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Ah, the Celtic tribes - they painted themselves blue with woad and ran naked into battle. Right? Got high as a kite to scare the bejaysus out of their enemy and improve their ferocity because, as we all know, woad is a powerful hallucinogen. Right? We’ve all seen ‘Braveheart’, and the latest ‘King Arthur’ - they even called the people ‘Woads’ in that, didn’t they? Sure, then it must be true…
Some scholars are now questioning the veracity of this belief, but it doesn’t seem to be filtering into the body art or Celtic re-enactment communities with any great speed. Personally, I believe that ancient tribes of Ireland and the British Isles, such as the Picts and more southern Britons, did utilise methods of tattooing and body decoration as part of their battle, spiritual, and even everyday rituals. Herodian, in the First Century CE (Common Era), said of the tribes - “they puncture their bodies with pictured forms of every sort of animals. And this is the reason why they wear no clothes, to avoid covering the drawings on their bodies.” I am inclined though, to at least challenge the ‘fact’ that they used woad to dye themselves blue.
The most often quoted source for this prevalent belief is the Roman emperor Caesar’s recorded description of the Brittani, a Celtic tribe. It has been commonly translated as: “All the Britons dye their skin with woad, which produces a blueish colour and makes them appear horrifying in battle”.(1) The original Latin, however, says: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem”. The “vitro inficiunt” could translate classically as ‘stain/dye with glazes’, or ‘infected themselves with glass’.(2) The blue colour he describes could have been caused by body paint rather than tattoos, or it is possible the tribe used scarification techniques or glass ‘needles’ to tattoo themselves. But probably not with woad. Why not?
Woad (Isatis tinctoria). Although it makes a wonderful indigo coloured dye for materials, a safe, biodegradeable natural ink, and is also showing usefulness as a wood preservative; it’s pretty crap as a body paint, or a tattoo ink. It’s extremely caustic - when used as tattoo ink it literally burns itself to the surface, and though it heals fast, it leaves an excessive amount of scar tissue. Alas, none of it blue. The extremely knowledgeable Celtic art tattooist, Pat Fish, is often quoted as saying she believes that Celts used copper as a blue colour and firewood ash or lampblack for a black.(3) Traces of copper based pigments were found on an ancient body, excavated from a bog in Cheshire, UK. This would seem to indicate the presence of copper tattoos of some sort, which would have been coloured blue. Of course, we now know that copper is highly toxic, and would not use it on or in our bodies. From my own experiences with powdered woad, using it as a body paint, I’ve had to mix it with something (I’ve tried hair gel, commercial body glitter gel, and even PVA glue!) to try and get it to stay on at all. Even then it streaks all over the place or just dries up and flakes off. Not entirely reminiscent of a battle hardened warrior. It also doesn’t seem to particularly stain the skin. Perhaps it would stain in certain areas, such as the finger tips or elbows, through prolonged contact. But so would pretty much anything. And besides, blue smudged cuticles and tinted elbows aren’t going to particularly impress anybody, even if you assure them that it’s genuine Celtic woad.
Woad is not a strong hallucinogen. A mild psychotropic, at best. Reports of woad induced ancient battle/modern festival madness must have, to my mind, been greatly exaggerated. All in all, the only real possibility is that woad was used on the battle field as a possible wound cauterising agent, on account of it’s astringent properties.
It’s a nice thought for those of us who are proud of our Celtic heritage - being able to use the same materials or techniques as our ancestors, to look the same or perhaps even produce the same effects. I can see why it can be difficult to give up on. Even if the actual evidence or effect achieved is disappointing at best, and at worst, somewhat risky in the hands of the inexperienced. A possible alternative to woad or copper, which would also have been available at the time, is iron. Julius Caesar, while commenting on early Celtic tribes, said that they had “designs carved into their faces by iron”.(4) Iron could possibly be used to produce a blue coloured ink or dye, if handled by an expert. Don’t try this at home, girls and boys! However, with the sheer beauty of the Celtic flash art that is so freely available now, I’d be encouraging the use of these to connect with or emulate the warriors of old, rather than the crude inks they employed.
After all, the Celtic people were nothing if not highly adaptable. If they had the kind of high quality ink that we have available to us now, I seriously doubt that copper filings, or woad, would even get a look in.
(1) - Philip Freeman, “War, Women, and Druids”, University of Texas Press, U.S.A. ISBN: 0-292-72545-0
(2) - Encyclopedia, Columbia University press (online): http://www.answers.com/topic/picts
(3) - e.g. In her article for ‘An Scathán’, entitled “Celtic Tattooing: Primitive art form emerges in America”, available online at: http://www.underbridge.com/scathan/archive/1995/11_november/11.11.tattoo.html
(4) - Julius Caesar, “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, circa 55 BCE (Before Common Era)