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Leah Bader


Dr. Nina Jablonski

06 March 2014

Abrahamic Religions Attitudes Toward Skin Ornamentation

Humans have been altering their body and skin, using both permanent and

temporary means for thousands of years, with judgments and perceptions of these

alterations changing depending on the cultural context and the time period in which they

are observed. Despite the pain, difficultness, and the sometimes high cost of obtaining

these different modes of body ornamentation, humans seem to have an innate desire to

want to alter the surface of their skin, whether as a manner of fashion, self expression,

status, or group identity. Even in prehistoric times, humans would use natural pigments to

decorate themselves and in some equatorial climates, this practice would predate even the

manufacturing and wearing of clothing (Isaacs). While prevalent in early human history,

the three main Abrahamic religions would soon attempt to stem body ornamentation in

multiple ways, including biblical injunctions against it. I will explore the background and

changing perspectives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam toward skin ornamentation

(including tattooing, piercings, and scarification) and how it impacted the frequency of
these practices.

Humans are mainly visual animals; meaning most of the information that we

collect and perceive is through our visual field. Being able to make fast assessments

about individuals visually is one of the main arguments for the development of altering

our skins appearance (Larkin). Even in modern societies, first impressions leave lasting

impressions and skin adornment could play a major role in the way an individual is

perceived and seen in other peoples eyes. Other factors play into this as well, such as

clothing or valuable items like jewelry, but all are seen as symbols representing the
person wearing them and therefore carry huge significance both to the person displaying

them and to the person comprehending them (Sterelny). Some of the ideas that can be

grasped from body ornamentation are an individuals identity, the affinity to a specific

group or belief, social status, and sometimes even sexual desirability. Almost all of these

reasons can probably help explain the use of skin ornamentation early in hominin history,

particularly the idea that permanent markings would express a group identification that

was indelible and could not be removed, making it impossible for the agent to defect

from one group to another (Sterelny).

Tattooing, particularly, has been suggested to be the earliest form of irreversible

body adornment, as it dates back to Neolithic times, found in the skin of tzi, a Neolithic

Iceman, whose body was frozen and preserved in a glacier, and who sports the oldest

known tattoos nearly 5,000 years old. These tattoos are short, parallel black lines on

his ankles, calves, and back, which have been suggested to be produced by puncturing the

skin and pushing the soot into the puncture holes (Isaacs). The next example appears

around 4,500 years ago, evident in the frozen tombs of the Pazyryk people from Siberian

Russia, whose extravagant tattoos depict scenes and figures of mythical and real animals.

By three to four thousand years ago, tattooing appeared to be widespread in the

Americas, Oceania, and Scandinavia. Mummified bodies dating back to the Middle

Kingdom in ancient Egypt also bear tattoos and contrary to popular belief, these ancient
tattoos are not always simplistic. (Jablonski). All of this evidence indicates that tattooing,

as well as other forms of skin ornamentation, were integral parts of cultures and society

in early hominin history.

These functional skin ornamentations are still utilized in some tribal societies,

particularly those in Africa. Though African tribes mostly use scarification because it

appears more noticeable than tattooing would on their dark skin, the reasons behind the

markings are much similar to those from early human history (Cronin). Particular marks

denote particular tribes and small children can often be seen wandering around a village
with fresh scars on their faces to indicate their tribal association, an ascribed status that

will be with them throughout life and can not be changed without great difficulty. While

modern technology has made these modifications much easier to come by, modern

hunter-gatherer societies and tribes are more likely to use more traditional, outdated, and

primitive methods of cutting and then adding pigment, causing excessive pain and

making an individual vulnerable to infection (Isaacs).

Religion, particularly the Abrahamic religions, is considered one of the main

causes for the decline in skin ornamentation, especially in Europe though these

practices are certainly making a comeback in very recent times. As stated before, most

early human societies used these markings as a way of expressing a certain aspect of their

life, but when organized, monotheistic religions began to take a firm hold in larger

societies and cultures, a stigma developed toward body art, deeming it unclean and

shifting its association from expression to the most deviant parts of society (Scheinfeld).

