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 Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition

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KomentarNaslov komentara: Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition   Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition Icon_minitimeFri Aug 18, 2017 11:18 am

Beginnings of tattooing can be located in the ancient history when man of that time placed various paints on his body in order to camouflage himself for hunt or to scare an enemy during a conflict. Beginnings of that existential practice is best noticed in the prehistoric drawings on walls of caves when the primitive Homo sapiens wished to capture strength and speed of animals by depicting them, since what his eyes could see and his hand could touch was no longer strange and impossible to catch. Accidentally or not, that primitive iconography through the following periods shaped art and religion and gave a strong incentive to talisman magic, especially among the Arabic people. Namely, in numerous amulets we can see drawings of certain animals such as a snake, scorpion, lion, around them were placed prayer words, with the aim of the barer of the amulet to be protected from their attacks. Magical symbols were not necessarily only written (drawn) on paper or animal hide, they were also depicted on clothes, especially shirts, and the naked human body. Of course, besides depictions of dangerous animals in the content of the amulets and talismans numerous depictions of squares were noticed, of circles, hexagrams, pentagrams, eyes, hands, various beings but also picturesque magical letters. All of those motifs today, and numerous others, we can see in tattoos around us.

Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition Berber10

Tattoos of women in Morocco and Algeria

Karl Steiner in his anthropological work “Bosnian folk medicine” describes the tradition of tattooing among Bosnian Catholics:

“That entire community is happy and in a good mood, there is singing and laughing on all sides and some older women were working, to “tattoo by puncturing some crosses” the young men and women, along with silly conversations and quips, according to the reports of Greek and Roman writers the old Illyrian pagans, Skit and Tarčani in ancient times tattooed on their children emblems, nobleman’s symbols and other ornaments and pictures. In a mixture of soot and saliva, in Indian ink, watered down gunpowder or wooden coals, carmine, indigo, cinober, light paste (pinus nigra) and resin, a point of a larger needle is placed in the mixture and it is used to draw the ornament on the forearm, upper side of the arm, on the chest, forehead or upper arm. When the paint starts drying, the old lady will use it to puncture their skin. That dipping of the needle in the mixture and punctuation of the skin is repeated numerous times, then the punctured place is wrapped after three days with certain, medicine herbs or linen thread. Often the tattooed places will quickly heal, so no scars are left, but it happens often, that the wounds get pussy (Sclerosis) and for lystatory or septic blood poisoning (Lymphengioitis) with knots under the arm pits. More dangerous are those cases, when the saliva from the mouth of a woman, which performs tattooing, transfers syphilis to the tattooed. To this “out-of-genital” transfer of syphilis not much attention has been paid so far, since the person infected in this way didn’t pay much attention to the initial signs of the diseases, which starts with glands being swollen, but often the secondary signs were also ignored. However, this poison spreads epidemic disease and other diseases, and it often happened that the entire family is infected and based on that we can conclude in which ways this disease spread in this area. Often for tattooing a motif of a small cross was used in a simple or ornamented form. On the top part of the arm a cross in a circle (kolo) would be tattooed, jeličin križić, old Arian circle and semicircle (fence), on the forearm a bracelet."

At one time among certain local anthropologists there was a theory about the tendency for tattooing of Catholic women in BiH, during the time of Ottoman occupation, especially depictions of a cross on the hand, based on the assumption that with such markings they were protecting themselves from a forceful marriage to a Turkish soldier, however, that thesis doesn’t have logical validity. There are a few reasons for this, the first and most important one is that tattoos on women for the Turkish soldiers didn’t represent an issue nor a hindrance to abducting her or forcing her to marry him. Also, today we know that tattooing wasn’t a taboo among the Ottomans, Arabs and Armenians, moreover, among the Turkish people it was claimed that even Hazrat Fatimah, daughter of prophet Muhammad, had a tattoo on her body. Besides, tattooing a cross which was, as we all know, a pagan symbol, present among numerous civilizations before the advent of Christianity, and usage of it as a decorative motif on the body is first and foremost a continuation of an antique tradition, especially since women were the ones to tattoo it wanting to secure fertility, since the old days the ost desirable and vital attribute of any woman in this culture.

