Scarification is a form of body art that entails scarring the skin through scratching, burning, etching, or outwardly cutting pictures, designs and/or words, as a form of everlasting body modification (Roper 1). Tribal scarification is a vital part of the African history and culture that has continued to be ritualized amongst numerous ethnic groups to date. Though the scarring placements and techniques vary from tribe to tribe, the tribal scarification practice unites all African tribes. While scarification may appear like a new type of body art, there have been cases of scarification in Africa, dating back several years ago. Facial scarification for instance, can be traced among the Huns as early as the 4th century, while tribal scarification can be traced to almost all corners of Africa. In some cultures, it was believed that scars indicated the history of the life and time of a person in the tribe and therefore, without the scars, members of the tribe were regarded as naked. In other cultures, the practice of scarification was also thought to call upon the gods, who were in charge of hunting within an area i.e. the spilled blood during the cutting of skin was believed to draw the attention of the gods. The scarification practice with time has however evolved and taken over different new meanings among various African tribes (Roper 1). According to Asaff (1), it was a general belief that scarring occurred since the African dark-pigmented skin was not suitable for tattooing.
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A tattoo on the other hand, is a mark made on a person’s body part through insertion of pigment into skin punctures. It is important to mention that tattooing is not a new practice amongst Africa tribes. The history of tattooing in the African setting dates back several thousand years ago. Till the latest discovery of Otzi the Iceman, the tattoo that was considered the oldest belonged to the goddess Hathor’s priestess; the mummy of Amunet, between 2160BC and 1994BC (Obrien 1-2). With the plain parallel lines on top of her arms and legs, as well as, an elliptical pattern underneath her navel, the mummy of Amunet was considered the oldest glimpse that had a tattoo in Africa and the world over. Her designs were believed to be a symbol of rejuvenation and fertility. Though no male mummies with tattoos were found in Egypt, they however existed in Libya, where they had images related to the worship of the sun. In addition, during the 13th century, tattoos of a fierce goddess named Neith, were found on men (Obrien 1-2). It was believed that the goddess was responsible for guiding warriors into winning over their opponents. A tattoo portraying the supervisor of orgies and the god of sex named Bes was found on the bodies of Nubian female mummies as early as 400 BC. This paper looks into the purpose of scarring and tattooing in African ethnic groups (Obrien 1-2).
The African climate and custom allowed negligible clothing, which in turn encouraged body art. The bodies of Africans therefore, became the canvas of artists to show the prowess. Since tattooing was not an efficient method of decorating the dark-pigmented African skin, cutting and raising scars on different body parts became very common (Roper 1). The scarification process in Africa involved cutting different patterns into the skin’s epidermis. Various tools were used to produce diverse scar types, some subtle, while others more profound. Ash or some organic saps were rubbed on a fresh scar to increase the prominence of the scarring (Roper 1). Scarification in Africa served as a sign of fortitude, strength, as well as courage in men and women. Scars were utilized as an enhancer of the society’s admiration and beauty. Even though the effects of scarification were greatly valued, the process was unhurried and painful. Complex and beautiful designs depended on both the skills of the artist and a person’s ability to tolerate pain.
The painful process started in childhood and went on up to adulthood i.e. different scar designs with different meanings were added during various stages of growth. Children for instance, were scarred during weaning (Roper 1). African men were scarred with diverse designs as an indication of their social ranks, political status, character traits, and religious authority. It is important to mention that people of high ranks and social status in the African setting had more scars than the commoners. In women, scarification was related to fertility. The eagerness of a woman to endure pain indicated her willingness to give birth and her emotional maturity (Roper 1). Scars were added during puberty, following the birth of the initial baby and/or at the end of breastfeeding as a way of showing the ability of the women to endure childbirth pain. In addition, scars were added to other body parts such as the buttocks and hips to emphasize the sensual and erotic aspect of a woman’s body.
Though scarification was once practiced extensively throughout Africa, the art has lost momentum over the last few years, even fading away in a majority of African tribes. This has been attributed to the modernization of different African countries, changing social status, as well as the adoption of Western values. Consequently, the numbers of Africans practicing scarification have reduced significantly, with the practice being common currently only among the older tribe members.
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Body and face scarification was viewed by a majority of African tribes as a form of beauty. Since the practice showed more readily on dark skins than tattoos, it became the common method of gaining body enhancement (Rush 15-25). For immature African girls, for instance, scarring was also done to celebrate the beginning of puberty, the initial menstrual cycle, in addition to childbirth. Despite these other reasons, the quest for beauty was almost always the overriding goal.
