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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ancient African Tattoos and their cultural significance

African tattoos have existed from time immemorial as part of the cultural beliefs of Africa. African Tattoos are used for more than just decorative ornament; they are a part of the African people’s cultural identity purposes.

What do African tattoos represent?

Tattoos in Africa are used for various means such as:

i. communication

ii. Personal identification

iii. status identity

iv. and relationship identity e.t.c

The ancient Egyptians in the north and the Ashantis in the west possessed complex symbols and tattoos with deeper cultural meaning. Swahilis in Eastern Africa were also skilled at tattoo symbolism.

The history behind African tattoos

The first evidence of symbolic tattooing in humans is said to have originated in ancient Egypt. Scientists discovered many tattooed mummies in Africa. Further proving that Africans used body art and tattoos to display their social position or beautify their bodies as long as 5000 years ago. 

Tattoos were thought to be a cure for diseases; It was in fact considered as a sort of protection against bad spirits. Tattoos were even used to demonstrate one’s tribal affiliation and commitment to a tribe or group.  

Because the mummies unearthed in Deir El-Medina were thought to be female; experts have inferred that these tattooed ladies were important religious practitioners in their societies. Their tattoos were also meant to cure and protect them.  

African tattoos and their meanings 

Ankh Cross Tattoo 

African tattoos - Ankh

The ancient black Africans who occupied Egypt under their Pharaoh used Ankh as a sign of eternity and life. 

The black Africans of Egypt used the Ankh African tattoo to mummify their dead and bury their Pharaohs. The ceremony is accompanied by burying the mummies with everything they acquired in life in the hope that they would need them in their ‘afterlife’.

Every civilization cherishes life. African society is no exception. However, the way African society sees life distinguishes it. Unlike some other civilizations; African Traditional Religion regards life as a step in an eternity that is only limited by one’s memories. 

Kobe (Torturtle)  

African tattoos - kobe tattoo

Swahili term for a tortoise is Kobe. A tortoise is noted for its patience, calmness, and elegance. They have also been observed hatching the majority of their eggs. As a result, they are the finest African emblem for fertility and longevity. 

Some African cultures believe that the universe was born from the shell of a tortoise; hence the tortoise is a life-giver. 

Odo Tattoo 

African tattoos - Odo tattoo

This is a tattoo that symbolizes love and friendship. There is no such thing as a society if there is no love. Each society has its own manner and symbol of showing love. Some are openly expressive, while others are subtly personal. Africans have a subtle personal way of showing love even if they are not openly demonstrative. 

Horn Tattoo 

African tattoos - horn tattoo

This is a tattoo that symbolizes war and tragedy. In African custom, the sound of a horn is used to denote that something exceptional had occurred. Every community has a period of conflict and a period of sorrow. This has never been avoided by any civilization. 

Twiga tattoo (Giraffe) 

African tattoos - twiga tattoo

Twiga tattoo means Foresight, perspective, aristocracy, and distinction. 

Giraffe is known as Twiga in Swahili. In Africa’s Savanna, the giraffe is a popular animal. It is the tallest of the bunch and moves in long, leisurely steps. 

The people of Swahili attach behavioural meanings to giraffes, a leader is often encouraged to act like giraffes.

One of the common giraffe quotes is – “see far, take gradual assured steps, don’t be proud or aggressive”. 

Aya tattoo (fern) 

African tattoos - Aya tattoo

This means Abundance and resourcefulness. Being resourceful entails being able to serve, endless serving yields abundance. 

In different African cultures, a fern has a distinct symbolism. The fern could be regarded as a “survivor” plan in some African societies. This is due to its ability to survive in swamps, tree trunks, and environments where common vegetation would perish. 

Funtu Tattoo (Siamese Crocodiles) 

African tattoos - funtu tattoo

This means Unity and Commitment. Understanding our own uniqueness and variety leads to a sense of purpose. The pursuit of a common goal fosters passion and commitment. 

According to the Adinkra people; Siamese crocodiles may appear to be at odds since they face opposite directions but they coexist in harmony and oneness. As a result, unity does not always imply similarity. Individual originality and distinctiveness must not be compromised in the name of uniformity. 

Kichana tattoo (the comb) 

African tattoos - kichana tattoo

This means Beauty and Femininity. Every society values beauty and femininity. Africans value women as the beauty of life, the nurturer of life, and the family’s career. 

Ngwena tattoo (the menacing crocodile) 

African tattoos - Ngwena tattoo

This means Power and Protection. Power derives from strength and vigour. The primacy of existence is the ability to achieve and defend. 

The Bantu/Swahili term for crocodile is Ngwena. You’ll be lucky if you can swim across crocodile-infested water. Crocodiles are generally weak on land, but highly aggressive offshore. 

Shaka Zulu Emblem Tattoo 

African tattoos - shaka zulu emblem

This is an African warrior tattoo. Shaka is the Zulu tribe’s traditional chief. The Shaka Zulu tattoo is the ultimate representation of an African warrior. The iconography is known for its rich culture, warrior heritage, and the Assegai Zulu spear. 

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African Goddess Oya Tattoo 

African warriors believed in a plethora of gods and goddesses to provide them with the strength to battle and win. Oya is an African deity revered by the Yoruba people in Nigeria for her ferocity and protectiveness. Oya is a strong goddess who can summon hurricanes and thunderstorms. 

African Elephant Tattoo 

The elephant is also regarded as a strong animal. It is considered to act as a source of inspiration and high respect among Africans. That is why elephant tattoos are so popular; they look amazing and have a rich symbolism that stems from Africa’s heritage. 

African Lion/Lioness Tattoo 

African tattoos - lion

Lions are revered by Africans as a symbol of strength, courage, protection, and wisdom. That is why the African lion tattoo is ideal for honouring this magnificent animal. The African lioness is often seen as a symbol of feminine power and motherhood. 

African Mask Tattoo 

African tattoo - map of africa

Masks are also required for religious or dance rituals as well as for ceremonies. These masks are incredible, and the makers’ artistic creativity is out of this world. African masks have significant meaning and represent a sort of metamorphosis or the acquisition of a new entity. Africans thought that by wearing masks, they might influence or appeal to spirits. 

Dwennimmen Adinkra Symbol 

African tattoos - adinkra tattoo

The Dwennimmen emblem is based on the pattern of two rams crossing or butting horns against each other. This emblem represents power and humility. The sign generally alludes to the necessity to remain humble even while in great power or prominence positions. 

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