It is believed that organized religion related these traditional practices with rudimentary

pagan religions and they were attempting to distance their newer religions from the older

ones as much as possible. At the time, it was customary for idol-worshippers to tattoo

themselves with markings as a sign of commitment to their particular deity. For

monotheists, likening themselves to idol worshippers would be a great affront to them

and their religion (Scheinfeld). As this stigma developed, tattoos became isolated to
specific subcultures with the most prevalent examples being criminals and prostitutes,

with navy sailors becoming associated with tattoos in much more recent history.

The most frequently cited biblical injunction against any sort of skin

beautification, including tattooing, piercings, brandings, and scarification, is Leviticus

19:28, used by both Christianity and Judaism as the main reason why body markings are

a sin in their faiths. Leviticus 19:28 states You shall not make gashes in your flesh for

the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord (Scheinfeld). While most

conservatives in both faiths insist that this line is referring to skin adornment, recently
contemporary researchers have made claims that Leviticus 19:28 is more indicative of an

ancient Middle Eastern method of mourning, rather than criticizing common body art.

This traditional mourning method included burning the deceased on a grand funeral pyre,

then a close relative or loved one would cut themselves open and rub the ashes from the

pyre into the wound, therefore ensuring that the deceased would forever be close to them,

even in death, for the rest of their life (Huehnergarda). As organized religion became

more and more popular, however, this practice of mourning was deemed unclean,

which could explain why Leviticus 19:28 might actually be in reference to banning the

widely practiced tradition, rather than attempting to eradicate skin ornamentations.

The next most commonly cited biblical injunction against body adornment, again

cited by both Christians and Jews, would be the Mark of Cain. The Mark of Cain is

shown in the bible as the consequence of the first murder, after the story of Cain killing

his brother Abel out of jealousy (Hooke). Genesis 4:15 outlines the punishment G-D

bestows on Cain: Then the Lord said to him, Not so. If anyone kills Cain, vengeance

shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who

found him should attack him. Most of the conservatives in Christianity and Judaism take

this line as a literal meaning that G-D affixed a permanent, indelible mark upon Cains

forehead for his sins. This visible mark denoted Cain as an outcast to the rest of society

and broadcasted his status as a murderer to everyone he came into contact with. Many
believe this is how the concept of branding criminals came about, allowing everyone to

see their crimes through the scars on their skin. Even some ethnic groups have grown to

disdain permanent skin modifications due to the strong stigma surrounding the eternal

Mark of Cain, which brought with it not only ostracism, but also a curse, that the

individual would be burdened with for life (Hooke).

Moving to more specific Christian bans on skin ornaments, it is important to

remember that Christianity does not actually have a prohibition against tattoos or other

body markings in their faith, except for Catholicism. Often the official Christian
position on permanent skin markings is that the faith does not encourage or condone

getting these marks, though often more conservative members of the church will cite both

Leviticus and the Mark of Cain as to reasons why permanent body markings are seen as

sinful (Scheinfeld). With this in mind, Christian imagery is extremely prevalent in

tattooing and branding culture around the world, with many people indicating their

markings as specifically religious, including things from young adults getting crosses

tattooed across their chests and arms to display their religious commitment to the small

crosses tattooed with dates on the wrists of Christians during their pilgrimages to

commemorate the spiritual and physical journey they undertook. There are even historical

occurrences of the Christian faith encouraging tattooing, which occurred during the 15th

century Ottoman invasion of Bosnia and Herzegovina when Catholic Croats were urged

to tattoo their children with Christian imagery, particularly on their faces, to prevent

forced conversion to Islam by the occupying Ottomans (Isaacs).

