Have you ever heard of Celtic Woad? It has a rich and complex past, connecting with strong cultural and maybe even spiritual values. However, is it still a relevant resource today?
But, the Celtic tribes – they painted themselves blue with Woad and ran naked into battle. Right?
Got high as a kite to scare the bejaysus out of their enemy and improve their ferocity because, as we all know, Woad is a powerful hallucinogen. Right?
Though this ancient form of expression is no longer mainstream nor widely accepted in modern societies, it may still have significant implications for modern purposes, with many people incorporating this spiritual practice into their lives.
There’s no point however, in falling for a load of shite about ‘Celtic Woad’ while practising Contemporary Paganism today.
In this article we explore whether the beliefs about Woad are historically accurate, and if this is still an authentic resource in terms of religious and cultural significance today.
History of Woad
Archaeological discoveries of Woad seeds can be traced back to the Neolithic era, with some found in l’Audoste cave in Bouches-du-Rhône, France. Imprints of German Indigo (Isatis tinctoria L.) seeds from the Brassicaceae family were discovered on pottery at the Iron Age Heuneburg settlement in Germany.
Additionally, parts of pods and seeds were recovered at Dragonby pit in North Lincolnshire, UK. Blue Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was used by ancient Egyptians as one of their earliest dyes, to colour material used to wrap mummies,
The common understanding is that Woad was used by the Celts as a form of body art, with blue dye extracted from the plant for use in tattoos and painting. This practice was believed to be a form of spiritual protection, as well as being an expression of cultural identity.
Despite being widely accepted by many, some scholars express skepticism of this belief. However, its popularity has not diminished among those involved in body art, NeoPaganism, and Celtic reenactment.
To me, it appears that the tribes from Ireland and Britain – such as the Picts and southern Britons – implemented tattoos and body art for ceremonial, religious, and day-to-day activities.
Herodian, in the First Century CE (Common Era), said of the tribes –
“they puncture their bodies with pictured forms of every sort of animals. And this is the reason why they wear no clothes, to avoid covering the drawings on their bodies.”
I’m skeptical of the notion that Woad was used to stain skin blue, though I’m willing (and still waiting) to be proven incorrect.
The origin of this belief is often traced back to Julius Caesar’s writing, which famously described the Britanni, a Celtic group. It was typically translated as:
“All the Britons dye their skin with woad, which produces a blueish colour and makes them appear horrifying in battle”.(1)
The original Latin, however, says: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem”. The “vitro inficiunt” could translate classically as ‘stain/dye with glazes’, or ‘infected themselves with glass’, as ‘vitro’ can refer to a type of blue-green glass that was common amongst Romans. THerefore, the blue glass reference could refer to the well-known colour, rather than the method itself.(2)
Caesar possibly sought to illustrate some sort of iron – or copper – based pigment that the regional Britons might have used to ‘tattoo’ or colour their pale skins. Nevertheless, this is still a stretch.
It’s important to point out that Caesar’s activities (not an ‘invasion’ but rather a ‘ reconnaissance-in-force’) only reached as far as Kent and the Thames Valley in south-east Britain. The Romans would have encountered only a small pool of locals from which Caesar could observe and then pin the tradition of bodypainting onto ‘All Britons’.
Also important and relevant is the fact that his Commentaries were written more than three centuries before the earliest mention of the Picts, or ‘painted ones,’ appears in history. So, even though it is a very evocative description, we can not with certainty use Caesar’s account for his brief time in Britain as reliable evidence.
The blue colour he describes could have been from body paint rather than tattoos, or, it is possible whichever tribe he witnessed may have been using scarification techniques or glass ‘needles’ to tattoo themselves. But still, probably not with Woad involved anywhere in that process.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
Although it makes a wonderful indigo coloured dye for materials, a safe, biodegradable natural ink, and is also showing usefulness as a wood preservative; it’s pretty crap as a body paint, or a tattoo ink.
It’s extremely caustic – when used as tattoo ink it literally burns itself to the surface, and though it heals fast, it leaves an excessive amount of scar tissue. Alas, none of it is coloured blue. It’s not a good idea to experiment with this yourselves, kids.
As a body paint, Woad is not effective. From my own experiences with powdered Woad, using it as a body paint, I’ve had to mix it with something (I’ve tried hair gel, commercial body glitter gel, and even PVA glue!) to try and get it to stay on at all. Even then it streaks all over the place or just dries up and flakes off. Not entirely reminiscent of a battle hardened warrior.
It also doesn’t seem to particularly stain the skin. Perhaps it would stain in certain areas, such as the finger tips or elbows, through prolonged contact. But so would pretty much anything.
And besides, blue smudged cuticles and tinted elbows aren’t going to particularly impress anybody in battle, even if you take the time to assure them that it’s genuine Celtic Woad.
Is Woad a Good Drug, at Least?
Woad does have some medicinal properties. It has been used as a pain reliever, an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory. It also has some antifungal and antibacterial properties.
However, it is not recommended to use Woad internally as it can be toxic in large doses. The leaves of the plant are toxic and should not be eaten or used as a medicine.
What of the other common belief, that of Celts running round high on Woad?
Again, no. Woad is not a strong hallucinogen. A mild psychotropic, at best. Reports of Woad induced ancient battle/modern festival madness must have, to my mind, been greatly exaggerated. Pagan types, collect your people?
All in all, the only practical possibility really is that Woad was used on the battle field as a wound cauterising agent, on account of its astringent properties.
It’s a nice thought for those of us who are proud of our ‘Celtic’ heritage – and I use the term in the academic sense, please understand that – being able to use the same materials or techniques as our ancestors, to look the same or perhaps even produce the same effects.
I can see why it can be difficult to give up on. Even if the actual evidence or effect achieved is disappointing at best, and at worst, somewhat risky in the hands of the inexperienced.
If Not Woad, What?
Taking the accounts of a blue hue as a possibility, at least, Celtic tribes could maybe have used copper as a blue colour as a tattoo ink, and firewood ash or lampblack for a black.
Traces of copper based pigments were found on an ancient body, excavated from a bog in Cheshire, UK. This could indicate the presence of copper tattoos of some sort, which would have appeared blue. Of course, we now know that copper is highly toxic, and would not use it on or in our bodies.
Another possible alternative to Woad or copper, which would also have been available at the time, is iron.
Julius Caesar, while commenting on early Celtic tribes, said that they had “designs carved into their faces by iron”.(3) Iron could possibly be used to produce a blue coloured ink or dye, if handled by an expert.
Don’t try this at home!
Today, many people are opting for different forms of body art in lieu of ancient Celtic woad tattoos. Traditional tattoo ink is still popular, but many people are choosing to embellish their skin with henna, permanent makeup, and dermal implants. Each of these alternatives has its own unique set of risks and benefits that are important to consider before making any decisions.
However, fantastic tattoo artists and inspired Celtic art could entice you to mimic ancient warriors instead of employing traditional inks.
The Celtic civilizations had remarkable adaptability. Had they access to the same kind of inks as we do now, I don’t think they would bother using copper filings or Woad for their body art.
(1) – Philip Freeman, “War, Women, and Druids”, University of Texas Press, U.S.A. ISBN: 0-292-72545-0
(2) – Encyclopedia, Columbia University press (online): http://www.answers.com/topic/picts
(3) – Julius Caesar, “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, circa 55 BCE (Before Common Era)
(This article is an updated version of the original at LoraOBrien.ie)
First North American Publication, Tattoo Revue Magazine.
First Canadian Publication, Celtic Heritage Magazine