"The Devil made me do it!" - Tattoos in the Witch Trials of Scotland

"The Devil made me do it!" - Tattoos in the Witch Trials of Scotland

One of the most recurrent symbols of the American Halloween tradition is that of the witch: her pointed black hat, broom, mini-skirt, sizable nose, warts and all. "Must be the season of the witch," say The Zombies. And basically, it is. The festival of Samhain observed some 2,000 years ago by the pre-Christian Irish marked a crossover period between the summer and winter halves of each year. Being that it were a time of literal cross-movement, with communities departing from their harvest season, and underworld myths amassing newfound relevance once again, anxieties as much as libations soared. More popular today are the anxieties of the first settler colonialists, and the witch trials in 17th century Massachusetts that followed. Even more popular than these are the theories preceding persecution: adultery, bad attitude, mortality in instances of drowning, and possibly, tattoos. 

In a Historical Review for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, scholar Sheila W. McDonald PhD explains how, in the search for proof of suspicious activity, a suspected witch could be checked by the so-called "witch-prickers of Scotland" for what was known by the Scottish legal authorities as a "devil's mark:" small appearances on the skin varying in color and location, which harbored supernatural qualities (such as resistance to pricking). It is most likely that these so-called devil's marks were really birth marks, third nipples, or lesions on the skin; it is plausible to imagine some of these resided near cartilage, or scar tissue, creating a mystique around unusual shape or insensitivity to pain (McDonald, 1997, p.507-511). Even still, McDonald acknowledges the more controversial theory folklorist and archeologist Margaret Murray has contributed to this study.

In her time, Murray claimed that these "devil's marks" were often pagan ceremonial tattoos, an idea that has become widely popular despite considerable skepticism by many if not most of her peers. While the hypothesis may be founded on little evidence, whether or not Murray is correct in her belief, ritualized tattooing has been condemned by different religious affiliations in 18th century Britain; it is certainly not impossible to think that tattoos were practiced before this by both Christian and pagan orders. And to be fair, while the stakes may not be quite as high, we haven't quite escaped the origins of Halloween without a tradition of ceremonial tattooing. Most parlors offer special flash for superstitious days like Friday the 13th. Just this next month, my own Envision tattoo will be hosting a Halloween event at the shop on October, Saturday the 22nd. Mark your calendar for your very own Devil's mark! 


Happy Halloween, and Fall Solstice. 🕷️

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