Tattoos and self-lacerations in ancient religion (Leviticus 19)

Illustration: ancient tribal tattoo design

In ancient pagan religions, tattooing was often thought to protect the individual so marked from harmful magic. Some tattoos also indicated that a person belonged to a certain god or cult (analogous to the fact that slaves were often branded ot tattooed).

The earliest evdence of tattooing in the ancient Near East comes from Neolithic fertility figurines discovered in Jordan. In Middle Kingdom Egypt, tattoos associated with Hathor (a fertility goddess) were discovered on the mummy of a priestess, as well as on figurines. These figurines, referred to as “Brides of the Dead”, linked sexuality with rebirth as a mean of ensuring the resurrection of the dead. People in New Kingdom Egypt sported tattoos depicting Bes, a god of childbirth and the home. In Mesopotamia, temple slaves were often branded or tattooed with the symbol of the respective temples to which they belonged.

Like tattooing, self-laceration in the ancient Near East was associated with death. Mesopotamian women slashed themselves as a sign of grief, and in the fertility cult of Baal self-laceration was also associated with mourning for a “deceased” deity.

It seems likely that the Biblical prohibition against tattoos and self-lacerations for the dead (Leviticus 19:28) was directed against specific idolatrous practices, particularly erotic religious rites associated with the dead. The Old Testament treats tattooing and bodily disfigurement as inherently pagan and depraved (cf. Deuteronomy 14:1, 1 Kings 18:28).

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