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Picts, Tattoos and Woad

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The trouble with misused quotes is one of my pet peeves, which in a Woody Allen moment, I was able to “fix” (in a very specific case) a few years ago on national television when I was a talking head in a TBS documentary called “Women of the Ink.”

The documentary was about female tattoo artists, and I was the talking head discussing the ancient history of tattooing in European culture, specifically focused on the ancient Picts of current day Scotland.

For almost two centuries historians had debated the issue of tattoing among the Pictish kingdoms north of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain. A few lines from a poem by Claudian:

“Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis, Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferronque notatas Perlegit examines Picto moriente figuras”

Which means:

“This legion, set to guard the furthest Britons, curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict”

Add a few more sparse descriptions (which are actually the first surviving mention of the Picts dating from 297 AD), in a poem praising the emperor Constantius Chlorus, by the Roman orator Eumenius. And then by just repeating the same partial quote over and over, historians get into a debate about tattoo or painted? What does “marked with iron mean?”

Matrilineal (Royal House of The Seal) a drawing by CampelloEven the name is confusing: Pict (Pictii) is actually probably a derrogatory nickname given by the Romans to their tattooed enemies; it could mean “Painted.”

The ancient Greeks called them the “Pritanni” (which some people think is the origin of the word Britannic). Pritanni means “the People of the Designs” as does the word “Cruithnii,” which is what the Gaelic Celts called them.

So I actually went and researched the source and text of some of the original documents which mentioned the Picts and discovered that the quotes were but a small part, and once expanded not only confirmed that the Picts were tattooed, but described the process (they used sharp iron tools (needles?) and a natural plant-based ink called woad, which is apparently (in some forms) highly hallucenic by the way… sort of a very strong PCP type drug).

Most of the misquotes were taken from books 9 and 14 of the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (560-636).

In the Chronica de Origine Antiquorum Pictorum (The Pictish Chronicle), an otherwise confusing text, he writes:

“Picti propria lingua nomen habent a picto corpore; eo quod, aculeis ferreis cum atramento, variarum figurarum sti(n)gmate annotantur.”

Which means:

“The Picts take their name in their own tongue from their painted bodies; this is because, using sharp iron tools and ink, they are marked by tattoos of various shapes.”

Painted and tattooed!

When I bring this up to a very smug historian in the “Women of the Ink” documentary, you can actually see his proper British jaw drop.

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About Lenny Campello

  • ross hart

    I would just like to show my appreciation in your work involving my former country men, being part of a counrty which has so much more history than most is a great feeling, thanks for your intrest in scotland

  • redbaron

    perhaps marked by iron refers to ritual branding and or scarification?

  • I’m very happy to still see interest in the pictish race, i myself am trying to keep a little piece of the pictish people alive by trying to get as many of their designs tattoo’d on me as possible, so far i have the kelpies and also a crecent and V-rod design, i also intend to get the Z-rod and a few others!

  • Mourning Glory

    Sorry I am just now seeing this.., but , verry informative and illuminating nevertheless.., Thank You Much !!