The British Museum will host soon an exhibition of Egyptian mummies, Ancient lives, new discoveries, that is destined to become a blockbuster. Press releases have revealed some details: the exhibition will be a new look at mummies covering a long time span, from the pharaonic to the late antique period, and will show to the public what scan imaging and other technologies can reveal about the mummified person’s terrestrial life. I am usually not so attracted by mummies, the study of diseases and human physical features because it is so depressing to see how boring we are in these matters: we loose teeth, get cancer, eat badly and inexorably die, and have been doing so for millennia now. Besides this, ancient human facial reconstructions remind me of Madame Tussauds’ wax horrors of the kind that I hope nobody will dare to try on my remains: good reason to go for a more elegant incineration. But in this case I was intrigued by the information that the mummies on show will include a woman who lived in ab. 700 AD Sudan and had an interesting, Christian tattoo on her upper inner thigh.
This reminded me how much a ritual, bodily practice Christianity was in antiquity, and how biased is the general, common view of it as all centred on spiritual and intellectual activities. In fact, religion in practice is well attested by some of my favourite pieces in our papyrus collection and others: written amulets from Egypt, dating from the pharaonic to the late antique period. (The magical manuscripts and objects from Egypt in the John Rylands Library go well beyond this period if we consider also items from the Cairo Genizah and the Gaster collections.) These amulets are sparse but fantastic evidence of a body-centred practice: that of writing religious-magical passages and formulas on a strip of papyrus, folding it into a small packet and hanging it around the neck, often as a part of a more complex ritual including praying, chanting and other activities.
These Egyptian sources show us a religious environment very close to that of the tattooed Sudanese woman. Like us, when facing crises of any kind, the ancients tried any possible means to solve or prevent troubles. Among the experts they could consult for help were priests, magicians, sorceresses, and later saints, monks, priests and other specialists in the field. Christianity changed only partially and very slowly beliefs and practices that people living on the Nile shared for millennia, which are hard to define according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine. In fact the first generations of papyrologists struggled to place these amulet texts under the categories they used in publications. For instance, anything Christian was published by Grenfell and Hunt in the opening section of their papyrus volumes, under the title of ‘Theological fragments’, which ranged from Biblical fragments to liturgical texts, and also amulets with Christian references. In the Rylands catalogues you will see placed under this category, for instance, P.Ryl. III 471, recently studied by Theodore De Bruyn. Here’s his English translation (you can see an image of the papyrus clicking here):
Holy oil of gladness against every hostile power and for the grafting of your good olive tree of the catholic and apostolic church of God. Amen
These words were taken from a baptismal anointing formula, containing reminiscences of Paul’s Romans 11:24. This was a type of amulet of which Church Fathers would have certainly approved. John Chrysostom, for instance, was pleased to see women and children carrying gospels on their chests, and Augustine recommended the use of gospel books for curing headaches instead of enchantments. However, the Church was aware of the persistence of practices and beliefs of pagan origins including amulet-making, and repeatedly condemned them.
Troubling cases for both the Church at that time, and papyrologists more recently, include items such as P.Oxy. VII 1060, which despite the ‘Oxyrhynchus/Oxford’ abbreviation is in Manchester. It was not placed by Grenfell & Hunt among the ‘Theological fragments’, but inserted into a Byzantine general ‘Prayers’ section and tagged as ‘gnostic’ (everything Christian but bizarre to Victorian eyes was gnostic…). The papyrus is small and written in a tiny, cursive handwriting of the 6th century AD, sometimes hard to decipher. Here it is with a translation from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 25:
✝ The door Aphrodite, phrodite, rodite, odite, dite, ite, te, e. Hor, Hor Phor Phor, Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai, I bind you, arte‹m›isian scorpion. Free this house of every evil reptile [and] annoyance, at once, at once. St. Phocas is here. Phamenoth 13 (= March 9), third indiction.
As you can see, it consisted of a mix of Christian formulas and holy names and elements derived from more ancient pagan ritual traditions. The diminishing name of Aphrodite and magic onomatopoeic names are followed by the name of Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai (the Jewish, then Christian God as invoked in magical papyri), formulas of protection of the house from insects, reptiles and evil, and finally the invocation of Saint Phokas. The amulet was perhaps fabricated close to the day of Saint Phokas (March 5, the indiction dating system followed a cycle of 15 years). In this case the tiny sheet of papyrus was more probably deposited in the house than worn, but we cannot be totally sure.
Coming back to the Sudanese woman, there is a late Coptic Rylands amulet (P.Ryl. Copt. 103) that may be connected with the practice of religious tattooing. Despite being defined as a papyrus, this magic text is in fact written on paper, and palaeographically dated to the 9th century. The text inscribed on it is not always easily readable, as you can see from an image available on the Rylands Library database (click here).
