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The Keepers of Body Paint, Pigments, and Tattooing Soot

Author: Verda Smedley
Posted: March 27th. 2011
Times Viewed: 2,562

Little else quite excites me as much as the discovery of a mummy with tattoos, a Stone Age artifact painted up for some magical purpose, or a gallery of magnificent cave paintings. The vast improvement of archaeological techniques as well as our Mother’s willingness to give up a secret or two keeps me fueled up with wonder.

Most everyone has heard of Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy that fell out of glacial ice in the Austrian Alps in September 1991 (Time Magazine 10/26/92) . Among all the items found with him was noticed at once that Iceman was tattooed. In June 1993, National Geographic did a fabulous spread describing the treasure trove of clothing, hunting tools, and yes, Iceman’s simplistically elegant tattoos of lines and cruciforms. The same year Iceman earned a biography, The Man in the Ice, written by Konrad Spindler. Although it can’t be certain what Iceman’s tattoos signified we can indulge in some delicious speculation that they could have been related to ritual association, clan initiation, rights of passage, protection, rank, or doctoring.

Then we have the magnificent tattoos of the Pazyryk people, their mummified remains as old as 4000 years, found in northwest China. Again National Geographic (October 1994) did a remarkable job showing us the artifacts and the extraordinary body art. Equally stunning are the cave paintings found throughout the world. Breathtaking!!!

So far it has been established that tattooing pigment was rendered from charcoal, needled in with things like thorns or bone, teeth, and stone splinters or slivers. Sometimes the skin was sliced open and the pigment was rubbed into the wound.

The handprints, for example, that we associate with some cave paintings are believed a result of the artist pressing his hand against the cave wall and spitting the pigment, much like an airbrush. This was demonstrated in an episode of Nova entitled “In Search of Human Origins”. At some point it was discovered that the best-preserved cave paintings had in fact been lacquered with pine pitch.

Whatever method, known or unknown, that any given culture employed, it is pretty clear we have been adorning our bodies, our treasures, our habitats for a long, long time, possibly beyond our own species’ history to that 400, 000 year epic enjoyed by our Neanderthal brothers. That which ties much of this artistic genius together is the plant kingdom. Even clay pigments were often roasted with specific plants before rendered into usable paint. Some pigments were created and applied to objects, others were used as body paint, and a remarkable number went to tattooing soot.

My hope for this essay is to explore some of these plants along with their ritual and spiritual associations. In the interest of avoiding redundancy, I will provide an essay reference where greater exploration can be found about eleven species referred to in this one. There are about twenty other entries here including lichens and one each of liverwort, algae and fern that I will introduce.

I was quite taken when I learned that pine (Pinus) had as many ritual applications as juniper (Juniperus, often-called cedar) . And both have countless more than sage. Both the twigs and the pitch of pine are burned to create tattooing pigment. As mentioned before the same pitch was used as a preservative or lacquer of sorts applied as a finish coat over their splendid cave paintings. When mixed with white gypsum the combination made white ceremonial paste. [See essay: The Flutes and Drums of Antiquity].

Oak bark (Quercus) was boiled and used for paint but I was unable to determine what color. I did ascertain however that when the same bark was burned and the ashes mixed with black gum ash and water, the resulting pigment was red. [See essays: Everyday Things Have Ancient Roots, The Prayer of Transcendent Smoke, and The Flutes and Drums of Antiquity].

The characteristics of willow (Salix) are also noted in the Flutes and Drums... essay. Its charcoal was rendered into black body paint. Curiously willow bark as well as juniper went into remedies for rainbow sickness.

Wormwood ashes (Artemisia absinthium) and dogwood charcoal (Cornus) were used as tattooing soot. Juniper charcoal chewed with an unknown seed component and water made up into body paint. I do not know the resulting color. Further information about wormwood and dogwood can be found in The Flutes and Drums... essay.

Poplar (Populus) can also be found in the same essay. Its pitch was used as a foundation for paint as well as during the application of tattooing soot. Poplar bark was used to roast clay that went into formulating skin paint. Various other poplar components went to a wide range of pigments such as red, green, purple, yellow, and white. The yellow that resulted from boiling poplar catkins was used to dye plumes. Anecdotally, poplar roots were carved into boxes that held rattles and feathers.

