The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth
By Richard Dibon-Smith
Published Online (1990)
Introduction: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.” J. Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 5.14
The above observation is the only remark Caesar ever made about Britons dyeing themselves, and apparently the only notice of this practice ever made by an eye-witness. But this one sentence, casually included in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, would fuel the imagination of Greek and Roman poets for centuries, and would lead to one of the most widespread beliefs concerning the peoples of ancient Britain: the tattooing of the Picts. This belief was consciously nurtured by a number of poets and historians over several centuries until it has today become an accepted ‘fact’, one of the few known about the Picts.
By tracing the extant literary references based on Caesar’s remark it is possible to see just how the innocent observation came to apply to a totally different people—how the myth was born.
The first of the poets who is said to have Caesar’s reference is Ovid. Born almost to the day one year after Caesar’s assassination, into a proud family of the Equite rank, Ovid could have become a Roman senator had he wished. But while still a teenager he was to evince a talent and a love for verse. He wrote a series of love poems and had them published about 23 B.C. Four more series, or books, were soon published, and together they went under the collective title Amores.
For the second edition of Amores Ovid reduced the work to three books. (“Even if we give no pleasure the pain will be two books less.”) Pleasure he did give; the young poet had a best-seller. In Book 2, verse 16, lines 37-40 of this second edition, the poet laments his lost love:
it’s as though I’m not at Sulmona
on the farm where I was born,
but far away in Scythia, wild Cilicia, woad-painted Britain,
or perched on Prometheus’ murderous crag.