerary texts. This was a consequence of the long-held belief that the masculine essence — often presented in the form of a ram, or bull, or seminal fluid, or a “powerful phallus,” or in the very act of ejaculation/insemination itself — was the only essence truly capable of creative acts. The female essence, on the other hand, was considered within Ancient Egyptian religion to be necessary as a vessel, an incubator, for that creative male essence. (Cooney, 2010) Indeed, it was the very male and very virile Ram God Khnum Who was said to govern the mysteries and functions of human female menstruation and ovulation. (Frandsen, 2007) The presence of the feminine in any aspect of reproduction or rebirth for much of the history of Ancient Egyptian religious belief was decidedly minimal, and secondary to the presence and role of the masculine.

Khnum moulds the form of a male youth on His potters' wheel. He is assisted by the frog-headed Goddess Heket, Who is clasping the renpet palm branch and ankh in Her hand, the symbols of "years" and "life" respectively. Relief from the mammisi at the Dendera Temple complex. Image source.

The Ram God Khnum (center left) moulds the form of the Child-God Ihy (center) on His potters’ wheel. He is assisted by the kneeling figure of the frog-headed Goddess Heket (center right), Who is clasping the renpet palm branch and ankh in Her hand, the symbols of “years” and “life” respectively. Relief from the 4th century BCE mammisi (nativity chapel) at the Dendera (Iunet) Temple complex. Image source.

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WORKS CITED

Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia — An Illustrated Dictionary. 6th printing. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2006.

Cooney, Kathlyn M. “GENDER TRANSFORMATION IN DEATH: A Case Study of Coffins from Ramesside Period Egypt.” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 73, No. 4, (December 2010), pp. 224-237

Frandsen, Paul J. “The Menstrual ‘Taboo’ in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 66, No. 2 (April 2007), pp. 81-106

Goelet, Ogden. “Nudity in Ancient Egypt.” Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 12, No. 2, ESSAYS ON NUDITY IN ANTIQUITY IN MEMORY OF OTTO BRENDEL (Winter 1993), pp. 20-31

Hurowitz, Victor. ” ‘His Master Shall Pierce His Ear with an Awl’ (Exodus 21.6): Marking Slaves in the Bible in Light of Akkadian Sources.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 58 (1992), pp. 47-77

Manniche, Lise. Sacred Luxuries – Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. 1st Ed. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1999.

Meskell, Lynn. “An Archaeology of Social Relations in an Egyptian Village.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 209-243

Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. 2006 Revised Ed. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2006.

Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1992.

Watterson, Barbara. The Gods of Ancient Egypt. Oxford : Facts on File Publications, 1988.

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