Cherry or blackthorn pitch (Prunus) was mixed with clay for paint. It was also applied to the surface of bows and arrows before they were painted. Pictograph paint was made my mixing Prunus fruit with animal fat. More information can be found on blackthorn in the Flutes and Drums essay.

Elder (Sambucus) can be found in the same essay. It could also be rendered into red, yellow, or orange skin paint as well as a pigment for masks and other ritual objects. Linden (Tilia) also referenced there was used as drawing charcoal. Maple charcoal (Acer) referenced in The Spiritual Disposition of Tools, made up into both black ritual paint and tattooing soot.

Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) was used to cover a fungus, species unknown by me, while it roasted on hot rocks before it was rendered into red paint. Ritually or spiritually speaking Lady Fern is women’s medicine, linked to abundance, sacred cycles, and the holy trinity of birth, death and rebirth.

Yellow lichen (Evernia) is an agent of comfort for doctoring psychic wounds. It, as well as a species of lichen called Xanthoria, was once rendered into yellow paint suitable for both skin and ritual objects. Wolf lichen (Letharia) was used to dye quills as well. Candelaria is another lichen that made up into paint for objects but I was unable to determine the color. Conocephalum, a liverwort, was rendered into green paint for ritual objects. It was entreated to stop troubling dreams of a sexual nature. Conocephalum was ritually handled to restore protective shields that filter dreams and repair any resulting resistance to dreams and visions.

The wood ashes of honeysuckle (Lonicera) were also used as tattooing soot. Honeysuckle is associated with the maze of life, revealing hidden secrets and leading to ones spiritual center while guarding against distraction. It is associated with strength and abundance; believed a remedy for homesickness. Honeysuckle is good luck magic and supports the hunt for ones personal medicine.

Wintergreen (Pyrola, also called Sidebells) is also rendered into ritual paint but it remains unclear for what purpose or what color. It's another good luck medicine for searches and journeys. Wintergreen is tied to doctoring losses of spiritual energy, ritual expression, and receptivity to dreams and visions. It is believed to ease the hardship of ritual birth, death, and rebirth.

Many groups for body paint have used the yellow pollen of reedmace, also known as cattail (Typha) . This species is no slouch when it comes to ritual applications that include ceremonial baskets and headdresses as well being bound up in prayer bundles or tied to prayer sticks. It is intrinsically woven to rainmaking and water medicine. Reedmace is profoundly protective, reconciliatory, and linked to the spirit of abundance. It is a critical component of remedying fire sickness.

Alder (Alnus) was rendered into red skin paint. Its cambium produced red and orange. The yellow rendered from alder catkins was used to dye quills. Alder bark was brewed up into a reddish brown dye in which fishnets were soaked to make them invisible.
Alder brings us a full pallet of ritual applications. It is winter medicine for dreamers when entreated while a fire is burning. By holding alder branches its spirit is believed to enhance the profound nature of dreaming. It exorcises the spirit of doubt and facilitates serenity when faced with difficult decisions. Alder insures that one is not overcome by emotion and teaches that adversity creates opportunity for change while affording protection and enhancing clarity while making decisions. It is serious resurrection medicine and a spiritual guide through the underworld. Alder balances and fortifies our harmony with cyclical nature.

Skewerwood (Euonymus) also made good drawing charcoal. It is an agent of watchfulness and sudden vibrant power manifesting as enlightenment or illumination. Skewerwood is associated with inner creative forces and the satisfaction that results from persistent endeavor or the unselfish service to others. It teaches that obligations must be fulfilled before one can move forward. Highly exorcismal skewerwood is linked to sacred cycles and ritual or circumstantial rebirth.

The sharp thorns of currant (Ribes) were used as tattooing needles (ouch!!!) . Currant is bear medicine. Its roots enhance intelligence and bolster discipline. A tea of currant bark was once an agent of divination and fortune telling. Currant is empowerment medicine and inherently feminine.

Water Horehound or Gipsywort (Lycopus) was used to stain skin dark, often for nighttime rituals, I imagine for concealment as well. Its spirit can be invoked during traumatic ritual rebirth when strength has been compromised and led to severe stagnation of spiritual energy. Gipsywort is an agent of peacefulness during difficult or painful times.

The flowers of wormseed (Erysimum) were rendered into yellow face paint. It is ritually entreated to conjure rain. Wormseed resolves severe obstructions that compromise moving effectively into a new life, including exorcising malevolent spirits that might be responsible.

