Egyptians also practiced the art of the needle, but, curiously, their tattoos were reserved for women…and again, the practice eventually turned out to revolve around health and safety. For years, archaeologists (mostly male, it should be noted) thought that Egyptian female mummies with tattoos were likely “dancing girls” or “concubines”—carrying over my mom’s prejudice about those red shoes, eh?
Instead, upon more careful scrutiny, it turns out that those dot-and-line tattoos and the later images of the goddess Bes on women’s thighs were likely there to ease pregnancy and ensure the safety of mother and child—a kind of permanent protective amulet in a society where amulets were extremely important (they were not only worn in life but also wrapped into the linen covering mummies for protection in the afterlife). If a tattoo could guarantee such security, it would be magical indeed, and well within the realm of the Mortal Instruments universe, where a rune for strength might be needed for a run-in with a demon, and one for healing could mean the difference between making it home and bleeding out in the street.
You can bet female Shadowhunters would use runes for the same purposes as the ancient Egyptians did those dotand-line tattoos. After all, they go through childbirth too.
Similar tattoo position on the childbearing regions of a woman’s body appears in early cultures in Peru and Chile, although Peruvians and Chileans went well beyond the practical applications, since their designs also extended up to the torso, the arms, and neck, and in some cases even onto the face. (Obviously, the ladies of Peru and Chile did not have to go into a corporate office every day. True fact: A tattoo artist friend of mine calls facial tattoos “job killers.”)
Lots of other folks embraced the tattooed aesthetic for nonmedical reasons too. Sometimes it was just for the status. My mom thought tattoos were a sign of low class—an association that came about only after the tattooing machine was invented around 1900 (an adaptation of an Edison machine!) and made tattooing fast and affordable for the poorer folks. But for the ancient Scythians and Thracians, having a well-illustrated body meant you were somebody—because, let’s face it, a lot of body art meant a lot of devotion and time from a talented artist. Keeping your art on your flesh also meant you didn’t have to take your guests all the way home to show off your latest art acquisition. Magnificently detailed tattoos were a very public display of your wealth and taste…and the practice wasn’t restricted to men; women have been found with the same kinds of tats (normally of mythical creatures and animals).
You can just imagine the silence at a lavish Scythian party when some untattooed nobody shows up; no need to ask for his invitation, is there? The rest of the guests have their invitations to the important events preinked into their skin. Awkward!
Pre-Roman Britons were also fond of the same types of animal tattoos as the Scythians, which might have been what led to the Romans calling them “Picti”—the painted people. They weren’t legendary for their parties; even the Romans steered clear unless they absolutely had to fight them, because the Picti were kinda…fierce. And probably they looked fantastic, if you were into heavily flashed-out bods.
In modern Western civilization, we often look to Greece and Rome for our cultural cues, though, and those guys? Not notable fans of body art. In their highly rigid societies, tattoos served instead as convenient identification. Hence, you only got a tattoo if you were initiated into a religious sect or, more likely, were a slave, in which case you could be easily returned to your owner should you stray. Having no tattoos meant you were important—the absolute reversal of the Scythians, which must have made diplomatic meetings weird for newcomers, and probably led to a few major wars just because the ambassadors didn’t know whom to shake hands with.
But eventually some of those Romans—specifically the soldiers—came away from their encounters with other cultures intrigued by the whole notion of body art. You can’t keep a cool flash down, and by about ad 250, Roman soldiers had discovered the ancient charms of plunking down coin in a foreign port and getting mater tattooed on their arms—which was cool at least until Emperor Constantine got religion and forbade the whole practice. Probably not the slave tattooing, though, just the voluntary stuff. The only laws Constantine made about slavery had to do with Jews not owning Christian slaves. Other than that, it was likely business as usual.
