Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

40. Divine Judgement

51 Awesome Egyptian Tattoo Ideas For Men and Women

Are you on the hunt for a tattoo that will make you stand out from the crowd? Do you want to be original? Do you want a tattoo that is especially meaningful to you? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you will be excited to explore the world of Egyptian-themed tattoos with us! Anything from Egyptian mythology will be artful, meaningful, and unique. The list of ideas can go on and on, and we have dedicated this entire post to Egyptian tattoos.

Having an Egyptian tattoo will definitely make you stand out! Why do we say that? First, all Egyptian-inspired tattoos have an attractive design. Second, any Egyptian tattoo will have significant meaning since all Egyptian-inspired tattoo designs are taken from abundant and age-old Egyptian mythology. Egyptian mythology is loaded with a myriad of different gods, goddesses, and god-like creatures, and every single Egyptian image symbolizes something. For example: you want a tattoo that symbolizes love, but you don’t want the same boring heart theme that everyone else has. Why not consider a tattoo of the Egyptian goddess, Isis? Isis is the epitome of love in Egyptian mythology. Love symbols are just an example. If you don’t want a love tattoo, don’t worry. There are numerous other Egyptian tattoos you can have done. We are here to show you just a few of the hundreds of ideas that are out there!

Let’s have a look at 51 Awesome Egyptian Tattoo Ideas for Men and Women!

1. Our first choice for Egyptian-themed tattoos is the beautiful goddess, Nekhbet!

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Nekhbet, the vulture goddess, rendered here in stunning, vivid color! She is the most ancient of Egyptian oracles, dating back to BEFORE the dynastic era of Egypt! For the very image of beauty, grace and truth, we suggest this image of Nekhbet! It is shown here on a woman’s arm but it would be lovely anywhere!

2. Flying Ma’at: Next on our list of Egyptian-themed tattoos, Flying Ma’at.

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Ma’at is the Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, and order. She represents law and morality. This Egyptian moon goddess is often shown controlling the heavens and the seasons. Without Ma’at, chaos would reign in the world of gods and men! Are order and harmony important to you? Do you value the realm of law, morality, and justice? Do you strive for balance? If so, then a tattoo of the Egyptian goddess, Flying Ma’at, is a perfect choice for you! Here, Flying Ma’at is shown on a woman’s abdomen but, it would also work beautifully on your back, across your shoulders.

3. Horus: Horus, ancient Egyptian god of war, the sky, and Falcons

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War is the domain of this Egyptian deity. He also rules flight! Even if war isn’t your thing, any depiction of Horus is awesome! Horus is pictured on a man’s arm here but, anything this cool will fit anywhere you decide to put it!

4. Little Nemes: For something less imposing and large, we suggest a small version of the Nemes.

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Nemes is the actual name of the headdresses worn ONLY by Egyptian pharaohs in ancient Egypt and, in ancient Egypt, the reigning pharaoh was considered God by the masses. For the ultimate symbol of royalty and power, look no further than the Nemes! The Nemes is the perfect way to pack a LOT of power into a small, unique tattoo. This small design would be perfect in your hand, a finger, or some other small area.

5. The Winged Solar Disk: The Winged Solar Disk symbolizes eternal light and life in Egyptian myth.

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For the ULTIMATE symbol of eternal power, there is nothing like Winged Solar Disk of ancient Egypt! If you want to show the world that you are a powerful, eternal being, you should really look into this Egyptian-themed tattoo design! It would be ideal across the shoulders, or, as pictured here, across your chest.

6. Anubis: Anubis is the Egyptian god of the dead.

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The ancient Egyptians revered the dead far more than they ever revered the living and, Anubis ruled over this entire realm. This ancient Egyptian, jackal-headed god ruled over every aspect of death: the spirits of the dead, the ancient Egyptian burial rites, all of it. For a definite statement of the ultimate power, Anubis is the god for you. His countenance would look amazing anywhere you have it placed!