Illyrians and tattooing

Illyrians were prone to tattooing as we know and that practice among the Bosnian people is the legacy of their forefathers. Why did it persist the most in Herzegovina, among the Catholics, is not hard to conclude. Namely, it is enough for us to mention that according to genetic research the Illyrian gene is mostly present in Herzegovina where it is present up to 70%. Similarly, analyzing the depictions on grave stones, ancient tombstones in BiH, it is evident that to the Illyrians various forms of a cross and swastika are the most common motifs as recognizable characteristic of a solar deity. There is a belief that the cross, circle and swastika are magical-religious depiction of one or more snakes, otherwise ancient symbols of fertility. Besides, a snake in Illyrian religion is an impersonation of a progenitor and protector of each family, which further strengthens her holly role. As Augustin Kristić mentions in his ethnological work “Urežnjaci iz narodnog liječenja Bosne I Hercegovine” (remnants of folk healing from BiH), snake as a motif for tattooing was primarily present among women. The author writes: “Not a lot, but on the hands of the women I saw (not so much in men) across Bosnia “punctured” – tattooed snake. On my question: why did you puncture a depiction of a snake? – nowhere did I receive the same answer. Often it was said, that they don’t know why they did it. These three answers are what I presume the meanings of the snakes: It carries luck – shields from spells – It will prevent a snake bite”. Besides the motif the answers given as a complete opposition to the depiction of the symbolism of a snake in Christianity are interesting, the snake is thought of as being the representative of evil. With that it is clear that we’re talking about an ancient tradition, Illyrian one, since a snake and tattooing belong to a culture of our forefathers.

Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition Bosans10

Tattoos of Catholic women in BiH

I’m sure that the practice of tattooing since the Ottoman occupation of BiH was present among Bosnian women, and probably a few centuries after that, when puncturing of the body was substituted by a less aggressive method called kinanje. K’na, more popularly called kina or Hena which women used not only to die their hair and nails, wrists of the hand, fingers and individual parts of the face, i.e. everything that was visible by the observer. Since childhood I remember the older women that came to our house, or lived in the neighborhood, that they had on those body parts the color Kana. We need to emphasize that tattooing was considered as a protection from evil and disease, identical to what exists in the Islamic tradition in relation to hena. Therefore a logical conclusion imposes itself that the so called Kinanje among Bosnian women was a substitute to tattooing. Tattooing a dot on painful places on the body or pressing a finger dipped in kana onto the painful place, with the goal of stopping the disease, is an old healing practice alongside the Mediterranean. Besides its prophylactic and healing function the tattoo had a psychological effect. This is evident in the practice of Armenian women which had the custom of tattooing wrists in order to have greater strength to milk cows and sheep.

Tattooing in the Bosnian tradition Kinanj10

Wedding rituals with hena in Islamic tradition

In the end we could conclude that the practice of our forefathers was never completely lost among the Bosnian people, since even before today’s trend of tattooing, from the beginning of this century, it was a standard rule when serving military in the former JNA, for young men to tattoo classic symbols of that time such as a rose, five-pointed star, names of loved ones, numbers and the like. And what is more interesting, especially among the Bosnian people, there was no opposition from the elderly to this practice, especially if take into consideration the conservative nature of our society as a whole.


Certain Illyrian tribes represented graphically their solar deity with a circle inside of which is a dot. Among the Turks and Armenians during tattooing of “son’s children” it is depicted by a circle inside of which is a dot and along the circle there are more dots. Circle was especially popular among the Armenian women as a representation of sun and moon and as such symbols of fertility. Tattooing of a small circle on the breast represented a status symbol among these people and it was carried only by beautiful women.
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