The Problem of the Woad

by Saigh Kym Lambert  and copyright 2004 Kym Lambert n Dhoireann, all rights reserved, do not republish in any form

The following is actually the beginning of a project. I convey information I have but also bring up more questions. This will be an ongoing project so I appreciate any resources readers might point me to and please check back for updates

Untrue Fact?

Everyone knows it is a fact that the Picts painted and/or tattooed themselves with woad. The problem is that we don't know this at all. This one of the most pervasive unsubstantiated ideas about them, yet even well educated Celtic scholars will casually note this as a fact.

Yet it isn't a fact at all.

Yes, there is reason to believe that the name "Pict" may have refered to them marking their bodies, as might the Irish "Cruithne." Yet it might simply be a reference to their art, which is notably different than other people in the area at the time. There actually are no contemporary references to the PICTS as having body markings. And there are certainly no contemporary references to the medium used by the Picts if they did have such markings.

The most commonly used evidence of the use of woad is from Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul (pg. 111), but there are several problems with this being said to prove the use of woad by the Picts. One is that he was gathering this from Celts seen in what is now Kent, England, not Scotland, although he made the attribution to all the British. He also was writing over 300 years before we can really say there were Picts (see my article The Shadowy Painted People in regards to the "when" of the Picts). This is the problem with his statement being used to prove the Picts painted themselves, but there is a further problem with it being about woad.

What he wrote was "Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem." Which translates to "All the British color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color." "Vitro" translates to a type of blue-green glass that was popular among the Romans, it does not translate to woad. Or at least it didn't, now it is so accepted that some lexicons give it as such. But I have spoken with those who have studied Latin and this is not the classic translation of the word. It has been changed to fit the idea that it is woad, which it never meant.

The only other evidence given is Pliny the Elder's discussion of women's funeral rites that involve using a "Glastum" a "plantain-like" plant to paint themselves to look "like Ethiopians." (Pliny the Elder, Book 22) Yet this also cannot be referring to woad because Pliny was well acquainted with woad (isatis) and mentioned elsewhere about its medical usage (Book 26). He would never have mistaken this cabbage for a plantain, a plant he clearly would have known as well that shares only a spread of leaves as a similarity, but size, texture, leaf and stalk types are far different. Therefore while there does appear to be a plant used, it could not have been woad. Likely it produced the color they used without the work that it takes to get Indigo from woad, as well. Therefore this quote doesn't work to prove woad either, in fact, works rather well against it as woad is mentioned later for other uses. It, of course, is not as often used in arguing for the use of woad because most people looking to prove this are doing so for warriors on the battle field, not women in mourning.

Now the "known fact" that the Picts tattooed themselves with woad is highly unlikely. I do contend that they probably did tattoo or paint themselves and that their name may have indicated that they were the last British Celts to do so. Yet, this is not a fact, only my belief based on the name, the tendency people have to decorate themselves in general, and the known fact that at least one Celt prior to their time did. So I do think it likely that they did and if not, I even more so believe that earlier Celts did.

However, I do not believe that it could have been woad.

Why not Woad?

Simply put I see no reason for believing that it was woad, none at all. There is actually not a single reference that says that it was, just creative translations. Neither of the only two accounts ever cited actually mention woad. This puts us in the bind of having only negative proof that it isn't, but at least we are no longer looking at any proof that it was.

There are many reasons to question woad as a good body paint or tattoo ink. Frankly it can not be tattooed and I caution anyone thinking of doing so that it is a foolish and dangerous exercise. I know I've been so stupid as to try it. It is caustic, will cause the wound to not heal properly and it will not heal in. You might get a vivid scar, but it will not be at all blue. I had a less traumatic time than others apparently, as can be seen by an account given by Pat Fish at the bottom of Woad and it's mis-association with Pictish Body Art. Kids, do not try this at home!