7. Set meets Horus: The meeting of two opposites.

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While Set is the ancient Egyptian god of disaster and storms, Horus is just the opposite. Horus is the ancient embodiment of the sun itself, representing warmth and serenity. The meeting of these two ancient gods represents the meeting of two sides of the same personality – the wild side and the calm side. A double tattoo such as this could easily symbolize your inner balance or an acceptance of all facets of your character. A placement on the wrists, as shown here, works beautiful but, it would work just as well in any place where the two ancient gods can face one another.

8. The Wadjat Egyptian Tattoo

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This ancient Egyptian symbol for the circle of life actually predates dynastic Egypt. In other words, this symbol was around long before the pharaohs came to rule Egypt. It’s elegant depiction of the circle of life, surrounded and protected by two cobras, and guided by the eye of the sun, is the perfect tattoo for anyone who truly values the sanctity of life! What makes the Wadjat even better is that it is perfect for a man or a woman! It would be stunning across the back, as shown here, or across the shoulders or stomach.

9. Ancient Egyptian Tattoo

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This ancient sarcophagus is, perhaps, the most iconic and well known ancient Egyptian symbol of all! All royalty in ancient Egypt was buried in this unmistakable casket! For a tattoo that everyone will recognize, we suggest this sarcophagus! Pictured here, it’s on the forearm but, it would work well anywhere!

10. Arrows: all ancient cultures used arrows but, ancient Egyptian arrows contain a certain flare.

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Although arrows, in general, are very common in the tattoo world, anything Egyptian is always artistic and elegant, making ancient Egyptian arrows stand out from the crowd. are very common tats. For a tattoo that screams prowess during the hunt or victory in war, the ancient Egyptian arrow tattoo is definitely for you! Place it on the arm as shown here, or maybe on a shoulder.

11. The Ankh: the ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life.

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The ankh – another iconic symbol of ancient Egypt. The ankh signified its holder as the reigning pharaoh and represents life, breath and air. This lovely tattoo is stunning on the wrist but would really work well anywhere you have it done. You can’t go wrong with a tattoo of the ancient Egyptian ankh.

12. The Golden Nemes: Best known as the burial mask of the boy-king, Tutankhamen.

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Tutankhamen may be even better known than Isis herself, perhaps because his story is relatively new and modern compared to the culture he comes from, or maybe because his story is the most intriguing of all. A boy made king at a young age, his rule only lasted about nine years. His story and artifacts have traveled the globe more than once. Any tattoo of the golden nemes of King Tut will add elegance and drama to your body art!

13. The Eye of Ra: also known as the eye of God.

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It was believed, in ancient Egypt, that their god, Ra, was always watching, that his eye was everywhere. The Eye of Ra placed in the center of the pyramid is the quintessential symbol of eternal divinity! This tattoo would work well on the chest or between the shoulders.

14. Amun-Ra: the combination of two powerful gods of ancient Egypt, Amun and Ra.

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Occasionally, between dynasties in ancient Egypt, two very powerful gods would become one and the same god, thus making that god twice as powerful. That is the case with Amun-Ra – Amun, the old king of the gods and god of the wind, became enmeshed with, Ra, the new king of the gods and god of the sun. For the ultimate symbol of masculine divine power, a tattoo of Amun-Ra is perfect!

15. Isis: The Egyptian goddess of love.

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Isis is the Egyptian mother goddess, representing love, creation, motherhood, and fertility. If you personally value the things that Isis represents, a beautifully rendered tattoo of her may be exactly what you are looking for. You might consider having the tattoo done on your chest, over your heart. Here, it is pictured on the arm. With this vivid color and gorgeous face of this design, you can’t help but feel more beautiful than ever before!

16. Ma’at: The Egyptian goddess of truth and justice, up close and personal.

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The face of Ma’at, a brilliant combination of sparkling beauty and keen justice! What better way to show your love of justice than a beautifully rendered tattoo of the face of the lovely goddess, Ma’at!