Unlike the Christian faith, Judaism has a much more established and strict stance

when it comes to permanent body ornamentation. While the younger, more contemporary

generations of Jews argue that tattooing is not sinful and many participate in the new

subculture, the older, more traditional generations still insist that all permanent skin

markings are stringently forbidden in Judaism. Leviticus 19:28 from the Old Testament,

is again, like Christianity, the most pertinent biblical piece cited, proving that G-D has
forbidden these practices (Scheinfeld). However, the Jewish faith also cites the Talmud

(the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law rules to live by for those following the

Jewish faith) frequently, giving conservative Jews more substantial biblical evidence to

support their prohibition against permanent body markings. The Talmud verse Yoreh

Deah 180:1-2 states Marks on the body are forbidden, as are cuts to the flesh. If it was

done in the flesh of another the one to whom it was done is blameless. While the first

part of this verse is interpreted as a general ban against tattooing and other permanent

marks on the body, the second line is often debated. Conservative Jewish sects argue that
the second part was referring to forced tattooing; implying that those who acquired these

marks involuntarily are blameless and have not sinned. Recently, more modern Jewish

communities have claimed that the Yoreh Deah 180:2 verse extends even beyond that,

arguing that the Talmud line is specifically prohibiting self-tattooing, but that obtaining a

tattoo voluntarily from another is perfectly acceptable in the Jewish faith (Huehnergarda).

Though these biblical verses seem to mainly focus on tattooing, both Leviticus

and the Yoreh Deah verses extend to piercings and scarifications as well. Piercings are

looked down upon just as much as tattoos are, though simple ear piercings have become a

societal norm for women in the past few decades. While this shift in piercings has helped

the Jewish perspective become more relaxed in recent years much like the very recent

perspective shift with tattoos as cultures become more liberal and less religious, there are

still some circles, like more orthodox Jewish sects, that still ban all cuts to the body

(Larkin). My conservative Jewish family forbids any piercings and my ears remained un-

pierced until my Jewish convert mother pierced them while my conservative, religious

father was out of town. Though now, years later, he has learned to overlook this slight

mutilation due to the overwhelming popularity of pierced ears in both girls and boys in

our contemporary society, my extremely religious grandmother still wears clip-on

earrings at the age of 88, despite the obvious wear on her drooping ear lobes that I find to

be much more self-mutilation than simple piercings.

Beyond the biblical and religious bans barring all skin ornamentation in the

Jewish faith, tattooing specifically holds a higher level of revulsion, particularly to elder

generations. During WWII, rudimentary tattoos were used in the concentration camp

Auschwitz as identification markers. When the camp first opened, numbers were sewn to

prisoners clothing, but officers soon realized that clothing was often lost or exchanged

making it impossible to accurately identify registered prisoners, especially in the case of

death (prisoners were often asked to strip nude before being exterminated). A single-

needle device was introduced, piercing the outlines of the serial number into the skin,
usually on the forearm, which became the iconic Holocaust tattoo that most people

imagine (Stein). Though through the law of Yoreh Deah 180:1-2, these prisoners are

blameless as they were forcibly tattooed there is much controversy in Israel over youths

who are getting their grandparents and great-grandparents concentration camp serial

numbers tattooed on their arms in honor of and remembrance. While this younger

generation may view this as symbol of their gratitude and reverence, most of the older

generations in Jewish communities view it as disrespectful and an affront to Jewish law

(not only are these youth getting tattoos, but also they are choosing to be indelibly

marked with something directly associated with a horrific time for Jewish people)


Despite the revulsion and disgust shared by many of the more conservative and

often, older members in Jewish communities, the idea that an individual will be

ostracized and excommunicated from the faith for obtaining or possessing a type of

permanent body marking is a common misconception. Having or getting a tattoo,

piercing, or any other type of body modification, though maybe frowned upon, will not

affect an individuals ability to participate in the religious community or bar them from

attending synagogue. One of the most common myths elder Jews threaten youth with is

the notion that once your skin is indelibly marked in some way (excluding simple ear

piercings as they are usually overlooked now in women), the individual will not be
allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery along with their family and friends. This threat

is empty and completely false, as Jewish cemeteries do not actually discriminate against

tattoos or other types of skin ornamentation (Polay-Wettengel).