It also makes a terrible body paint. You must mix it with something and anything any one has come up with either dries and flakes or smears. I have been told repeatedly that it stains the skin, but neither I nor anyone I know who has used it has had this happen (with the sole exception of someone who worked some into cloth with her fingers, but anyone who has handled things like that knows that anything will get into the frayed skin of ones fingertips for a bit including things that don't stain...dirt normally doesn't stain skin, I have had plenty spend a few days staining my fingers when gardening). Those who have reported staining have mostly been telling tales of things they heard, nothing more than hearsay. There are a few people who have used blue coloring at events and had it stain, but as they have noted it being much lighter than Indigo it is not likely to have actually been woad no matter what they were told, more likely food coloring. And yes, the color is too dark to readily look blue against the skin, nothing at all like the Vitrum glass Caesar referred to.

I spent years trying to convince myself that it worked. So with absolute lack of evidence that it was woad and all the evidence that it would have been a poor choice, there had to have been something else. And as we do have proof of something else, maybe we really need to give that more consideration than it has been given so far.

Woad is a great source of dye for clothing. It simply does not work well as a body decoration.

But Woad is an Antiseptic and a Hallucinogen

One of the "facts" about woad that is often cited in regards to why people believe that it would have been used is that it has medicinal and psychoactive properties. Of course the Celts/Picts painted themselves all over with it, it put them into an altered state for fighting and helped keep their wounds from becoming infected. But neither of these work.

Yes, woad has astringent properties, which is one of the things that makes it a really bad tattoo ink. It seems it might have been used as a plaster and to staunch wounds and appears it might be antiseptic although none of this information seems heavily substantiated (Isatis tinctoria). However, that it would be antiseptic in it's BLUE form is doubtful, at least not in ancient times. It appears to require ammonia to become indigo, and their sources would have been urine and dung. It also seems to be too caustic to be truly antiseptic, from my own and others experiences. There is also the little problem that in battle you are not talking about some scratches that might become infected. Therefore any protection sought by body paint would be more of a magical warding, to prevent you from mortal wounds.

It isn't a hallucinogen. It just isn't. All reports of experience as such are from sources that have never used it but heard stories of reenactors who got high on it. It is not in anyway psychoactive.

It apparently makes a nice wood preservative, however.

If Not Woad, What?

One of the things that comes up a lot when discussing this is the lament that we have no Pictish bodies to examine to find out. This is true. By the definition of "Pict" we never will. But we do have earlier and more southerly Celtic bodies which prove that. The Lindow Man (actually Lindow Body II) does not have any woad found on it but clearly has copper and iron pigmentation on his body. At this point I have not been able to find out if this is tattooed (early tests showed it did not, see I.M. Stead, J.B. Bourke, and D. Brothwell. Lindow Man: The Body in the Bog but at that point they didn't seem to notice the copper/iron either) or simply painted, although I would find it an amazingly durable paint if it is the latter.   (R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives see also this picture of the Lindow Man)  

Either copper or iron can produce a blue pigment, both being much closer to the color of the vitrum glass that Caesar noted than the Indigo of woad. The color is more attractive and the pigment more usable either for a body paint or a tattoo ink. Copper would be toxic, as it would likely contain arsenic. However, this sort of poisoning was likely common in areas where copper and bronze smelting was still being done and would take so long to show up that it would never be likely linked to a cause. Iron is appears unlikely to have any toxic affects. (Still, on the whole, if you are talking tattooing, stick to proper tattoo ink. If you want to get something that you feel replicates the ink of Iron Age Britain then investigate the shades and find inks that match.)

There is actually some suggestion that iron pigment may well have been what was used, among the Picts, from a contemporary source. The quote by the poet Claudius Claudianus: "Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis, Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferronque notatas Perlegit examines Picto moriente figures" "[This legion], which curbs the savage Scot and studies designs marked in iron on the face of the dying Pict." (emphasis mine, quote found in T.C. Lethbridge The Painted Men pg. 161). Now this has often been interpreted to mean that they marked themselves by cutting with iron blades, however, it could also refer to iron pigment!

How did Woad get into this?

