The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Tattooing of Catholic Women in Bosina-Herzegovina

As an ethnic Croatian, living in America, but with relatives in Bosnia, I had no idea this practice ever took place.  I stumbled across it while reading about the sacred yanta tattoos in Thailand.


Croats would tattoo their children in order to save them from Turks who kidnapped them in Ottoman Bosnia, while Croatian women were tattooed in hopes of protecting themselves from being taken away by Turkish men into captivity. Tattooing became widespread after the Ottomans would take children into captivity and send them to Turkey where they were trained to be soldiers orservants.

Even today Croatian women in some parts of Bosnia (and Herzegovina) tattoo their hands with Christian symbols and stećak ornaments. This very old custom, used exclusively among Catholic Christians, had a special meaning in the period of the Ottoman occupation. This type of custom has been common throughout history: one example is the Greek historian Strabo (1st century BC) who mentions tattooing among inhabitants of this area, along with another that it is an old Illyrian custom. Archaeologist Ćiro Truhelka researched these types of tattoos in the late 19th century, becoming one of the first to write about and to illustrate them on paper.

The patterns were similar to each other and often contained the same elements. Up to the wrist, the patterns followed set rules.  Those above the wrist were usually applied randomly. The cross was always present on the hand.  Dots, semi-circular, or straight lines were decorated around it. The crosses could also be found on other parts of the body — sometimes on foreheads, shoulders and scattered around the hands and arms.  The motifs did  not have much relation to Christiatity aside from the cross. Usually located on the upper part of the hand were circles, dots, lines and other pattern elements. Semicircular “fences” on the dorsal sides of the hands, their opening facing the rest of the hand, were surrounded by lines, dots on their ends, bench-like ornaments, crosses or other motifs.

It is these motifs, according to Truhelka, that suggest that perhaps the custom dates back to pre-Christian times. In addition to a simplified cross, also common in ancient ornamental tattoos of various tribes in Africa and Asia, almost no other Catholic symbolism was found. The tattooing would sometimes signify the celebration of the transition into one’s adulthood and the ceremony often took place during the spring’s equinox – a day of great importance for almost every religion on earth.

2 thoughts on “Tattooing of Catholic Women in Bosina-Herzegovina

  1. Pingback: Tradiční tetování chorvatských křesťanů | Za starých bohů

  2. Pingback: Tradiční tetování chorvatských křesťanů | Rodná víra

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