17. The Pharaoh in the Stars: a dramatic combination!

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What better way to symbolize eternal life than with a combination of two of the most timeless Egyptian symbols around? This amazing tattoo combines the eternal presence of the pharaoh with the age-old figure of the pyramid, all on a stunning backdrop of the stars and heavens! What an elegant way to express yourself!

18. Set: ancient Egyptian god of chaos and destruction.

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In ancient Egypt, Set was the divine bringer of chaos and destruction – he was the symbol of flood and famine, earthquake and volcano! The ancient Egyptian god Set is the ultimate if you prize the power of nature in all of it’s majesty!

19. The Death Mask of Tutankhamen.

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For a dramatic, rather intense effect, you might have this amazing rendition of Tutankhamen tattooed on the back of your hand.

20. Hieroglyphs: the written language of ancient Egypt.

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Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have fascinated the masses for centuries! Imagine! A secret engraved on your very skin that nobody understands but you! Or, your wedding vows, in hieroglyphics! That is entirely possible with a hieroglyphic tattoo!

21. Isis the Observer

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Do you strive to observe the world through the eyes of love and compassion? Do you value inner beauty as the most sacred beauty? If so, this small depiction of Isis is a good choice for your. Elegant and small, it is the ideal tattoo for a feminine woman.

22. The Return of Anubis

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This powerful tattoo depicts Anubis, ancient Egyptian god of the Underworld, in fantastic magnification. He bears the legendary scepter, one of the two symbols of royalty in ancient Egypt. This large scale tattoo will best fit on a large area of your body, such as the ribs area shown here, or along a shoulder.

23. The Supreme Ankh

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The ankh, first breath of creation, and Ra, the king of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, combine here to create a tattoo that is both beautiful and powerful. It is perfect on a fore-arm, as above, but it really is perfect anywhere you have it done.

24. Loving Pharaoh: another portrayal of the child-king, Tutankhamen.

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This beautiful tattoo is a portrayal of Pharaoh observing, with tender eyes, the image of the lotus, symbol of love and life. This tattoo would show everyone that you can be powerful and full of love and tenderness at the same time. What a beautiful representation of balance!

25. Stylized Egyptian-themed dog.

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This tattoo is a stylized combination of several Egyptian themes. The jackal (sometimes a dog) is associated with Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld. The ankh is the ancient symbol of eternal life or the first breath of life. The eye of Ra (also known as a symbol of Ma’at) is clearly depicted on the dog’s face. This tattoo is the embodiment of some the most sacred concepts on Earth.

26. Winged Ma’at

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Winged Ma’at, the perfect image of the balance represented by the goddess Ma’at! This tattoo is especially suited to wide areas of the body such as the upper back, shown here.

27. Anubis, Guardian of the ancient Egyptian underworld.

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This image of the great Anubis shows an amazing use of color and pattern. This is where artistry meets history. A wonderful depiction of the Egyptian god, Anubis, holding his scepter and watching over his realm. It is a symbol of power and authority.

28. Nemes on the shoulder.

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In this fantastic piece, it is almost as if Pharaoh himself sits on your shoulder, ready to strike. No matter where you get this tattoo on your body, it emanates an impression of strength and courage.

29. Another Aspect of Anubis: Anubis, the Warrior.

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Ever wanted to be a warrior? This is just for you. The Egyptian god, Anubis, stands at the ready to strike down his enemies.

30. The Brothers.

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Horus and Anubis are shown with the Ankh and Ra encircling them. Forever opposed and forever connected. It shows a sense of loyalty but, at the same time, continual opposition.

31. Nekhbet, the Vulture Goddess.

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Nekhbet is the most ancient oracle of predynastic Egypt! This lovely tattoo is perfect for anyone who values clear vision and planning ahead.

32. Kneeling Isis

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You really cannot go wrong with this image of Isis kneeling with wings out-stretched! This is the perfect image of grace and balance!