The earliest referencing I have found to woad as the translation for "vitro" or "Glastum" is to the 1695 edition of William Camden's Britannia (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg .2 ...it is unclear if this is just the edition they used or if it is not in the earlier ones) and this appears to coincide with the start of the "Indigo Wars" (when woad growers and processors were fighting the importation of Indigo, which is the same pigment but cheaper and easier to get out of the particular plant). From what little I have been able to find, it appears that this was first translating "vitro" and "glastum" to mean "woad." Chances are this is actually nothing more than propaganda to help create a sense of nationalistic pride in woad to support the woad growers and processors. However, this is something I have not yet done a great deal of research on.

I have no idea why, however, this took off to be so well accepted. Again, more research is needed there.

Mythbusting the Woad "Facts"

The question now comes is that now that we have reason to question or even totally dismiss the idea that woad was used by the Picts and/or Celts to paint and/or tattoo themselves, how do we bust the myth in a way that more people will question it? This is difficult and with the upcoming King Arthur movie with the Picts (?) being actually called "Woads" (because it's Celtic term rather than Roman? That's the story apparently given by the producers. Sorry, "woad" is a Germanic name for the plant, not Celtic) there will now be more people believing this. Worse than after Braveheart!

It doesn't help that nearly all Celtic scholars outside of the few who have actually had contact with Lindow II simply accept that it is woad. Most mentions of it is in offhand remarks, referenced to Caesar or Pliny, the writers having no interest in the matter to actually consider that these references are lies. And so the myth is that well accepted. How can we change it among those outside of academia if the scholars are still accepting it.

Many reenactors and Celtic Pagans today wear woad, I did once, myself. It so very exciting to believe that I was wearing what my ancestor wore that I continued this romantic notion despite being very frustrated with how badly it actually worked for body paint. Never mind tattooing! I was wearing REAL WOAD after all. So much so that when it was noted to me that it probably wasn't, I was very resistant to letting go of the idea. So I went back to meditating on it while wearing it, I played with it and tried to make connections.

There were no connections.

It's impossible to wear authentic copper pigment, because it is very toxic and we know that now. Iron body paint might be something to look into. But it somehow lacks the romance that the term "woad" now has. Even though "woad" is not a Celtic word and the stuff is so awful to work with as a body paint, it still has it's power.

For those of us into tattoos, we have those. But that is not for everyone. There are those who still want woad to be the medium because they can get it and say it's real. Even though it is so obvious it isn't.

I am hoping that as more information comes out regarding Lindow II and the translation issues that we will eventually get academics to start questioning this myth. I am not sure that within the Pagan and reenactment communities, however. I think we need some way to incite romance around the actual possibilities and I haven' t figured out how to do that yet. I hope that eventually there will be a way. This is something that may be very difficult to ever convince people of.


If you found this of interest or use, please do consider the work put into it and help out


Julius Caesar The Gallic War

W. A. Cummins  The Age of the Picts

Lloyd and Jenny Laing The Picts and the Scots

T.C. Lethbridge The Painted Men 1954: Andrew Melrose (not on Amazon.com)

I.M. Stead, J.B. Bourke, and D. Brothwell. Lindow Man: The Body in the Bog

R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives

Links:

LacusCurtius • Pliny the Elder's Natural History — Book 22 and Book 26

Isatis tinctoria

Preface to Claudian

Woad and it's mis-association with Pictish Body Art

The Shadowy Painted People


* Obviously, the title is borrowed from Wainwright's classic, and hard to find, treatment of the Picts The Problem of the Picts


copyright 2004 Kym Lambert n Dhoireann, all rights reserved, do not reprint without permission..this includes YOU!  Linking to this page is permitted but I would appreciate an email letting me know (I might even give you a link back)
Wolf and crow sketches copyright 2002 Aaron Miller for  Dn Sgthan . No not use.  Background modified by Kym from Pictish spiral (as featured in George Bain's Celtic Art)
. Ditto.


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