An ancient stigma

Greek tattoo culture, part 2

The ancient Greeks had very strong views on tattoos, but that did not stop them from trying to understand other tattoo cultures. Their relationship with tattooing was affected by their interaction with these other societies.

Owen Rees

In Part 1, I covered the Greek aversion to tattoos in their own culture. They were a mark of degradation and servility. Yet, the Greeks were also aware that other cultures possessed very different relationships with tattoos.

Because the Greeks had such a strong view of tattooing in their own culture, tattoos often appear in their writing to perform a function of ‘othering’ these different peoples. They form part of a contrast between Greek and non-Greek norms and values. Herodotus gives us a classic example of this (Hdt. 5.6.2):

[For a Thracian] To be tattooed is a sign of noble birth, while no tattoos signifies lower status. One who does not work the earth is most honoured, while the tiller of the soil goes unhonoured; he who lives by war and raiding is held in highest honour.

While Herodotus’ focus here is on Thracian practices, there is also an unstated, yet heavily implied, contrast with what the Greeks considered normal and acceptable. The tilling of the earth is an ideological marker for the Greeks, something they liked to contrast with other cultures which they felt allowed men to live soft, indoor lives (See Xen. Hel. 3.4.19 for another example). Tilling the earth was considered a Greek and ‘manly’ thing to do.

Similarly, raiding was not a prized function of Classical Greek warfare, where the ideals of masculinity focused on the concept of open battle. Herodotus places tattoos directly in this set of contrasts: to the Thracians they denoted high status, to the Greek, low status.

The case of the missing Scythian tattoos

Herodotus is not always consistent in his descriptions of tattooing cultures. In fact, one culture that we know used tattoos, and that Herodotus took a firm interest in without mentioning these tattoos, were the Scythians. From the frozen tundra of Pazyryk, in Siberia, come the most extraordinary remains of tattooed human skin, preserved in the freezing cold climate.

Scythian tattoos were intricately designed. The beautiful artistry on display is almost as clear now as it was two and half thousand years ago, with the characteristic and striking blue ink still visible after all this time. The designs found on the bodies at Pazyryk are a mixture of real animals and mythical creatures and made-up part of an extravagant set of sleeve tattoos that extended around the body.

What is perhaps the most interesting omission in our literary record is the fact that not a single classical Greek source describes the Scythians as tattooed. Not even Herodotus, who claimed to have travelled to Scythia.

The closest we get to hearing about this cultural tradition comes from the fourth century BCE philosopher Clearchus, who describes a war between the Thracians and the Scythians (Athen. 12.27=Clearch. Fr.46). Of those Thracians who were captured, the men were killed and the women were punished with tattoos administered by the Scythian women:

But their wives used to tattoo the wives of the Thracians, (of those Thracians, that is, who lived on the northern and western frontiers of Scythia,) all over their bodies, drawing figures on them with the tongues of their buckles.

Clearchus rationalises that the Thracian women decided to hide the disgrace of a tattoo by tattooing the rest of the bodies to disempower these penal marks, and thus begin the Thracian tradition. So, the Scythians are involved in tattooing, but he does not directly say that the Scythians had tattoos of their own.

Tattoos as art

An immediately apparent contrast between Greek and Thracian/Scythian tattooing is that the non-Greek cultures used tattoos as a form of art. There were of course other meanings associated beyond the aesthetic, but these are hard to fully comprehend due to the lack of written sources from these societies.

Interestingly, the Greeks did understand that other cultures used tattoos as a form of decoration. In his Anabasis, the Greek historian Xenophon describes the Mossynoikoi, a people he encountered during his travels around the southern coast of the Black Sea. Of their tattoos he says (Xenophon, Anabasis, 5.4.32):

[T]hey would exhibit to them fattened children of the wealthy inhabitants (…) [who were] pretty nearly equal in length and breadth, entirely decorated on their back and front, having been tattooed with flowers.

This is the first example we have of an author identifying a tattoo design, the flowers. What is perhaps even more interesting, is the adjective he uses: the children were poikilous on their fronts and backs. It can mean multi-coloured or simply spotted, but it is also closely related to other adjectives and verbs for embroidery: poikillo (to work in embroidery), poikilia (embroidering, weaving). Xenophon’s choice of word gives the tattoo an underlying aesthetic connotation, suggesting that Xenophon saw these tattoos for the decorations that they were. Of course, this does not mean that he approved of or even liked them!

If we return to the story told by Clearchus, he never actually uses the verb for “tattooing”, or indeed the noun “tattoo”, but describes the Scythian women embroidering the Thracian women. When he describes the Thracian women tattooing the rest of their bodies afterward, he says that they converted themselves into a tapestry (poikilian). A much later writer, Dio Chrysostom, describes the importance of tattoos in Thracian society. He says that the number of tattoos established the status of a woman, and how ornate or elaborate (poikilotera) they were.

This suggests that the Greeks could perceive the tattoo as an art form, and that one tattoo could be better or more ornate than another. But it was an artform that they didn’t really understand the appeal of.

Religious tattoos

One form of tattooing that the Greeks did understand, even if they never really emulated it, was the religious tattoo. We know they understood it because, unlike the artistic tattoo or the engrained tattoo culture of the Thracians, Greek authors never try to explain why someone would have a religious tattoo.

Herodotus mentions a temple to Heracles in Egypt, where a runaway enslaved person was able to receive sanctuary and, once they had been tattooed with the sacred marks, he could no longer be harmed by his former enslaver (Hdt. 2.113.2). Importantly, Herodotus describes this temple in his own day, suggesting that this tattooing system was a contemporary one.

This was not restricted to Egypt either. We know from one papyrus (PPar. 10.8-9), the story of a runaway slave from Bambyke in Syria who had two letters tattooed on his wrist. Bambyke was the centre for the cult of Atargatis whose followers, according to Lucian (Luc. Syr. D. 59), tattooed themselves on the hands and neck. The enslaved man is most likely bearing these tattoos on his wrist, maybe as a dedicated follower, or because he was a dedication to the goddess made by his enslaver.

The Greek comfortability with this form of tattoo is in itself interesting. The lack of explanation offered, or the lack of origin-story on offer, may be reconciled by the Greek practice of tattooing slaves. Of course, religious tattoos did not identify a runaway like it did in Greece, but it was still the marking of enslaved bodies – something the Greeks understood very well. Lucian’s description offers the possibility of freemen also being tattooed, but the servility inherent in dedicating oneself to a goddess does allow for a general level of understanding between Greek and West Asian practices.

This relationship between religion and tattooing is culturally ingrained, but the connection has become so diluted that we do not even notice its presence today. Case in point, the Greek word for tattoo is stigma, which can also mean a “mark” or “spot”, plural stigmata. Today, the term stigmata is exclusively known for its relation to the marks of Christ, the wounds he suffered appearing on the body of true believers.


The ancient Greeks interacted with a variety of different tattooing cultures and tattooing styles. While these interactions did not affect the Greek’s own relationship with tattoos, it did nuance their understanding of tattoo usage.

They began to accept that, to many, the tattoo was a thing of beauty and a mark of prestige. Their appreciation for the tattoo as art, admittedly “barbarian” art, began to grow to the point where the Greeks replicated it in their own vase paintings. The Greeks exhibit a relationship with these foreign tattoos similar, in many ways, to my own view on tattoos: they could appreciate the artistry as long as it was on someone else.