On my (hypothetical, from the comfort of my home, covid free) journey around the world researching traditional body painting, I wanted to find a culture who practiced body painting a little closer to home. I realised my knowledge of Ancient Britain isn’t great. DISCLAIMER; I’m definitely not a historian, and most of my knowledge prior to the small amount of research I’ve done came from inaccurate historical movies such as Braveheart and King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightly, like many I had distant memories of celts/pagans covered in blue body paint, but that was basically my only reference point, until discovering some Images of Woads/Picts/Celts adorned in body art. We all know that tattoo art has an ancient history but when we think of tribal body art, we think of Tribes in South America or Asia, we don’t tend to think of Ancient Britons adorning themselves with traditional tattooing techniques.
Who are the Woads and the Picts and did they paint themselves?? It is highly contested whether they actually adorned themselves with Blue paint, the colour Blue would have been achievable as a native plant the Woad can be used to produce blue dye, hence why celts have been referred to as the Woads. Also another name given to northern celt tribes was The Picts, Romans referred to Northern Britania’s Celtic peoples as the ‘The picts’ due to there tattoo’d bodies. It’s Possible the Woad plant was used to paint the body before battles – but most likely it seems Tattooing had become a custom among the tribes – adorning themselves with symbols and local plants and colours which would be specific to individual tribes. I’ve found some beautiful/ pretty gruesome old illustrations of what Pictish Warriors may or may not have looked liked. They may not be historically accurate but they are quite wonderful drawings.
It’s thought that the Picts painted/tattoo’d themselves to look like fearsome warriors and to intimidate rival tribes, a book by Celtic historian Elizabeth Sutherland suggests ‘The primary reason for tattooing was probably to distinguish one tribal group from another in battle, The skin was pricked by bone or iron pins and rub bed with soot or herbal dyes to give it colour. Perhaps it was done with needles drawing threads under the skin to raise the flesh. It must have been an extremely painful undertaking and may possible have been combined with initiation rites’ It sounds like forms of tribal tattooing and scarification, which still takes place in communities in Africa and Asia today. It’s amazing really that this tribal way of life and tattooing the body of indigenous brits isn’t more widely known or celebrated.
Below is a painting Inspired by the Illustrations of The Picts – An ancient warrior woman adorned with symbols and native plants.
Research resources –