33. The Sacred Lotus

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The magical lotus, shown on the shoulder above, closes at night and sinks beneath the water, only to rise and bloom again every morning! Naturally, it became a symbol of the sun and life in ancient Egypt. This tattoo is a perfect representation of renewal and rebirth!

34. Bast, the ancient Egyptian Cat Goddess

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Cats were sacred to the goddess Bast and to ancient Egyptians. They were also considered guardians of the underworld, keeping the spirits of the dead where they belonged. This is the perfect tattoo for cat-lovers!

35. The Ancient Egyptian Pantheon

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This intriguing collage of the Egyptian pantheon is the perfect tattoo for the true Egypt lover! It depicts Isis, Ra, Anubis, Horace, and more!

36. The Eye of Ra

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This version of the powerful Eye of Ra is more discreet and simple than others, making it a good choice for someone who prefers a more subtle form of self-expression. Placement here on the back of the neck is just perfect.

37. Mirrored Bast

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This is the perfect symbol of dark elegance! The sacred ankh, symbol of life eternal, is guarded on either side by Bast, a guardian of the underworld. It is a wonderful sight to behold. The wings curve to give a feeling of satisfaction and freshness.

38. Battle of the Gods

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A dramatic depiction of the eternal battle that rages between Horus, the god of life, and Anubis, the god of death! This tattoo is the essence of life itself!

39. The Great Pyramids and the Mysterious Sphinx

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The great pyramids and the mysterious sphinx – iconic hallmarks of the Egyptian skyline! These ancient relics of Egyptian culture still hold the world in awe and inspire us to do great things. For the perfect symbol of inspiration and accomplishment, we strongly suggest this piece!

40. Divine Judgement

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A scene from the court of Osiris where men are judged and it is decided where they will spend their afterlife. This tattoo contains numerous elements of ancient Egyptian belief. Although it is shown as a sleeve here, it is very well suited to the back or chest because of how large and detailed the scene is.

41. Curvy Ra

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This tattoo is very masculine. It’s use of so many patterns and shapes makes it intriguing, you could look at it for hours and continue to find new elements.

42. Anubis on Scales

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The great god, Anubis, sits atop the scales of justice, deciding the fate of a soul. Wonderful tattoo on your arm.

43. Patterned Ankh

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The ankh is probably the most adaptable symbol of ancient Egypt. It works well in any size and you can do so many different things with it! Here, it’s big enough to cover half an arm and other Egyptian symbols are contained within. For a truly flexible tattoo idea, we suggest an ankh!

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44. The Sacred Scarab

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The sacred scarab! The scarab is linked to all sorts of Egyptian myth! It works well for both male and female and is much more subtle than other Egyptian-themed tattoos.

45. Seth Seeks Isis

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This beautiful combo tattoo has deep meanings. It represents love and revenge. You can never go wrong with this on your hands.

46. Knuckles of the Gods

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The hieroglyphic symbols for each to ten different deities across your knuckles! What better way to honor an entire pantheon! You could also use hieroglyphics to form a word or phrase that is meaningful to you.

47. The Winged Scarab

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Fearless tiny heart. I love tattoos on the neck. They are really seductive and sexy.

48. The Sun Scarab

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The sacred scarab holding up the sun. A combination of fearless power and life’s breath. The tattoo here is placed on the lower part of the neck.

49. Flying Ma’at

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This tattoo of the winged goddess is a symbol of love, honor and power. It is for go-getters and girls that rock.

50. The Jewels of Isis

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The jewels of Isis, an elegant and perfect tattoo for any lady. Shown here with PERFECT placement!

51. Simplified Egyptian Skyline

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This very unimposing and kinda cute image of the Egyptian skyline is perfect for anyone with a light sense of humor!

Really, the Egyptian gods have left us with so many tattoo ideas and this series is one of the best I’ve ever seen! They’re ALL here: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Horace, Anubis, Ma’at, and more! Have you found yours?

