Berber Women: Tattoo and Decorative Elements

Feb 21, 2019 by

The tattoo is one of the oldest customs of Amazigh culture, whose origins date back to the pre-Islamic period. These Amazigh ethnic groups, that found traces geological dating back to Pharaonic antiquity, nomadic tribes and Berber-speaking groups, have historically had a presence in more than a dozen African countries, from the Mediterranean Maghreb to sub-Saharan Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa in Egypt.

The Berber tattoo is linked to a set of pagan rituals of witchcraft and magic. These beliefs are still the subject of customs in the countryside, where Islam has only partially integrated these ancient practices and beliefs.

The tattoo continues to be practiced in rural areas, where mothers have always been protecting their children from bad luck by drawing them on their foreheads with black smoke as an example. We discover this habit once the day of the birth of a child coincides with a harmful event. Tattooing here features a perform of communication between the human body and the spirit world. Today, in the Maghreb, henna tattooing continues to be a part of of Berber traditions, the decorative face had taken place over the initial supernatural sense.

At all times, tattooing has been used among Berber women, either as an ornamental, to adorn herself as with jewels and to make herself more beautiful and desirable, or to express a feeling, represent a social status (death of the husband and widowhood for example, the Berber woman can wear a tattoo on the chin connecting each ear, symbolizing the beard of the dead husband). Dating back to the Neolithic in North Africa, the tattooing of nomadic Berber tribes also served to dissociate and identify the members of the different Amazigh Tribes by drawings, often on the face, with very geometric characteristics and supposedly magical virtues: the tattoo was particularly supposed to ward off bad luck (ward off the evil eye) and bring good fortune and success. Even today, women are the repositories of the customs of a very old civilization, which goes against the current Islam, as it is interpreted in many countries. The tattoo has partially adapted to this Koranic prohibition, in particular by never representing the image of the person.

For Muslims, most of the time, tattooing is proscribed by Islam, a symbol of sin and mutilation, a modification of the divine work, despite its status of immemorial custom, the imams continuing to condemn any link to old beliefs in supernatural elements. This is why women, the main users of aesthetic designs on the skin, today use more commonly, for religious reasons, Henna Tattoo, temporary and not mutilating. There are many rites associated with Henna, during which it remains very present, even today: the ceremony of wedding (ritual of the “night of henna”, birth, baptism, circumcision).

The Imazighen, (free men) or Berbers, tattooed the forehead, chin, cheeks, back of the hands and temples using pigments from plant-based substances, coal, mixed with water or blood, their own motives and symbols, and they had a very particular meaning. The tattoo of the time is more social than decorative, in contrast to these days, wherever this symbolic tattooing concept disappeared within the new generations of Berbers, even if it can sometimes retain a concept of attachment to a community, permitting Berbers to square out from Arab culture.

The function of tattooing is therefore historically manifold among Amazigh; it can be protective and ornamental, but also identity or medical.

Every detail, each every motif has its own symbolic within the Amazigh tattoo:

  • The point symbolizes the home, which is at the center of the house
  • The crescent moon represent the matter that’s born, grows up and dies.
  • The spiral symbolizes eternal harmony.
  • The circle represents the absolute.
  • Palm trees tattooed on the front of Amazigh girls invoke the mother divinity.
  • The Primary vertical line symbolizes god and life, because the first tool planted in earth by man.
  • The 2 traits symbolize the duality between good and evil that slumber in each.
  • The square is the illustration of the house.
  • Two superimposed squares symbolize God’s combat against curse and darkness.
  • The rosette, composed of triangles: the one with the tip upwards indicate fire and virility, whereas the triangle with the tip down represents water and muliebrity.
  • The plus (+ sign) symbolizes the attention of God, the star whose light guides the man within the night.
  • The cross symbolizes the 2 legs or the 2 arms of the man.
  • OLIVE TREE: symbolizes Strength thanks to its berber name  Azemmur, amused from the term Tazamat (strenght).
  • WHEAT : is related to life (because of it sheath) and death (because of the seeds being within the ground).
  • TREE: represent the happier and simple life, happiness, prosperity, fertility, knowledge, and center of the globe, with all its essences. .
  • SEEDS: an emblem of the male seed, prosperity and fertility.
  • HAMMER: the creative power, a force of nature.
  • ANCHOR: integrity, commitment, balance.
  • AXE: a sharp instrument that represents anger and destruction, but as it does attack evil forces, it carries a positive sense.
  • ARROW: space, celestial protection.
  • SUN: vital force, but can carry a negative connotation as the sun can give birth and dry.
  • MOON: related tomuliebrity and represent change, fertility and also the perpetual cycle.
  • LOOM: peace movement, balance, purity.
  • SHIP: associated with water, and means blessing and wisdom.
  • CRESCENT: amendment, revival, variability, openness.
  • CROSS: space orientation (south-north, left-right, west-east, and so on).
  • SWASTIKA: a solar symbol, sometimes means bird.
  • SIX-POINTED CROSS: wholeness, harmony, closeness to the ground
  • DIAMOND: femininity, female power and fertility.

NB. Patterns can have different meanings depending on the person’s origins.


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