How Christians made tattoo cool in Ancient Rome | by Naiara Leão | Medium

How Christians made tattoo cool in Ancient Rome

“I bear on my body the marks of Christ.” Tattoo went from punishment to criminals and slaves to a symbol of political and spiritual rebellion

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The naturally mummified body of a 7th-century Sudanese woman. She has a monogram of St. Michel tattoed. Photo: British Museum

At Ancient Rome on the first centuries after Christ, the tattoo meant the same as for the majority of society a few decades ago: a habit of criminals and outlaws. The Romans were using it as public punishment for slaves and convicted criminals when Christians decided to mark their skins too, but spontaneously. Some claimed their stigma (Latin for mark, tattoo or scar) wasn’t made, but appeared, as in a miraculous experience that referred to the wounds of Christ or the first martyrs. And that is when things took a turn. From political subjugation, stigma went to a sign of divine election.

“In the discourse of martyrdom and the figure of the crucified Christ — ancient Christians subverted symbols of domination and submission, activity and passivity, honor and shame, appropriating the identity of slave or criminal,” says the North-American historian Virginia Burrus in an article about Macrina. A nun from the 4th century turned into a saint, Macrina’s life is told in the first female biography of the ancient world. The author, her brother, tells that while preparing her dead body for the funeral, he found a scar “like a stigma made by a small needle.” The nun who accompanied him, a friend of Macrina, explains that the sign showed up after she was miraculously cured of a serious disease and reveals: “This is left on the body as a reminder of the great help of God.”

A brief story of tattoos
Obviously, neither Christians nor Romans invented the appreciation for the tattoo. It comes from pre-history and is common among native groups from America and Oceania. Even in the Ancient Mediterranean (ap. 4.000 B.C.E to 700 C.E, South Europe/North Africa/Near East), a context dominated by the Hellenic and Latin culture, certain groups tattooed their god’s priests. Always criticized by the Greco-Roman elite — that ranked as “barbarians” cultures who saw tattoos in a positive manner.

On the other hand, they found it very helpful to signalize slaves with scuff marks on their backs and criminals with the name of their crimes on the forehead was very helpful. As the historian Sarah E. Bond, from the University of Iowa, observes quite well in an article for Forbes, “scars and marks indicated identity in a world without social security numbers.” They made sure slaves and criminals would be definitely persecuted, precisely… stigmatized.

Christian hyping the tattoo
In that hostile context, Christians started to celebrate the stigmata (plural of stigma) during the Late Antiquity (100–700 A.C.E). Sometimes quite literally, inking images linked to Jesus, such as fish or the chi ro (a monogram made from the letters of the word “christ”) in their bodies. This happened mostly in rural areas, more related to traditional pagan cults. In the mystical circles and urban environments, closer to the authorities, they had a more metaphorical approach by claiming to have manifested miraculous marks and by writing about stigma as a positive metaphor, as we see in Macrina’s biography or even in the Bible.

“From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Christ”, says the apostle Paul in Galatians 6:17, in a reference to the changes Christians face after conversion.

According to Burrus, by placing the stigma positively in their biblical, theological and poetic discourse, Christians performed a symbolic rhetorical inversion of power relations. “The stigma itself becomes, scarlike, a dense site — a deep surface — of complex and layered meaning, fusing (without quite confusing) rebellion and surrender, nobility, and degradation, flesh and spirit, worldly and holy power.”

It may be hard nowadays to fully get the strength of this Christian appropriation, in times of diversity and breaking of patterns of fashion and beauty, in which everything weird might eventually become hype. But turning stigmata into a symbol of pride was pretty outside-the-box. It was like looking at horrendous, violent marks and stating: I am proud of any history that might be written in my body because my destiny follows Godly, not worldly logic.

Such identification was possible, partially, because Christians also felt like one of the “others” — social categories such as foreigners, slaves, and criminals. Self-proclaimed “slaves” or “witnesses” of Christ, they were persecuted and sometimes martyrized for not providing worship to the Roman emperor. By doing so, they denied — just like the other tattooed — a mundane authority. But in their case, in the name of a higher, supreme one.

The end and the rebirth
The cultural flirtation with tattoos lasted a few centuries, even after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire (4th-century C.E). However, the proximity and relatedness to the “others” fade away as they occupied the center of power. Needing to differentiate themselves from pagan traditions, the Christians started to oppose to inks, restricting it in the imperial legislation to the point it was forbidden even among convicted criminals, as Leviticus 19:28 says: Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord”

The stigma mythic went through Middle Ages among mystics, especially mystical women of the Church. In a secular society, the interest by tattoos reignited in the 19th century, with the development of Anthropology and closer contact to Pacific natives groups. In the last decades of the 20th century, it became a trend, as we know. I have my tattoo and make plans to do some others. What, according to the author of “Written on the Body: The Tatoo in European and American History” Jane Caplan, shows that I carry myself much of the ancient and medieval heritage of Christian subversion of marked bodies in the European culture.

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P.S: I apologize in advance for any misspelling and grammar mistakes made in this text. I’m aware there might be a few ;) I’m a Brazilian journalist beginning in the challenging path of writing in a foreign language

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Estudante de História das Religiões, com foco em Cristianismo antigo e história das mulheres * Apprentice-scholar of Religion

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