The last Abrahamic religion, Islam, has conflicting views over the topic of

indelible body markings. Islam is broken up into multiple sects with Sunni Muslims

making up the largest denomination of Islam, basing their principles off the Islamic

prophet Muhammad. The second largest denomination being the Shia Muslims, meaning

followers of Muhammads son-in-law and cousin, Ali (Islam). This second

denomination of Shia Muslims is much more lax about the idea of permanent marks on

the body, taking a much similar stance as the Christian faith not encouraging or

condoning the act. However, their Sunni counterparts disagree, forbidding tattooing and

all other body modifications (Isaacs). This discrepancy may be able to be attributed to the

fact that Sunni Muslims follow the teachings of Muhammad much more closely, as can

be seen in the verse in the Koran that bans skin ornamentations. The verse, Surah 4 Verse

117-120 states, The Prophet forbade mutilation or maiming of the body. with The

Prophet referring to Muhammad. Sunni Muslims translate this verse as a prohibition

against all body modifications, because, in Islam, the human form is viewed as

perfection. Islam reasons that G-D created the human form and any attempt to change

that form (tattoos, brands, etc.) is seen as an attempt to beautify and improve what G-D

already deemed perfect. For this reason, any body modification is seen as self-mutilation

and sinful (Islam).

This extreme ban is incredibly variable depending on the permanence of the mark.

Only permanent, indelible marks that remain on the body for the rest of life are

considered to be mutilation and sinful. Temporary markings, specifically temporary

tattoos, like henna, are frequently used in Muslim culture. One particular example of

frequent temporary body markings in Muslim culture is the Indian tradition of mehndi.

This ritual uses henna a temporary pigment on the skin that can achieve similar effects
as tattoos, but eventually washes away. Mehndi refers to the traditional practice in Indian

culture of decorating a womans hands and feet with intricate, complex designs in henna

dye right before her wedding. Usually this is reserved for brides-to-be and the female

counterparts of their bridal party (Mehndi). I had a chance to experience this practice

when my sister married a Islamic Indian last year and can attest that the process took

hours to complete and remained on my hands and feet for two months before finally

washing away, though the darkness and how long the dye remains on skin is determined

by how long it is left to dry after application.


Today, in the Western world, tattooing is once again becoming more

mainstream, as cultures and societies become more liberal and the hold religious laws

have on the general population become looser. Until recently, people with tattoos were

seen as being involved with a marginal part of society and disreputable people. Tattoos

were thought of as reserved for prisoners, prostitutes, and sailors, or with primitives

cultures that still practiced what was seen as an archaic rituals (Cronin). These views

have rapidly changed in recent years, as more and more youth have been getting tattoos

and bringing the habit back into popular opinion. This increased acceptance of tattoos in

popular culture of recent years can be attributed to the rise and increasing media coverage

of celebrity tattoos, featured by icons like Angelina Jolie and music stars like Rihanna

or Lil Wayne, who show off their ink at high-profile social events (Jablonski). People

now not only put a lot of thought into choosing the design and aesthetic of their tattoo,

but are willing to pay a high sum for it and many people even travel to different cities to

get tattooed by famous tattoo artists or attend body art fairs. The rapid rise in popularity

has spawned an entire subculture of tattoos in contemporary society, complete with its

own vocabulary. Increasingly, tattoos have moved from a mode of rebellion to a type of

Western civilization rite of passage (Isaacs).

This trend can be seen with other forms of body ornamentation as well. Piercings,
like tattoos, have become much more popular in industrialized societies recently as a

method of permanently affixing jewelry to the body, mostly referring to the ears, now

utilized by both sexes (Cronin). The trend has become so widespread and accepted that

piercings are now offered in kiosks in shopping centers for a reasonable price and can be

done rather quickly (about ten minutes). Though the methods of decorative scars and

brands are not nearly as popular as tattoos and piercings in industrialized societies, both

types of body modification can definitely still be found in contemporary culture and are

becoming increasingly more popular, as can be seen in the rituals of some college

fraternities, particularly those associated with an African-American descent base


Though all these methods of body modification have been used throughout human

history and most of them have origins in ancient times, most of these adornments had

fallen out of popular opinion in common cultures, only very recently becoming more

widespread, ordinary, and accepted. All of these methods had been fully or partially

prohibited by at least one of the Abrahamic religions, leading to their downfall in most

modern, industrialized societies, and it was not until more liberal views returned to these

cultures that these body modifications could make a comeback.



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