This interview was published in RJ Magazine. Nili S. Fox was a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of several articles on dress and identity in the biblical world.
Why have human beings throughout the ages and across cultures chosen to tattoo their bodies?
Humans have always been intrigued with the canvas of the natural body. Body marking is one of several ways of altering its appearance.
Since earliest antiquity, even before the invention of writing, humans worldwide used tattooing to dress their bodies in order to convey a broad range of cultural information, everything from their religious beliefs to membership in a special group to marks of magical powers. Tattoos are some of the most effective means for producing symbols, which in turn represent meaningful ideas. Like symbols in general, tattooed symbols can represent a complex series of associations which can both reveal and conceal meaning. Interpreting the hidden or abstract meaning of such symbols is an ongoing communicative process between the tattooed person(s) and other members of the culture’s in-group.
What were some of the ideas that informed the practice of body marking in ancient societies?
In Mesopotamia in the second and first millennia B.C.E., it was common to employ what’s known as branding, stamping the flesh with a hot iron, in order to mark ownership on animals such as cattle as well as on certain persons bound in servitude to either human masters or to a deity. Some of these marks may have been incised with needles or knives, qualifying them as tattoos. In some instances, slaves known to be runaways had an additional permanent mark incised on their faces in clear view: “This one is an escapee; capture him.” In other cases, a young slave child was marked with their master’s name, both to prevent the child from running away or from being illegally abducted.
Another common practice was marking temple servants with the deity’s symbol. In the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods (first millennium B.C.E.), for example, a class of temple officials dedicated to the service of a particular deity—both men and women—bore tattoos of that deity’s symbol that signified their special relationship with the patron god; a star, for example, represented the goddess Ishtar. These officials were not slaves in the normal sense, but a respected class who had the right to own property.
What other kinds of individuals bore tattoos?
In ancient Egypt, from which we have the earliest evidence of tattooing, it appears to have been reserved almost exclusively for women, specifically entertainers and cult functionaries. Archaeologists have discovered female figurines dating as early as the fourth millennium B.C.E. whose bodies are marked by assorted designs—stripes, geometrics, and animals.
The first proof of any tattooing practice is found in the early second millennium B.C.E. on three mummies found interred within royal tombs. One, named Amunet, a priestess of Hathor (the goddess of love) who bore the epithet “King’s Favorite,” was tattooed with a series of dots and dashes on her arms, thighs, and lower abdomen. Two other mummies—their names unknown, but their clothes likely identifying them as dancers—were tattooed with diamond patterns on their arms and chest and cicatrix (scar) marks across their lower abdomen.
Egyptologists generally categorize these tattooed women as “prostitutes,” or at least entertainers of low status, because there are no known examples of high-class tattooed women. However, the fact that the tattooed mummies were discovered in association with elite tombs indicates that these women did not hold lowly roles. Some may have been concubines of royals and high officials or served as dancers and musicians in the palace.
Were women, then, the primary bearers of tattoos in the region?
Not everywhere. In Libya, tattooing appears to have been prevalent among males. A painting from the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I (early 13th century B.C.E.) depicts Libyan male chiefs as bearing a variety of designs on their legs and arms, among them a rectangle with antennae-like ends, which is the symbol and hieroglyph of the Libyan-Egyptian creation goddess Neith. To bear tattoos of Neith—the virgin mother of the sun—was to designate oneself as a devotee and expect to be under the goddess’ protection.
What do we know about tattooing as practiced by the Israelites?
Several biblical texts contain references to body markings that could qualify as tattooing or branding. Only one law, in the Book of Leviticus, prohibits a tattoo type of body marking. In all of the other biblical references, tattooing is presented in a positive light.
What positive examples of tattooing appear in the Bible?
In Genesis 4:15 we read: “And the Eternal put a mark/sign (’ôt) on Cain so that anyone who finds him will not kill him.” This permanent mark, a tattoo or brand mark, would have served to protect Cain from avengers and other dangerous persons.
In Isaiah 44:5, the prophet Isaiah is stressing God’s covenantal allegiance to Jacob/Israel and, in turn, the people’s loyalty to Yahweh in the aftermath of Jerusalem’s destruction and the ongoing Babylonian exile. The prophet explains that one way for the faithful to exhibit their allegiance to God is to write on their hand “lyhwh,” meaning “belonging to Yahweh.”
Later, in Isaiah 49:14–16, the prophet tells the Judean people that God has not abandoned them any more than a mother really forsakes her babe. As proof, he says, God has “engraved” on his palms a symbol of a rebuilt Jerusalem—by which he means both the people and the city—thus testifying to the eternal covenant between Israel and God. This engraving would have served as an important sign of God’s constancy and hope of restoration to a population in exile.
In Ezekiel 9:4, the prophet Ezekiel is anticipating the destruction of Jerusalem. He pictures six divinely appointed executioners responsible for slaughtering the guilty Judeans in the city. One of the six is told to mark the forehead of each righteous person with a tav, meaning an X; all those so marked are to be spared from execution. Here, body marking/tattooing distinguishes individuals from the greater group in order to grant them divine protection, ultimately serving the same purposes as did the mark of Cain and the blood sign on the door lintels of the Israelites in Egypt during the execution of the last plague. Moreover, since in ancient Israel the letter tav could confer ownership, affiliation with a deity, and/or by extension being a religious functionary, these persons marked as “belonging to Yahweh” may have been distinguished as being in a special relationship with God.
It is possible that these biblical references to tattooing merely serve as literary devices, but even so, they would have been meaningful only to an audience that was familiar with the actual practices.
The only negative biblical view of tattooing appears in Lev 19.28: “Incisions/gashes for the dead you will not make in your flesh nor incised marks (tattoos) on yourselves.”
How are we to understand this one prohibition against tattooing, which seems to contradict the positive biblical references you cited?
We need to consider the parameters of the prohibition. Because all of the other biblical examples of tattooing mark the individual or group as a devotee of God under God’s protection, perhaps the ban in Leviticus may have in fact applied only to certain types of markings that were reminiscent of non-Israelite cults. The legal material in the Bible makes it clear that its proponents sought to limit Israelite worship exclusively to Yahweh. No images or even symbols of other deities were to be tolerated. Therefore, tattoos bespeaking devotion to another divinity would have been banned, at least by conservative Yahwists such as the priests who authored the Holiness Code of Leviticus.
It is also striking that the biblical examples of tattooing which are presented in a positive light all relate to circumstances involving exile. Possibly, such exigent circumstances demanded special marks of identification and allegiance to ensure God’s protection of Israelites dispersed in foreign lands. Once returned to the Land of Israel, such a custom was rejected as pagan by the powers who regulated religious law.
While scholars continue to attempt to understand the complexities surrounding tattooing in the ancient Near East, modern Jews grapple with the Levitical ban.