Body paint of the Celts/Picts/Woads

Body painting research, Uncategorized

On my (hypothetical, from the comfort of my home, covid free) journey around the world researching traditional body painting, I wanted to find a culture who practiced body painting a little closer to home. I realised my knowledge of Ancient Britain isn’t great. DISCLAIMER; I’m definitely not a historian, and most of my knowledge prior to the small amount of research I’ve done came from inaccurate historical movies such as Braveheart and King Arthur with Clive Owen and Keira Knightly, like many I had distant memories of celts/pagans covered in blue body paint, but that was basically my only reference point, until discovering some Images of Woads/Picts/Celts adorned in body art. We all know that tattoo art has an ancient history but when we think of tribal body art, we think of Tribes in South America or Asia, we don’t tend to think of Ancient Britons adorning themselves with traditional tattooing techniques.

Who are the Woads and the Picts and did they paint themselves?? It is highly contested whether they actually adorned themselves with Blue paint, the colour Blue would have been achievable as a native plant the Woad can be used to produce blue dye, hence why celts have been referred to as the Woads. Also another name given to northern celt tribes was The Picts, Romans referred to Northern Britania’s Celtic peoples as the ‘The picts’ due to there tattoo’d bodies. It’s Possible the Woad plant was used to paint the body before battles – but most likely it seems Tattooing had become a custom among the tribes – adorning themselves with symbols and local plants and colours which would be specific to individual tribes. I’ve found some beautiful/ pretty gruesome old illustrations of what Pictish Warriors may or may not have looked liked. They may not be historically accurate but they are quite wonderful drawings.

It’s thought that the Picts painted/tattoo’d themselves to look like fearsome warriors and to intimidate rival tribes, a book by Celtic historian Elizabeth Sutherland suggests ‘The primary reason for tattooing was probably to distinguish one tribal group from another in battle, The skin was pricked by bone or iron pins and rub bed with soot or herbal dyes to give it colour. Perhaps it was done with needles drawing threads under the skin to raise the flesh. It must have been an extremely painful undertaking and may possible have been combined with initiation rites’ It sounds like forms of tribal tattooing and scarification, which still takes place in communities in Africa and Asia today. It’s amazing really that this tribal way of life and tattooing the body of indigenous brits isn’t more widely known or celebrated.

Below is a painting Inspired by the Illustrations of The Picts – An ancient warrior woman adorned with symbols and native plants.

Research resources –

Yemanja – Mother of Mothers

Body painting research

How it all started – Last year one of our associate artists an amazing Brazilian dancer/choreographer and dear friend Adriana was on the Journey of becoming a Mother to beautiful Noah this coincided with the project coming together and we needed some initial images and exploration to push project. Below are some images of the outcome.

Image by Christian Dyson – in collaboration with Cabasa Carnival arts

Painting Adrianna was a beautiful experience she is someone who I love and admire a great deal and to be able to be apart of this process with her was wonderful. It was my first time painting someones whole body and we didn’t fully know how long it was going to take, which did mean at some points I felt under-pressure. The whole experience from start to finish was very powerful, we had brief discussions with Adrianna prior to the paint about designs and what she was feeling about it, however because I know Adrianna I was given artistic freedom to come up with a design which I felt represented who Adrianna was and would evolve into through the life-affirming process of motherhood. For me and Emily our initial thought was Yemanja, the Orixa Goddess of the Yoruba religion. Yemanja is very important to Adriana personally and culturally and Yemanja is the goddess of motherhood, ‘the mother of mothers’, She resides in the oceans and is the female life-force of the world, over-seeing fisherman and their catches and protecting all children.

I wanted my design to represent this, Yemanja is often depicted as a mermaid, and half of Adrianna’s body was covered in scales, but also in my design was the grounding presence of Gaia – Mother Earth. I thinking having the harmonious connection of both powerful entities for me represented the Old Adrianna and the New Adrianna as a mother. The whole process was very beautiful and the experience I think will be a powerful one for Adrianna for years to come and it’s lovely to have such beautiful images to mark the transition.

Image by Christian Dyson – in association with Cabasa Carnival Arts.
Yemanja offering