Oh! Woad is Me!
by Lord Orvin af Thaet hus Tate
When someone thinks of woad, what comes to mind? Picts. The decoration of the warriors' body in tattoos was a favorite trait of these people; their name has roots in the meaning "painted ones". Picts, however, were not the only Europeans to tattoo themselves. Britons and other Celts as well as the Germanic tribesmen may have done so. It was also used by the people of the Steppes, the Scythians, and Huns to name a few.
The typical Celtic and Pictish warrior went into battle bare-breasted, wearing trousers (breccae) or a loin-cloth, or even entirely naked. (Among the continental Celts this was a special class of warriors called "gaesatae".) Among most Celts, warriors would wash their hair with lime or clay and comb it to the nape of the neck. In this fashion it looked like the mane of a running or angry horse. (The horse was a very important figure in Celtic mythology, being the sacred animal of the goddess Epona.)
Germanic warriors fought in much the same "dress" as the Celts. Bared chests and trousers were most common, but some tribes fought only in breech-clouts or naked. Animal skins were also worn, probably in a fashion similar to that of the Viking berserker. Scars were worn with pride and tattooing of he upper torso would be reasonable. Some Germans also dyed their hair red (if not naturally so). With the cultural exchanges between the Germans and the Celts and/or the German affinity for adopting the fanciful of other cultures, it would have been a likelihood that the practice of lime-washed hair was also present in German tribes. Lime has a tendency to bleach the hair, and since some tribes liked their hair red, the practice may have been found only among the Celtic/Germanic border tribes. Another possibility is that they dyed the bleached hair. This would give a redder red and certainly a more startling appearance.
Among these people, the lime-washed hair, tattoos, flaunted scars and nakedness were all used for shock by the warriors. Roman writers have attested to the effectiveness of such tactics. However, like the obvious religious overtones of the hair made to resemble the horses's mane, these "decorations" must have had some ritual significance, connected to magic and the gods. The gaesatae fought naked by supernatural protection. another Germanic shock effect was that of young warriors who would allow their hair to grow until they had slain their first foe, and then, standing over the body, they hacked off their hair and beards. To their foes, it must have been a terrifying sight: to see a man-like animal running at them with spear held on high, and then watching as he cut his hair over the body of their friends.
Woad, probably the most commonly known tattooing dye, is described variously as being blue or blue-green in color. a biennial plant, it is the leaves of the woad or Isatis tinctoria,alternatively Isalis tinctalia, that yield the dye. The best modern example of the color of wad is the color of blue jeans. The chemical dye component of woad is the same as that of indigo. It just occurs in greater concentration in indigo, which is why the use of woad for dying fell out of favor.
Current illustrations of woad-dyed Britons and Picts present them as being painted with ribbon-like La Tene floral curvilinear designs (like those on the Battersea shield). It is likely though, that the tattoo designs must have been chosen to personal taste (probably much like Indian "warpaint"), or in some cases, prescribed by religious standard. It is doubtful that all tattooed Celts and Germans wore the same style, especially in the German case where only parts of the body were decorated.
Now on to the fun part. Undoubtedly many of us have at one time or another thought of "going Pict" or "turning Celt" and I have heard stories of people who have done so. Unfortunately their ideas lay somewhere in the realm of fantasy. (Remember the Pict in "Conan"?)
Recently, at Border Raids '87, I dressed the part. I have "dressed Pict" at several other functions besides in the SCA. First, when one decides to "go Pict" he must remember that it must be done tastefully. Although historically nudity would be appropriate, it would hardly be so in the Current Middle Ages, and a breech-clout would probably be frowned upon as well. So the safest bet would be to wear pants (trousers, or properly, breaccae).
Substitutes for the lime and woad should be found. You could find some woad, but remember it is a dye an swill not wash off easily, its preparation from plant material to dye is long and complicated and, I am told, it smells terrible. Lime will bleach hair, so I would not recommend it. It is caustic and dangerous to use near they eyes, not to mention its affect on your skin and scalp.
A good woad substitute is magic-marker. It is easily obtained, inexpensive, easy to apply, and washes off fairly easily (some brands require more scrubbing than others). Magic marker though will run especially in the summer months when you sweat a lot more, so be careful. Another substitute I have used is acrylic paint. Its problem is that it runs too, and if you to not thoroughly scrub yourself afterwards, you will be blue for a few days.
Sculpting hairspray is the best substitute for lime that I have found. Mousse requires wet hair and time to dry, where the hairspray does not. Expect some hair to eventually "wilt". to get that white "lime" look, you can use white theatrical hairspray on top, or if you are using mousse or setting gel you can add cornstarch to it to get the same effect.
For the tattoos, it is best to draw them out ahead of time so you know what you want to display. books with Celtic design motifs would be especially helpful. If you do not feel capable of doing the "tattooing" yourself, enlist a friend's help (you will need someone to do your face and back anyway). Remember, tastefulness: no pictures of hula-girls or hearts with "Mom" tattoos.
All told, such "Pictification" will take about 45 minutes to an hour. I always wait and "wash" my hair last. Now you are set, save for --------
Celts, and Germanics especially, were flashy.
May you impale apples on your hair.
Peter Wilcox Rome's Enemies(2): Gallic and British Celts. Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1985.
Peter Wilcox Rome's Enemies: Germans and Dacians. Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1982.
Barry W. Cunliff The Celtic World. McGraw Hill Book Company, 1986.
Nora Chadwick The Celts. Penguin Books, Ltd., 1970.
John Warry Warfare in the Classical World. St. Martin's Press Inc., 1980
Tim Newark The Barbarians. Blandford Press, 1985.
Peter Connolly Greece and Rome at War. MacDonald Phoebus Ltd., 1981.
Robert O'Driscoll The Celtic Consciousness. George Braziller, Inc. 1982.
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