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Tattoos found on ancient Egyptian women appear to ask for protection during childbirth

According to a new study, ancient Egyptian women wore ornate back tattoos to protect themselves during and after childbirth.

The theory is based on the examination of mummified remains of two women with tattoo motifs from Deir el-Medina. This is a site on the Nile’s west bank, across the river from modern-day Luxor.

During the 18th to 20th Dynasties of Egypt’s New Kingdom, this was an ancient Egyptian workmen’s village where artisans worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The study’s authors, Anne Austin of the University of Missouri at St. Louis and Marie-Lys Arnette of Johns Hopkins University, propose a link between lower back tattoos and Deir el-Medina figurines with tattoo motifs.

Childbirth has always been dangerous. One theory is that the birth mother and surrounding midwives may have worn tattoos to invoke “sympathetic magic.”

Childbirth rituals have been linked to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor. She is associated with fertility and is a protector of women.

Egyptian women gave birth squatting on bricks. The only known surviving birth brick from ancient Egypt is decorated with an image. The image of a woman holding her child flanked by Hathor images.

“New evidence of tattoos in human remains in comparison with tattoo-like marks on female figurines shows that these markings connected with the spheres of childbirth and fecundity more broadly,” according to the study published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. “Why do these motifs appear on some bodies and objects but not on others?”. One possibility is that these motifs were not worn by all women. But only by those involved in the birthing process. Such as midwives and/or women participating in childbirth rituals.

“The hypothesis is supported by the fact that previous tattoos discovered at Deir el-Medina were linked with Hathor. It imply that these women may have been associated with the goddess’s cult and/or with Hathoric rituals in general.” In this case, sympathetic magic would make the tattoos effective during childbirth. The body of the woman in labour paralleled with the tattooed bodies of the women surrounding and assisting her.

“One can also imagine that the figurines depicting tattoos would be especially associated with childbirth. They would have been used during the event. The figurines could have been held in hand by the woman in labour, or by the midwives when performing rituals, due to their small size.”

Tattoos on the lower back known as ‘tramp stamps’. It became popular in the first decade of the twenty-first century, with celebrities such as Britney Spears sporting various designs.

A 2011 study of media stereotypes criticised tattoo depictions, claiming that they were unfairly cast as a symbol of promiscuity.


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