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Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

Tattoos are an ancient form of art appearing in various cultures throughout history. One of the earliest (and possibly the oldest) pattern of tattoos in the world was discovered on the frozen remains of the man known as Otzi the Iceman who was buried in a glacier on the Austrian-Italian border c. 3250 BCE and discovered in 1991 CE. Otzi’s body has 61 tattoos covering him from his lower legs to his upper back, torso, and left wrist. These tattoos have been interpreted as therapeutic in nature, alleviating some condition he may have had, but certainly could also have served other purposes.

The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian Ta meaning “to strike” which evolved into the Tahitian word tatau meaning “to mark something” and so tattoos have come to be associated in the modern day with Polynesia. The art of tattooing goes back millenia, however, and was practiced in ancient Egypt at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE). In ancient cultures such as Greece and Rome the tattoo was worn as a cultic symbol dedicating one to a certain god, as a brand symbolizing servitude, as a mark of a certain type of profession (such as a prostitute) or to encourage fertility or afford protection. In these cultures both men and women were tattooed but, in Egypt, tattoos were seemingly only worn by women though possibly for many of the same reasons.

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Egyptian Tattooed Figurine

An interesting difference, however, persists in the interpretation of Egyptian women’s tattoos as opposed to those of other cultures: the tattoos of Egyptian women were – and are – regarded, when they are not simply ignored, as a symbol of the lower class and the mark of a dancing girl or prostitute without considering other possibilities. Further, even when such options for interpretation are allowed, they must argue against this earlier understanding.

The Confusion

Early Egyptologists interpreted these tattoos according to their own understanding and prejudices concerning body art and, in examining the female mummies or feminine statuary, concluded that tattoos were worn by lower class prostitutes and dancing girls. Joann Fletcher, a fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York, explains the confusion caused by the assessment of these early interpretations:

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Because this seemed to be an exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt, mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of “dubious status,” described in some cases as “dancing girls.” The female mummies had nevertheless been buried at Deir el-Bahari (opposite modern Luxor) in an area associated with royal and elite burials, and we know that at least one of the women described as “probably a royal concubine” was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions. And although it has long been assumed that such tattoos were the mark of prostitutes or were meant to protect the women against sexually transmitted diseases, I personally believe that the tattooing of ancient Egyptian women had a therapeutic role and functioned as a permanent form of amulet during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth (1).

As more evidence came to light of tattooed women who were obviously priestesses and members of the court, the interpretation of “low class” tattooed women was somewhat revised to include the concept of cultic tattoos identifying a woman with the worship of Hathor. This understanding still carried with it a sense of eroticism and sexuality, however, which a present-day sensibility cannot seem to include in the definition of a priestess. Even in the modern-day “progressive” society, these ancient tattoos continue to be associated broadly with lower class members of society just as they were in the 19th century CE. Although the precise meanings of ancient Egyptian tattoos may be unclear, it seems evident that they had an array of implications and that women of many different social classes chose to wear them.

Although the precise meanings of ancient Egyptian tattoos may be unclear, it seems evident that they had an array of implications and that women of many different social classes chose to wear them.

Tattoos In Egypt in the Middle Kingdom

Tattoos in ancient Egypt may date back to the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE) based on evidence suggesting priestesses of the goddess Hathor would have had themselves so marked at that time. This claim is purely speculative, however. The most conclusive evidence of Egyptian tattoos found thus far dates the practice to the Middle Kingdom. Scholar Carolyn Graves-Brown writes how, “in 1891, two ancient Egyptian female mummies were uncovered from Middle Kingdom Deir el-Bahri; they bore tattoos of geometrically arranged dots and dashes” (113). She goes on to note that the tattoos on these women were the same as those found on Middle Kingdom fertility dolls and that, further, other female mummies were later discovered with similar markings.