This is a recent translation of most part of the amulet from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian magic: Coptic Texts Of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 115:
… My mother is Mary. The breast… the breast from which our lord Jesus Christ drank. In the name of the seal that is traced upon the heart of Mary the virgin; in the name of the seven holy vowels which are tattooed on the chest of the father almighty, AEEIOUO; in the name of him who said, “I and my father, we are one,” that is, Jesus Christ; in the name of Abba Abba Abba Ablanatha Nafla Akrama Chamari Ely Temach Achoocha!I adjure you by the sacrifice of your only begotten son, Jesus Christ, Rabboni, in the way that you sealed the cup.
One aspect people tend to forget is that the vowels (AEEIOUO), which in this case are said to be inscribed on the chest of God, were in fact chanted in rituals, as explained in the studies of Sabina Crippa. The seal (σφραγίς) of God – possibly suggested here as traced upon the chest of Mary – has been related by some scholarship to real tattooing, according to a tradition rooted in Revelation and other Christian texts.
Tattoos in late antiquity have been most recently studied by Mark Gustafson. Interestingly, as in the case of the written amulets, Christian attitudes towards tattooing show ambivalence, reflecting how complicated it was for Christians to establish their own practices in relation to the surrounding religious and social system. On the one hand we see tattooing condemned as a barbarian and pagan practice, or used as an infamous mark, according to a longer Graeco-Roman punitive tradition. On the other hand, ancient Christians are recorded bearing symbols and words tattooed on their arms, and, like our Sudanese woman, on their legs, literally following Paul Galatians 6:17: ‘From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks (στίγματα) of Jesus’ – the word στίγμα (pl. στίγματα) was used for tattoos marking slaves, or people condemned to the mines and other penalties. While tattoos were against Jewish laws as established by Leviticus, religious tattooing was common in Egypt and other nearby areas and Christian later practices certainly relate to these longer traditions. Procopius of Gaza (ab. 465-528 AD), for instance, records the use of tattooing the cross or the name of Christ. In Africa, a Manichaean monk is reported to have tattooed on his leg: ‘Manichaean, disciple of Jesus Christ’. Probably this remained hidden since the episode is recalled in the context of Vandal persecution of Manicheans at the end of the 5th century AD.
The tattoo on the Sudanese woman’s thigh, also hidden from sight, is not only ideologically but also visually linked to the Christian magical papyri. The Telegraph reports the interpretation of the drawing as the name of the Archangel Michael, who was a powerful protector against evil and in fact is often invoked in magical papyri. Similar patterns with elaborate versions of the Christian cross and other symbols do occur in magical texts. The practice of tattooing Christian symbols, such as the cross, on the wrist and other body parts is still alive among Copts in Egypt and worldwide. A simple Google image search will reveal you how common and varied are tattoos with religious themes. Meanings attributed to the practice may vary, ranging from marking identity to remembering pilgrimages to protection against illness and evil. Contemporary Ethiopian magical scrolls are also deeply rooted in the ancient Egyptian practices here discussed. You can read more about them, and see them, at this excellent website: Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production.
Major studies on tattoos in antiquity are: M. Gustaffson, ‘Inscripta in Fronte: Penal Tattoing in Late Antiquity’, Classical Antiquity, 16/1 (1997), 79-105 and ‘The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond’ in J.Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body. The Tattoo in European and American History, London 2000, 17-31; C.P. Jones, ‘Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987), 139-155 and ‘Stigma and Tattoo’ in Caplan, Written on the Body, cit., 1-16.
A brief, interesting overview on tattoos meanings and uses is A. Mayor, ‘People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity’, Archaeology March/April 1999, 55-57.
J. Carswell, Coptic Tattoo Designs, Beirut 1958. A beautiful account with images of the trade of an Egyptian Copt tattooer, Jacob Razzouk, who lived in Jerusalem in the fifties of last century. He owned a tattoo-shop for pilgrims, mostly but not only Copts. He used woodblocks to stamp designs on the skin before using needles, and the designs are reproduced and explained in the book.
Tattoos in modern Egypt are also recalled in Winifred Blackman, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, (1927).
T. De Bruyn, T., “P.Ryl. III 471: A Baptismal Anointing Formula Used as an Amulet”, Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006) 94-109.
S. Crippa, 2002. “Voix et magie. Réflexion sur la parole rituelle à partir des Papyrus Grecs Magiques”, in Cahiers de littérature orale 52 (2002) 43-61.
M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994).
My favourite books on religion in Roman and late antique Egypt are D. Frankfurter, Religions in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance, Princeton 1998, and J. Dielemann, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: the London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE), Leiden 2005.
I published an article on Christian amulets and formularies from Egypt straddling religion, magic and medicine (‘P. Oxy. XI, 1384: medicina, rituali di guarigione e cristianesimi nell’Egitto tardoantico’, in: Annali di Storia dell’Esegesi, monographical issue on ‘Ancient Christianity and “Magic”/ Il cristianesimo antico e la “magia” 24/2 (2007), 437-62) that you can download from here.