In banning tattoos, Constantine was following accepted theological interpretation of a biblical restriction: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print or tattoo any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). Interestingly, this kind of supports the idea of magic being an inherent part of the tattoo process…that there could be a certain power in it that was forbidden to humans (but not, it could be argued, to Shadowhunters, who have the blood of angels in them and operate by a whole different set of laws). But, just as a thought, what if the whole reason behind making tattoos anathema was not just a desire to keep a cultural separation but for real and sound reasons? What if tattoos really could be magical? In some of the darker corners of the internet you’ll find people who still support that theory—that inking a design on your body, especially one that might have some kind of malicious intent, provides a gateway for something more sinister. Like demons.
I’m not saying it’s so. I’m just saying you might want to reconsider that death’s-head design in favor of something more…Care Bear friendly.
Even today, there’s still a raging debate about what the Bible really says about tattoos. Some theologians say that tattoos are completely forbidden while others interpret the verse to mean that mourning practices that involve self-mutilation and/or tattooing are out, but fashion tats are a-okay. Me, I’ll let the responsible parties duke that out while I get something from the craft service table. Mmm, donuts!
Not all tattoos were about fashion, status, or therapy; some were about information. Vital and secret information. Imagine if you could supply a warning about an impending Pearl Harbor attack whether you were alive or dead, simply by having it tattooed in code on your forearm? Not only did you not have to survive, you just had to make sure a recognizable body part made it out intact. Spies sometimes identified themselves to each other via their tattoos, which also served as ranks—they helped sort out which spy was in charge. Very useful things, these tats. Today in our own culture, some soldiers are following the ancient practice of having their essential info tattooed onto their bodies, just as Japanese samurai used to do so their bodies could be returned to their families. Not only that, some soldiers have taken to having their ranks tattooed on as well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Shadowhunters had some kind of ranking system mixed in with all those runes too. Not that Jace would ever pay the least bit of attention to them, of course.
Everything old is new again, and so’s the idea of tattoos being a great spy/espionage tool. You can now get a tattoo that’s visible only under UV light, and the newest fad is getting a tattoo in an ink shade that matches your skin, so the tat is visible only at certain angles. But as usual, Chinese innovation has gone beyond the call of duty and developed an “electronic tattoo,” at least in theory. It’s basically a temporary tattoo that can be applied to skin, but it contains circuits, sensors, wireless antennas, and power cells…and it’s ultra-thin and stretchable. Put one on and you can hack into a protected system while looking like you’re wearing nothing but your birthday suit. (Oh, and also? You can use it as a hospital monitoring device, a less-bulky ankle bracelet for house-arrest criminals, and even as a wearable gaming device. SCIENCE!)
Carrying on with the information theme: Ancient (and some relatively modern) sailors used to ink their resumes onto their arms by getting tattoos that represented their journeys: a full-rigged ship to show they’d gone around Cape Horn, a dragon to show they’d visited China, a turtle to show they’d crossed the equator. So if you were hiring sailors, you obviously wanted sailors with the ink to prove their worth. At least you knew they’d survived a few journeys.
If you want to go to the most extreme versions of informational tattooing, though, you have to look at the magnificent Maori tattoo culture of New Zealand. Not only was their face tattooing designed to enhance their looks to the opposite sex, but their extremely elaborate designs— known as moko—told the story of the wearer’s life. This included their ancestry, which was important, as well as their accomplishments…their status as well as their abilities. Like having a resume on your face. Dramatic full-face tats were reserved for men, but women got in on the act with less elaborate decorations on the nose and chin. When Christian missionaries tried to discourage the practice, Maori women claimed that tattoos on mouths and chins prevented wrinkles. Magic! And…coming to a beauty salon near you soon. Hey, if Botox has become a popular beauty aid, why not tattoos?
Last, let’s consider the Japanese. Their Yakuza tattoos are some of the most finely done, elaborate, and sinister tattoos in the world, although the Russian criminal community, which has developed a whole new iconography for body art, is certainly trying for runner-up position in this skin sweepstakes. But the history of Japanese tattooing is much more interesting for purposes of this anthology, because popular theory is that it really evolved out of . . . fandom. (There’s a different word for it in Japan, of course.)