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The first female mummies uncovered were thought to be members of a king’s harem and the others dancing girls or prostitutes. The male Egyptologists of the 19th and 20th centuries CE who were studying the mummies could not reconcile their understanding of a tattooed woman with one of high social standing and so tattoos were considered a mark of the lower classes. Even as recently as 1995 CE, the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, whose treatment of tattoos and women is usually cogent and precise, writes, “Tattooing seems to have been confined to lower-class women” (160). Even though elsewhere in her work she acknowledges the variation in purpose of tattoos, the old stigma of body art carries on in the modern day and prevents people (often males) from interpreting these marks correctly.

Tattoos on the Mummy of Amunet

The claim that tattoos were only worn by prostitutes, dancing girls, and “lower-class women” becomes even weaker when one considers the case of Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor from the 11th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. The mummy of Amunet, discovered with the others in 1891 CE by Egyptologist Eugene Grebaut at Deir el-Bahri, shows patterns of tattooed lines on her arms, thighs, and lower abdomen. These tattoos are interpreted by some scholars as fertility symbols and this claim is strengthened by other statues and mummies of tattooed women with the same kinds of marks on their body.

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Tattoos as Symbolic Protection

These tattoos are thought to have been worn by a priestess to honor Hathor who, among her many duties, was also goddess of fertility. They were worn by other women as symbolic protection of a child in the womb and during child birth (although these are not mutually exclusive since priestesses could marry and have children). It has been noted that, as a woman’s pregnancy developed and the belly swelled, the tattoos would have formed an intricate net design from one’s lower back to just below one’s navel, thus creating a distinctive protective barrier between the world and the unborn child. The protective aspect of the tattoo is further suggested by the figure of the protector-god Bes which women had tattooed on their inner thigh. Joann Fletcher notes:

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This is supported by the pattern of distribution, largely around the abdomen, on top of the thighs and the breasts, and would also explain the specific types of designs, in particular the net-like distribution of dots applied over the abdomen. During pregnancy, this specific pattern would expand in a protective fashion in the same way bead nets were placed over wrapped mummies to protect them and “keep everything in.” The placing of small figures of the household deity Bes at the tops of their thighs would again suggest the use of tattoos as a means of safeguarding the actual birth, since Bes was the protector of women in labor, and his position at the tops of the thighs a suitable location. This would ultimately explain tattoos as a purely female custom. (1)

No written work on the subject of tattoos survives from ancient Egypt and so interpretation is always speculative but it seems likely these tattoos were not simply adornments to make a woman more attractive to a man but served a higher purpose and, further, this purpose differed in different eras. Graves-Brown writes:

Much confusion also arises from the conflation of New Kingdom depictions of Bes on dancers’ legs, with Middle Kingdom marks on the bodies of elite women and `fertility dolls’. All the evidence suggests that the only Egyptians in Dynastic Egypt to have tattoos were women and that these women would be elite court ladies and priestesses of Hathor perhaps decorated to ensure fertility, but not for the simple amusement of men. The origins and precise meaning of the tattoos, however, remain unclear (114).

Bes, Museo Barracco

Bes was primarily a protector god of pregnant women and children but was also associated with sexuality, fertility, humor, and joy in life. His image on a woman’s thigh, therefore, could have many meanings within that context and should not be interpreted narrowly as only pertaining to sexual attraction. Tyldesley writes:

Some New Kingdom entertainers and servant girls displayed a small picture of the dwarf god Bes high on each thigh as a good luck symbol and a less than subtle means of drawing attention to their hidden charms. It has been suggested that this particular tattoo may have been the trade mark of a prostitute, but it seems equally likely to have been worn as an amuletic guard against the dangers of childbirth, or even as a protection against sexually transmitted diseases (160).

Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch also makes a point of the many ways in which Bes tattoos could be interpreted, writing, “Bes amulets and figurines were popular for over 2,000 years. Some women even decorated their bodies with Bes tattoos to improve their sex life or fertility” (118). It does seem clear that prostitutes wore tattoos based upon engravings and images such as those on the Turin Erotic Papyrus. The Turin Erotic Papyrus is a badly damaged document dating from the latter part of the New Kingdom (the Ramesside Period c. 1186-1077 BCE). Interpretations of the images range from claims it depicts a brothel, is a satire on sexual mores, or shows the sexual practices of the gods. The brothel interpretation goes directly to the Bes tattoo as a mark of prostitutes in that one of the women in the images is shown with the tattoo on her upper thigh.

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It should be noted, however, that this interpretation is by no means accepted by every scholar who has worked with the papyrus nor should one assume that, because a prostitute wears a certain tattoo, piece of jewelry, or article of clothing, that those images, objects, and articles are synonymous with prostitution. Tattoos seem to have been worn by a number of different kinds of women for different reasons.

Tattoo Artists and Tools

The British archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853-1942 CE) discovered tattooing tools at Abydos and the town of Gurob dating to c. 3000 BCE and c. 1450 BCE respectively. The Abydos kit consisted of sharp metal points with a wooden handle while the Gurob kit’s needles were bronze. Based upon the tattoos on the mummies, the tattoo artists used a dark pigment of dye, most likely black, blue, or green, with little variation.

The tattoo artists were most likely older women with experience understanding both the symbols and the significance of the colors used.

These colors symbolized life, birth, resurrection, the heavens, and fertility. Although the color black in the modern day is usually associated with death and evil, in ancient Egypt it symbolized life and resurrection. Green was commonly used as a symbol of life and blue, among its many meanings, symbolized fertility and birth. The tattoo artists were most likely older women with experience understanding both the symbols and the significance of the colors. Female seers were commonplace in ancient Egypt, as Egyptologist Rosalie David explains:

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In the Deir el-Medina texts, there are references to ‘wise-women’ and the role they played in predicting future events and their causation. It has been suggested that such seers may have been a regular aspect of practical religion in the New Kingdom and possibly even in earlier times. (281)

One of the principal purposes assumed for the Egyptian tattoos is practical magic and it is probable that women were tattooed by the female seers for this reason. Images drawn for protection, whether on structures, objects, or people, was commonplace in Egypt. Mothers would frequently draw a picture of Bes on their children’s palm and then wrap the hand in a blessed cloth to encourage pleasant dreams. Magical amulets, of course, were popular throughout Egypt in all periods. Magic was synonymous with medicine in Egypt and recognized as an important aspect of life. Magical images, then, tattooed on one’s skin would hardly have been out of place no matter one’s social status.

Interpretation of the Egyptian Tattoo

It would seem, then, that the tattoo served a primarily religious/protective purpose but this is not to suggest the images had no other. The mistake the early Egyptologists made was in assuming that women who had tattoos were solely dancing girls, entertainers, and prostitutes but it would equally be mistaken to assume tattoos were only worn for magical protection, by priestesses to honor their goddess, or for some therapeutic value. The dancer Isadora of Artemisia (c. 200 CE), for example, was known to have a tattoo of Bes on her thigh but had no children and was neither a prostitute nor a priestess.

Whether women were tattooed as early as the Pre-Dynastic Period in Egypt is unclear and any suggestions are purely speculative but, as time went on, the tattoo clearly became an important part of many women’s lives. Interpretations of exactly what these tattoos meant to these women is also speculative as it seems clear that musicians and dancing girls did, in fact, have the same types of tattoos as priestesses.

The problem in the modern day is interpreting a “dancing girl” as a polar opposite to a “priestess” as though there were no hint of eroticism or sexuality to religion and no divine aspect to dancing or sex. Egyptian religion was fully integrated into the lives of the people and sexuality was as much a part of those lives as any other aspect. Perhaps, as in the present, the tattoo in ancient Egypt had many meanings aside from amuletic protection or cultic devotion. In the case of the image of Bes, a god known as well for encouraging merriment as providing protection, perhaps it was simply an expression of the joy one found in living one’s life.