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Egyptian tattoos
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Life of Early Egyptians (2160-1994 BC) Middle Kingdom

Many traditional cultures also use tattoos on the flesh as a sort of passport to the world after death, although interestingly, with all the emphasis on the next world in ancient Egyptian culture, there is no indication that this was the case there.

Egypt is generally accepted as the cradle of tattoo art and by the Middle Kingdom tattoos seem to have been popular and culturally acceptable

2,000 BC to 3,000 BC

Several mummies have been recovered that date to as early as the XI Dynasty (2160-1994 BC) that exhibit tattoo art forms. One of the most famous of those early mummies is that of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, who was found at Thebes. This female mummy displayed several lines and dots tattooed about her body. The tattoo patterns and markings were still clearly visible on her flesh.

Several other female mummies from this period show similar tattoos in addition to ornamental scarring (cicatrization) which is still popular today in some parts of Africa across the lower part of the abdomen. The series of dots and dashes held protective and fertility promoting significance. The lozenges are connected to the primal female power of the universe - motherhood.

The traditional reasons for tattooing include:
• to connect with the Divine.
• as a tribute or act of sacrifice to a deity.
• as a talisman, a permanent amulet that cannot be lost.
• to provide magical or medical protection.

Certainly, the connection between tattoos and the divine existed in ancient Egypt.

Beyond the geometric designs that were favoured, other designs discovered were found that were intrinsically connected to religion. Mummies dating from roughly 1300 BC are tattooed with pictographs symbolizing Neith, a prominent female deity with a militaristic bent. These are the only tattoos that at this point seem to have a link with male bearers.

Click for detail image of the God Bes tattooThe God Bes

The earliest known tattoo with a picture of something specific, rather than an abstract pattern, represents the god Bes. Bes is the lascivious god of revelry and he served as the patron god of dancing girls and musicians. Bes's image appears as a tattoo on the thighs of dancers and musicians in many Egyptian paintings, and Bes tattoos have been found on female Nubian mummies dating from about 400BC.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

Africa Tattoo Map See all African Tattoo Culture Articles here

Additional Resources

Ancient Egyptian Tattoos -- Written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to Egyptian tattoo have virtually been ignored by earlier Egyptologists influenced by prevailing social attitudes toward the medium.

Beauty Secrets of the Egyptians -- Tattoos in Ancient Egypt, this article is devoted to ancient and permanent body adornment.

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