Basically, in the eighteenth century, many people in the city of Edo became a little bit obsessed with the folk story “Suikohden” (the main character is kind of like a Japanese Robin Hood). In imitation of the heroes featured in the story, they began to experiment with tattooing folklore designs and story characters onto their own bodies. Mind you, many of these new tattoo enthusiasts were woodblock artists. Instead of continuing with their ancient and revered craft, they seemed to all of a sudden go completely mental and think, Hmm, carving wood is fun, but what about piercing our skin with needles and making designs? EVEN BETTER! Yes, they were the ones responsible for developing the Japanese art of tattooing—on themselves. Just because the story was cool.
This is not meant to set you a goal, of course, even though I know you crave those sweet rune tattoos to show your devotion to the Mortal Instruments series. Because one thing about the Japanese: When they get into fandom of any kind, they go all the way. And in the case of “Suikohden,” they developed it into a whole new art form: of pain.
There’s still one other kind of tattooing that relates directly to the Shadowhunters’ universes: Ms. Clare has said that she thought of the idea for Shadowhunters after being shown a tattoo that was supposed to grant protective powers to a warrior, and such tattoos are surprisingly widespread in many cultures.
In tribal Hawaii, for example, warriors were tattooed with the images of gods so that they carried around a “personal deity”: If something evil attacked, their personal tattoo god would protect them. Nice. I’m totally getting a Thor tattoo now, to protect me against lightning strikes. Also, because…Thor.
Even today in many areas in India and Burma, inking on a kind of “venom tattoo” theoretically will protect the wearer from the bite of poisonous snakes, an everyday hazard there. I personally wouldn’t test that theory unless I was absolutely forced to do so, though. And I assume people don’t go out of their way to do quality control either. “Venom tattoo tester” would probably be the worst job in the world.
Over the ages, soldiers in various countries, from Australia, to Burma, to Cambodia, to Thailand, have had special types of tattoos that were said to give protection in battle or even (in the case of full-body Cambodian tattooing) to make wearers invincible to bullets. I take it back about the venom tattoo testers. They do not have the worst job. Who did the R&D for this tattoo? BANG…“Whoops, that’s not it, look, he’s bleeding freely. Better add another loop on that design.” That job would really suck. Soldiers and Shadowhunters…not much of a difference, except in the kind of foes they’re fighting. The only real difference is that the soldiers can’t draw these magical protective symbols on themselves with a stele, while the Shadowhunters can—and can choose the ones likely to be of the most use at the time rather than spending hours getting a permanent choice that may not be any actual help.
The downside for Shadowhunters is that if they don’t have the right rune already inscribed, they may not have time or energy to get it in the heat of battle. So what seems like an advantage can also prove, just as easily, to be a weakness—especially if you lose your stele.
After discovering all of this, I’m thinking maybe about going back to my old-school habit of Magic Marker designs on my arms. All I really need is some kind of really magic marker, and I am finally living the dream. I definitely need that healing rune, for sure, just in case I trip and break my arm again. Also, I could really use the runes for learning things really fast, being super fast and strong, and…being awesome. There’s a rune for being awesome, right?
There must be, because one thing I’ve taken away from the Mortal Instruments series is that not only does Cassandra Clare have the Awesome rune, but it must be embedded in the spines of all the books, which are impossibly great and captivating stories.
I can really only hope that somehow, impossibly, it transfers to my sweaty hands after hours of reading.
Now there’s only one thing left in my Quest for Cool…
Floor-length fringed leather vest.
Rachel Caine is the author of more than thirty-five novels, including the New York Times and internationally bestselling Morganville Vampires series in young adult, as well as the Weather Warden, Outcast Season, and Revivalist series in urban fantasy. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and continues to work on development of the Awesome rune, but in Magic Markers, because she is scared of needles. Find her online at