The decorations on grandma’s, mom’s or auntie’s neck have long been part of who they are for us. But have you ever had the chance to hear about the story behind their tattoos?
According to a number of sources, this tradition began in Ethiopia during the period of Emperor Ezana of the Axum dynasty in the 4th century, likely as a result of the spread of Christianity. This tradition is found among several ethnic groups, such as the Amhara, the Hamar, and the Afar. Women are usually the ones to receive and give tattoos, and the traditional areas for the tattoos are the forehead, neck, chin, chest, hands, or gums. The technique involves a single needle and ink, mostly made out of charcoal and water. The most common symbols are a sun, a cross, stars, or other Amharic symbols and decorations. There are three main reasons why women choose to get tattooed. The first is to note their religious affiliation, the second is for decoration, and the third is for medical reasons. The symbols might also indicate ethnic affiliation, status, various personality traits, or protection against evil eye or evil spirits.
Similar tattoos can also be found among Ethiopian Beta Israel women. Some of them chose to get tattooed for the reasons noted above, and some were forced to get them for survival, needing to hide their Jewish identity. However, tattoos were not completely acceptable among Beta Israel, mostly because of their prohibition in Leviticus. After immigrating to Israel, social pressure increased to remove these tattoos, and many women have done so. However, other women chose to keep them.