Modern images of Celtic warriors usually picture them wearing blue paint tattoos on their bodies, often in the shape of intricate symbols or patterns.
The question is, did the Celts really wear this type of war paint, or is it a more recent cultural invention?
Ancient Celts, particularly those from the British Isles, are documented to have worn either woad blue paint or body tattoos. According to Caesar, the purpose of this war paint was to make Celtic warriors more fearsome in battle, but it was even used by women during religious ceremonies.
What do the historical sources say about Celts wearing war paint?
For such a widespread belief, there are not that many historical sources that clearly and unambiguously state that Celtic warriors wore war paint.
The clearest of them all comes from Julius Caesar, who described his successful invasion and conquest of Celtic Gaul (an area that is roughly modern day France) in his memoires Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War).
In it, Caesar describes the Briton Celtic warriors in the following way:
All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue color and makes their appearance in battle more terrible. They wear long hair and shave every part of the body save the head and the upper lip.Julius Caesar, in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book V
Hundreds of years later, in the 3rd century AD, the Roman historian Herodian (Roman History III; XLVII) writes this of the Celts:
They are without clothes but with necks and waist adorned with iron, valuing the metal as an ornament and a display of wealth as for gold to other Barbarians. They also draw (grafaís) patterns and pictures of various animals on their bodies and this why they’re naked as for not cover them.
Besides these texts, there is also archeological evidence that suggests some ancient Celts wore tattoos, maybe even decorative paint.
A good example of this are the Celtic coins below, which originate from the Gaul region. These coins depict Celtic leaders wearing either permanent or temporary tattoos on their faces.
Another reason to believe at least some Celts decorated their bodies with paint are the Celtic Picts.
In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire invaded the island of Great Britain and gradually conquered most of it over the course of 45 years.
Only the northern, mountainous part of the island was left unconquered, in what is roughly the equivalent of modern-day Scotland.
According to the Romans, this unconquered land was inhabited by a Celtic people they called Picts, which is derived from the Latin word pictus, meaning painted.
This Celtic Pictish practice of painting their bodies with paint or tattoos likely continued for hundreds of years after the conquest of Britain.
For example, Isidore of Seville reported in the early seventh century that the Picts still practiced the practice of painting or tattooing their bodies.
So overall, the belief that ancient Celts would wear war paint is at least plausible, maybe even possible.
For the sake of historical accuracy, however, there are some limitations to this belief:
Limit number 1: Caesar only mentions that Celts from modern day Great Britain wore blue war paint made from woad. However, he doesn’t mention anything about Celts from Gaul wearing it.
As such, it’s reasonable to assume that only Celts from Britain, and later on the Picts, wore war paint, and not those from the European continent.
However, European Celts likely practiced tattooing. These body tattoos most likely served the same purpose as the British Celts’ war paint for members of the warrior class.
Limit number 2: After the Roman conquest of Britain, the tradition of wearing war paint survived for hundreds of years but likely died out sometime in the 7th or 8th century AD.
What would Celtic war paint have looked like?
Celtic war paint was probably bluish, because there is extensive historical evidence that the Celts produced blue dye from the woad plant.
Depending on how the Celts mixed their paint, the exact shade would have ranged from grey blue to intense midnight blue and finally to black blue.
In fact, woad produces such a distinctive color that there is even a name for it: Celtic Blue.
The thread on the left is woad blue, while the one on the right is indigo blue.
The problem with woad paint, however, is that it’s not very good.
For one, it simply doesn’t stick well to the body. It dries too quickly, causing it to flake and then fall off.
The second problem, and arguably the more important one, is that woad has caustic properties.
In large concentrations, woad can even burn the skin and leave scars behind. Even small concentrations are enough to provoke skin irritation.
This means Celtic war paint would probably have used very small concentrations of woad, both as a way to prevent self-harm, but also as a way to make sure the paint stuck to one’s skin.
Alternatively, the blue color Caesar described might have been produced with a copper- or iron based pigment.
The Celts were known to possess a very distinct artistic style, containing complex symbols with interweaving lines, spirals, and shapes.
The Celtic symbols above are mostly examples. It’s likely the Celts had an extensive list of symbols, each with its own distinct meaning, but most are now lost to history.
As seen from coins and other archeological evidence, the Celts would paint or tattoo these symbols on their bodies.
In doing so, these symbols then acted as sacred charms that could offer protection, valor, strength, victory, and more.
On a more practical level, these symbols and patterns would have functioned as a way to separate members of one tribe from another or to distinguish a tribal leader from a common member.
Other uses for the blue Celtic paint
Although most commonly associated with warriors who march into battle, the famous Celtic woad paint was also used in tribal and religious functions as well.
This is what the historian Pliny (Natural History; XXII, 2) had to say about the Celts from Gaul:
In Gaul there is a plant like the plantain, called glastum [woad]; with it the wives of the Britons, and their daughters-in-law, stain all the body and at certain religious ceremonies march along naked, with a color resembling that of Ethiopians.
This tells us that for the Celts, the woad paint also fulfilled a religious and social function, not just a military one.
Overall, the historical and archeological evidence we currently possess does suggest the Celts did decorate their bodies with pigments. It was usually done for military, social, and religious purposes.
However, there are many unanswered questions:
- Were the patterns permanent tattoos, temporary paints or a combination of each?
- How widespread was this practice?
- What patterns were used and what did they mean?
- Could anybody paint/tattoo themselves, or was it reserved for certain social classes?
- How did the Celts produce the blue color? Was it woad, another plant or was it based on metals?
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