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Evidence for tattoos in the early medieval world

Tattoos are famously mentioned in the account written by Ibn Fadlan of an embassy to the khanate of the Volga Bulgars in 921-2:

  • “I saw the Rus, who had come for trade and had camped by the river Itil. I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans, but a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones. From the tops of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth.” (pp.45-6 in 'Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North' (trans. P. Lunde, Penguin 2012).

By and large Ibn Fadlan is a reliable commentator, but his account needs to be approached with several important caveats. Firstly, his description covers a group of Rus traders who he met. He did not travel to the lands of the Rus, let alone Scandinavia, and so it may be difficult to draw general conclusions. Secondly, Ibn Fadlan was writing about the wild ends of the world for an audience in the civilised ‘Abbasid caliphate. He also describes the giants from the tribe of Gog and Magog (twelve cubits tall and able to kill a child with a look) who are fed each day by a fish which swims to them, and claimed to have seen the bones of such a giant. Tattoos, ring-money and luridly-described burial practices are what a reader might have expected to hear about the Rus.

Other Arab commentators who similarly described the Rus (e.g. Ibn Rusta c.900-13 or Mas’udi c.943) make no mention of tattoos, though their accounts otherwise say similar things about Rus culture. There certainly is evidence for tattoos among the Rus – but it would be unwise to assume that they were widespread. Importantly, the world of the Rus was a culture all of its own and cannot be taken as typical of Scandinavia.

Logo.gif Tattoos in the Vikings Society

  • As a general rule tattoos should be treated in the same way as piercings and luridly dyed hair, i.e. as modern features which should be covered up or kept unobtrusive as far as possible.
  • Tattoos based on Ibn Fadlan’s description could be considered as part of full Rus kit at a show where Rus kit is permitted. It is strongly recommended that you discuss this beforehand with the Society authenticity team.