Pre-Biblical mankind was divided into innumerable religious sects. Lumped together under the expansive umbrella as Pagans, these sects, too, had unique means of conveying their dead to the afterlife which included rituals marking the deceased as their own. The acts of cutting and tattooing, both of the corpses in preparation for the afterlife and the bereaved as a mourning practice, were widespread across these Pagan subcultures and had special significance in the conference of the departed.
The Significance of Both
The Pagan ritual of cutting and tattooing at funerals was believed to assist in passage to the realm of the dead. According to D. Eric William's 2005 article, "Another Hole in Your Head," the practice allowed the person to cheat death of the spirit while giving the dead a dramatic send-off. Ritual mutilation was a statement of man's power over the afterlife, open to man, with the supernatural power they believed was passed on by the ritual itself. It stated that life and death were no longer up to God alone, a tacit act of defiance like many pagan rites.
Tattooing was a common pagan practice in ancient times, especially among Norsemen. The act of tattooing both the dead and the bereaved was widespread among the Celts and Pictavi. Celtic legend tells us that the Pictavi, dispossessed and driven north by invasion, were forced out of their homeland and often denied proper burial. The tattoos on the departed were a mark of who the warriors were, what clans they belonged to, and what their accomplishments were during their life. Tattoos on the bereaved were often in tribute to fallen tribesman, friends and family as a mark of respect.
The act of cutting flesh as a mourning practice was prevalent in several Ancient Near-East cultures. Examination of ancient Canaanite mourning rituals reveals one possible source for the practice. John Huehnergard and Harold Lebowitz's recent University of Texas dissertation describes a lament for Pagan deity, Baal, by his father, El, and sister, Anat during which El descends from his throne and makes cuts in his flesh and face. This was a practice emulated by ancient Ugarites and disseminated throughout Pagan culture. Similar rituals were found in Mesopotamian texts as well.
Pagan Rituals Today
Funeral and mourning procedures in contemporary Pagan culture have taken a turn towards the symbolic in modern society. Where there was once bloodletting and physical marring, there remains mostly sentiment -- harmless reminders of the past. A current Pagan funeral ritual might toll a bell 24 hours postmortem and throughout the funeral procession. According to Sacred Texts, Pagan coffins are often filled with mementos and treasured possessions of the departed, called "grave goods," which the deceased are believed to carry with them to the other side.
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