Gromwell (Lithospermum) can be rendered into red face paint as well as pigment and dye for objects. As smudge gromwell is used to conjure rain too while at the same time placating the spirit of thunder. It is empowerment medicine, fortifying strength, alertness, and clarity by the means of addressing attrition of spiritual energy. Gromwell is good luck medicine capable of stopping any event that impedes ones freedom to move efficiently into a new and very different life.

The leaf ash of poppy (Papaver) was used as tattooing soot. Its seed is medicine for invisibility and love. Poppy is carried, mixed in sachet, or placed under pillows to promote answers in dreams. It is entreated in rituals for fertility, good luck, and prosperity. Poppy is valued as well for its ability to repel malevolent sprits. At one time poppy was rendered into yellow dye for arrows.

A species of seaweed called Trentopohlia struggles for a little recognition among the icons that I have mentioned. It can be rendered into ritual face paint, maybe green, but I am not at all certain. Seaweed has earned an iconic mention because it stands shoulder to shoulder with the ultra sacred first foods and famine foods.

Aster, believe it or not, is botanically classified as “aster”. For once we can be “correct” when we refer to it as “aster”. Its flowers were once rendered into pigments. The same flowers as smudge or steam exorcise malevolent spirits thought to cause a wide range of problems including those that shoot invisible projectiles as a means to an end. Aster also affords inordinate protection against malevolent spirits as well as accidents, injuries caused by elements, and fatigue. The flowers can be strung into necklaces or reduced to a wash for strength and stamina. Aster smudge or steam is also an agent of empowerment and acts as a lure to the components of ones personal medicine. It is inherently feminine and linked to sacred cycles.

Goosefoot (Chenopodium) was made up into a whole range of warm colors for skin, clothing and ritual objects. It is so completely linked to abundance, harmony and sacred cycles, and as a sacred first food, it is made into ceremonial bread for all kinds of occasions. Goosefoot is highly exorcismal and addresses malevolent spirits that have compromised ones strength, ability to take action, or comprehend dreams and visions. These exceptional properties are also accessible when goosefoot is included in pillow stuffing or strung into necklaces.

Wild parsnip (Angelica) is quite interesting to me. Its root can be tied to paint applicators to replenish the supernatural power in pigment. As empowerment medicine angelica can power up tools, individuals and groups of practitioners. It is profoundly exorcismal against parasitic and predatory spirits that steal songs, visions, strength, and inner peace. The divinatory nature of angelica is one of the best when divining solutions for dire issues. Root smudge or steam is believed capable of driving out malevolent spirits in and around ones home. The same root, either carried or hung in doorways, prevents their return. Angelica intervenes against nightmares and the trauma associated with losing a loved one. Because angelica is associated with granting the blessing of a healthy and prosperous life it is a principle ingredient in medicine bags and bundles, ritual initiations, as well as ceremonies called to preserve the viability and well being of a clan or tribe. I think this could include covens and similar groups too. It is frequently handled in magic concerning hunting and fishing. Angelica is a guardian of sacred cycles, harmony, and rebirth.

Violet (Viola) is my last entry. Its lovely flowers were also used to dye arrows, blue in this case. Violet brings productive rest, comfort, and empowerment in matters of the heart. It enhances beauty, moderates anger, and brings changes to luck and fortune. Violet protects against malevolent spirits, especially the opportunistic ones that exploit lack of wellness. Its flowers can be carried for protection and used in divinations to ascertain the source of bewitchment. The same fine properties figure into medicine and divination regarding matters of the heart, making violet superb love medicine as well. This link to eternal love might be why violet is associated with mourning the loss of someone young. Not surprising, violet is dog medicine, one of our most enduring companions.

When I considered this essay I didn’t think I had enough material to make the minimum word count. I am pleased that I did. That said I hope it wasn’t too terribly tedious. Simply, it is my way of honoring our beloved Earth Mother and drawing attention to the fact that not a single species created by Her, no matter how humble, can be thought of as expendable.

A full bibliography can be found on my website. Particularly I want to acknowledge Daniel Moerman’s splendid work: Native American Ethnobotany.

A full bibliography can be found on my website

Copyright: I hold the copyright on all my work


Verda Smedley

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico


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