This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
The image above was kindly sent to us by the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam. It is of a fragmentary krater, a pot used for mixing wine and water, dated to the early fourth century BCE; the painting is attributed to the Black Fury Group.
The partially preserved scene depicts numerous women brandishing weapons, rocks, and tools, facing the target of their anger. The target is not visible because various important pieces of the pot are missing; however, the presence of tattoos allows scholars to identify these women as most likely Thracian or Scythian. As a result, we know from other vase paintings that this scene must be a representation of the killing of Orpheus, the mythical musician and singer, at the hands of Thracian women.
While the scene is somewhat of a Greek artistic staple, what makes this vase unique and striking are the large array of tattoos on display.
The Greeks associated Thracian women with tattoos; according to Herodotus of Halicarnassus: “[For the Thracians] To be tattooed is a sign of noble birth, while no tattoos signify lower status” (5.6.2). A later Greek writer, Dio Chrysostom (first century CE), adds a further detail, saying that the greater number and more elaborate the design of the tattoos established the social standing of a person and their family (Or. 14.19).
The reason the Greeks found this so interesting is because they used tattoos for mostly punitive reasons. To bear a tattoo in Greek society was either a mark of enslavement, punishment, or because you were a barbarian (i.e. a non-Greek person).
The origins of the Thracian tattoos, according to the Greeks, was a matter of debate. In some versions of the Orpheus myth, the Thracian women killed Orpheus because he distracted their men: they preferred to listen to his songs rather than pay their women any attention. As a punishment for the murder, the Thracian husbands began the practice of tattooing the women. Other versions, such as this vase, suggest that Thracians already had tattoos before they had even killed Orpheus.
Earlier red-figure vases depict tattoos as rather rudimentary in design. Basic geometric shapes, chevrons, and lateral lines were depicted in a way that is probably realistic, but the execution by the vase painters was rather clumsy. Toward the end of the fifth century BCE, we see more intricate designs and animal motifs such as deer and snakes.
This vase takes this intricacy to another level, artistically, with a great variety of tattooed imagery. We have stationary deer on the arms and legs. There is a modified form of deer tattoo on the arms of the woman in the bottom right-hand corner. The deer on each of her arms are not stationary, but are in fact running, echoing the posture of the foreground fawn in the scene.
This choice of dynamic tattoo is more in keeping with the archaeological examples of Scythian tattooed skin, from the fourth or third century BCE, at Pazyryk, which present a more dynamic form of body art, one where the motion of the animal is emphasised with each flex of muscle by the bearer (Rolle 1989, p. 83).
Geometric patterns are also depicted, with the artist choosing from an array of designs including rosettes of various sizes. Tattooed cuffs are present around the top of the ankles or mid-way down the calf, as well as on the arms, using a variety of designs. The most revealing design has got to be the crenellations that appear on many of the women’s legs and arms.
The use of this design is revealing for two specific reasons. The first is that it is also present on their clothing – the translucent dress at the bottom is case in point. This aligns the tattoo design with a textile design for the viewer, suggesting that the tattoo is on a par with the aesthetic qualities of textiles.
The second reason why this design is so revealing is that it is not considered a barbaric motif, but is in fact common in Greek art, and specifically Greek pottery. In fact, when we look at the cuffs we start to see that they are acting like the bands on a vase, either separating the main image from others, or else framing the image on the pot.
Notice how all of the animal tattoos, both deer and snakes, are filling a void on the skin between two tattooed cuffs. The most apparent example of this can be seen with the snakes; the placement of the top and tail of the snake between two cuffs clearly shows that the snake is being framed. The use of tattoos to frame other tattoos on the body does not only project a notion of “other” or barbarity onto these women, but it also turns them into works of art, and what is more, it turns them into Greek works of art.