June 2019

Gender stereotypes: tattoos in ancient times and the myth of the Amazons

Tattooing your skin in Greco-Roman times was generally a sign of punishment, when we refer to slaves or criminals usually branded with a letter to indicate their “otherness” («seruuslitteratus», in Plautus, referring to a slave marked with a letter) or to a crime (the same use of a number tattooed on the arm as was used on Jews in Nazi concentration camps). In fact, a tattoo in Rome was a symbol of infamy and was thus usually covered or removed.

However, both the Romans and the Greeks before them, met peoples of different cultures who used tattoos as a positive assertion within their social group, so that in these cultures a tattoo was a sign of honour: this was the case with the tattoos of Egyptian priests and priestesses, of a ritual nature, or the “horrendous” (Julius Caesar dixit) paintings the British Pict warriors –men and women- had on their skin. These warriors fought completely naked and were covered in tattoos of a surprising blue colour: «Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quodcaeruleumefficitcolorem, atque hoc horridioressunt in pugna aspectu» (Gall. 5, 14): «All the Britons paint themselves with a paste which makes them look blue and this gives them a horrendous appearance in battle», a fact perfectly recounted in Asterix and the Picts (2014).

The Greeks also (particularly the historian Herodotus) refer to other cultures where tattoos showed a warrior society which may even have been part of a hierarchy within the tribe, and, in addition, the male and female warriors who had tattoos attributed an inner strength of spirit to them, as well as the power of scaring the enemy. The Greeks have left specific evidence that the Thracians, to the north of Greece, used tattoos as decorations and even to indicate noble descent using linear and floral designs. But they were particularly impressed by the nomadic tribes of Scythians, to the east of the Black Sea, whose warrior mentality was expressed with complex and abundant designs of snakes, horses, and wild or fantastic beasts in fighting posture. We know that both men and women had such tattoos. This was confirmed by the recent discovery of the mummy of a Scythian woman in the Caucasus. It is around 2,500 years old and is in good condition, and in the same tomb six horses were also found with their harnesses and saddles. What is unique about this discovery is not that it is a woman (other tombs of Scythian female warriors exist), but rather the good condition and preservation and the clarity, profusion and complexity of the tattoos which cover her body, particularly the deer figure on her left shoulder. Furthermore, analysis of the remains has shown that the woman had cancer and that among foodstuffs left in the tomb there was cannabis, which has led the team of doctors and archaeologists to postulate that this woman took the drug to palliate the pain caused by her illness, as can be seen in the video ThePrincess of Ukok, which present the details of the discovery and the present condition of the mummy.

In the specific case of Scythian women, there is a series of characteristics which bring the mythical figure of Amazons to the mind of Westerners: they were nomadic, skilled horsewomen and able warriors, they did not show signs of the cult of fertility and they valued their warrior qualities more than their womanhood. To these facts about the Scythian people, which to the European mind show the figure of an Amazon, we should add that some ceramic representations in Athens show the Amazons wearing male clothing, or at least clothing like that of the Scythians (trousers), and also depictions of tattoos on the arms and legs of the warrior women. The two Works of the Month seem to show this.

The first image, an Athenian plate with red figures dated to between 525-475 B.C. (lower image), supposedly shows a Scythian male warrior (or female in some catalogues) running; he/she bears a bow and quiver, a cap or helmet which reaches the shoulders, and is completely clothed in what appears to be camouflage, with dots and diamond-shapes, so we shouldn’t rule out that this plate or tondo shows a tattooed or painted figure ready for war.

25-475 BC Athenian plate of red figures © British Museum (reference E 135)

The second image –which opens this work- is of an amphora with a neck from Attica, also with red figures and dated 540-400 B.C, which Beazley attributes to Aison, and which shows the battle between Amazons and Greeks (Hippolyta fighting Theseus). We can appreciate certain common features with the previous figure: armed women, this time with spears, one of them even fighting on horseback, which was typical of the Scythians, the woman on the left wears a Scythian cap or helmet which reaches her shoulders, and long robes which, nevertheless, leave her highly tattooed or painted legs bare.

Although we do not have irrefutable evidence, it would not seem far-fetched to think that the women warriors of Scythia, accustomed to a hard nomadic life of fighting, skilled in horsemanship, who came from the misty lands of the Euxine (Black) Sea and were thus little known to the Greeks, were the origins of the mythical creation of the Amazons, a warlike, savage figure who acquired features which were associated with masculinity at the time: among them, tattoos or painting on the arms and legs as a mark that they belonged to the warrior elite, at the expense of such attributes as the Greeks assigned to womanhood.

Rosario López Gregoris is full Professor of Latin Philology in the Classical Philology Department at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and Academic Secretary of the Instituto Universitario de Estudios de la Mujer at UAM.