Strength and Courage
The art of scarring the face and body was seen by many Africans as a test of courage. It is worthwhile to mention that scarring is very painful and necessitates great individual strength, humility, patience and courage to be able to endure the procedure to completion without crying because of the pain. According to Rush (15-25), the number of scars on the body of a person is directly related to his perceived strength i.e. the more scars one has, the higher respect one is accorded within the community.
Scarring is particularly prized amongst young African women of marriageable age. Scars especially in the abdomen are seen as an indicator of a woman’s willingness and capacity to endure pain during childbirth (Rush 15-25). Therefore, scarred women were considered very desirable potential future wives. Because of the tender nature of the scars, they were considered erogenous, which is believed to increase the woman’s reception to the sexual attentions of men, thus, making her more appealing to men.
Scarring is also a form of family pride. For instance, the ceremony that celebrates a young man’s coming of age entails the man requesting his sisters to undergo a ritual beating, that lresulted in bloody and scarred backs. According to the African culture, the scars were seen as a sign of the sisters’ respect and love for their brother, which in turn earned the whole family a good reputation.
Protection from Death
Spirituality plays a vital role within the African culture, and numerous Africans believe in the existence of both evil and good spirits. Other than scarring being used as a form of beautification, facial scarring has also been used to make people less appealing to the spirits of death, hence making the act a way of protection (Hesselt van Dinter 256-260).
Passage of Time
Numerous scar types are executed to mark significant life events and the passage of time. Young women for instance, go through numerous scarification types as a commemoration of the various stages of their lives such as adolescence, marriage, as well as the birth of a child. Scarification is also done to indicate status, age and significance of a person in a tribe.
Certain forms of tribal scarring are performed to signify tribal unity (Hesselt van Dinter 256-260). Every tribe has its unique technique and means of scarring themselves for the purpose of identifying its members.
Scarification is also done to mark an individual’s place in the tribe and rank within the society. Examples of social status-related reasons for scarring include politics, religion, wealth etc.
The Purpose of Tattooing in African Ethnic Groups
Tattoos in Africa have both a cultural and a historical significance. Many African ethnic groups get tattoos for various reasons ranging from beauty, loyalty, fashion, membership, bravery and to signify the marking of lifetime events. Though it is unheard of in Western countries for women to get facial tattoos, the practice is very common among certain African countries (Obrien 1). In Northern Africa for instance, women of some tribes get tattoos of small dots on their faces following the giving birth of a son. In addition, they also have facial tattoos as a show of their ethnic identities. Certain nomadic groups in Africa also have tattoos on their faces to scare away evil spirits (Obrien 1).
Different tattoos carry different meanings in different parts of Africa. For instance, in the IGBO area of Nigeria, some tattoos on the forehead of men show that they are of high social rank. In addition, tattoos are also believed to enhance a person’s beauty, as well as offer magical/ protective benefits. Since different persons have developed unique tattoo styles, the scars act as a form of identification of the wearer as a member of a certain ethnic group (Henderson 99). The purpose of having tattoos amongst African tribes include a sign of membership to a certain ethnic group, social status, tribal unity, for beauty enhancement, as a form of fashion, as well as a show of inner strength and courage of a person. It is vital to mention that while tattoos have become more common in the modern world, while scarification has diminished. More and more people are getting tattoos as a form of fashion, as well as an emulation of the western culture.
Scarring and tattooing are practices that form part of the African culture, tradition and history. Though scarring and tattooing techniques vary across tribes, the tribal scarification practice unites all African tribes. Scarring of the skin is done through scratching, burning, or outwardly cutting pictures, designs to modify the body. Tattooing on the other hand, is the art of marking a body picture through the insertion of pigment into skin. Both practices date several years in the African history. The earliest tattoo was seen on the mummy of Amunet, between 2160BC and 1994BC. The tattoo consisted of plain parallel lines on top of her arms and legs, and an elliptical pattern underneath her navel, which signified rejuvenation and fertility. Facial scarification was also traced among the Huns as early as the 4th century. It was believed that the dark skin of Africans appeared better with scars than tattoos, and therefore, the former became very common during the ancient days. However, with time, scarification has lost momentum over the last few years, even fading away in many African tribes. This is believed to be due to the modernization of different African countries, changing social status, as well as the adoption of Western values. On the other hand, tattoos have gained significance amongst Africans in the modern times, owing to the fact that is fashionable worldwide. Examples of the uses of scarring and tattoos among African ethnic groups include to enhance fashion and beauty, mark significant events, symbolize courage and strength, to protect, and against evil spirits among others.
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