The growth in popularity of body modification is an interesting concept. The last twenty years has seen body art becoming common place to the point of achieving social acceptance and now the challenge is on for those wishing to be different to find the most unusual, unique and downright bizarre techniques to present to the world. For people concerned with fashion and individuality body modification is a chance to make a statement. But what I am primarily interested in today is how the world of body modification relates to the world of the witch and how both old and new methods of body art can be incorporated into witchcraft.
The most obvious way body modification is used, witch or not is for fashion. There is sometimes a perception that the modern witches are all young, beautiful and gothed up to the eyeballs. This is an untrue as it is amusing. You'll find as many witches dressed in tweed as you will in leather. There is no universal "look" for the witch and, as many witches place a high value on their privacy, blending in and merging with the crowds is a skill many choose to master. That isn't to say that some witches do not choose to express themselves through body art - I know many witches who have chosen to represent their path with symbolic tattoos. Some are private and some make a public statement, even in some cases a statement "outing" the nature of the witch herself. As society changes and minority groups become conscious of fighting for acceptance tattoos can be a way of stating an identity, of standing up for the right of the individual to be who they are and to display pride in the path that works for them. Culturally there has been a shift in the behaviour of (particularly young) witches who see practising the craft as something not to hide from others but to share openly. An appropriately designed tattoo can make this statement without the witch needing to verbally confirm/deny the message she is willingly putting out.
Body modification can also be used for the more subtle purpose of being recognised by those in the know. In the pre internet days (before every man and his dog recognised the pentacle symbol) a discreet pentacle on a necklace chain could be used to recognise a person as someone following a pagan or witch related path. Although many witches (including myself) do still choose to wear the more common symbols it has become the practise of others to wear more esoteric, harder to recognise symbols that will get little comment from the mainstream but allow those with a deeper understanding to recognise a fellow soul. This is as easily achieved with tattoos as it is with jewellery. Interestingly just as body modification can be used to recognise and bond with others it can also be used in much the same way as the warpaint of the Celtic Warriors - to intimidate and threaten others. There is still a social stigma associated with heavily tattooed faces as, in much the same way as wearing a mask would, the tattooing eliminates the ability to read the person's facial expressions, making them appear more threatening.
A tattoo for a witch can be a personal as well as a private matter. Inking a permanent design onto the body is a big step to take and is often taken at a time that is highly significant in the journey of the witch. I have known witches do it if they (often Wiccan witches) dedicate themselves to the God/Goddess or when they take another name to signify a transition from their old to their new life. The tattoo can symbolise the start of a journey or a turning point on that journey that means something important to the individual witch. It be chosen to mark a life event, be it spiritual or mundane and it can form a link between the witch and her craft that serves as a constant in the mundane world. Sometimes body modification is a statement not to others but to ourselves that underneath our worksuits or uniform we are something other than the conformity we present to the world. In the case of the witch it can be a reminder of her spirituality and the power that exists to her in the world behind the world. A permanent symbol can be a point of focus and concentration, a link to our magical selves in the mundane world.
Not only the symbol presented but the method of making the symbol can be of importance to the witch. Mindful of the fact that tattoos are becoming a bit too common place for my liking I elected to try scarification as an alternative. This involved the design of a rose being cut with a scalpel in my thigh (over five sessions by my husband) with tattoo ink rubbed into the design to add colour. Had I thought about it at the time I could have used this to far greater magical effect. I could have captured the essence of the strengthened bond between my husband and I, I could have sealed away the pain for use in spellwork and I could certainly have kept the bloodied tissues for use in workings. My intention is to revisit the cutting and keep a tissue with the bloodied inprint as a symbol of myself to use in ritual. (The rose design was chosen as it represents me).
Scarification is just one of the ways popular body modification is changing but I actually see it as being one of the most interesting to the witch. The idea of making a permanent mark on the body is akin to the idea of sacrifice and could be used as an offering to deity. The sacrifice of marring one's own self and suffering pain for the sake of the Gods is not a new one - think Catholicism and the mortification of the flesh. Choosing to devote a section of the body to a symbol of faith is a sacrifice in itself and given the popularity of pentacle, triquetra and triple Goddess tattoos I don't think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that at least some of these symbols have been crafted for this purpose.
Symbols on the body can be used for a wide range of purposes. Protection spells are an excellent example. Appropriate runes, symbols or sigils can be written or drawn on the body to invoke protection. These do not necessarily have to be permanent symbols and indeed it is best that they are not as the needs of the individual will vary with their circumstances. If I had permanently inked every symbol I have ever drawn on myself in biro and washed off again then I'd likely be covered from head to toe with tattoos. Temporary designs will work well when invoked and the method of the drawing can even become part of the spell work. A symbol inked in blood might be used for protection, a symbol drawn in urine to retain a sense of self, a symbol drawn in semen to cement a connection between a couple... the possibilities are infinite.
There is a school of thought that symbols with a determined meaning (runes for example) should not be permanently placed on the body as the power they invoke may end up a permanent influence for that person. My own view on this is that there is a difference between tattooing a rune you have a general connection with than there is to tattooing a rune that has significance at one stage of your journey - I'd be more comfortable with a tattoo of the former. Runic scholars assure me that unless the power of the individual rune is specifically invoked then tattooing it will do no harm. I'd take that advice with a pinch of salt - I frequently draw runes on my body and just as frequently obtain the results from it that I intend. If in doubt - don't.
We've spoken about body modification as a method of communicating with other people but it can also be used as a means of connecting with our ancestors. Ancestry is very important in witchcraft, there is a lot of emphasis placed on honouring those who have walked the path before us. Jewellery and tattoos can be used to establish a link toward ancestors - a name perhaps or a symbol that has meaning for them. Again this has connotations of protection, the idea of invoking and welcoming the spirit of the ancestor to stay by our side and offer support. It could also be a mark of respect or an acknowledgement of a particularly valued influence. In some traditions or covens it could even be a mark of belonging, a sign of acceptance among others.
Communication need not be restricted to other humans either whether they be living or deceased. Shamanism in particular makes use of animal symbols to forge a link with the spirit animals they invoke and with the part of themselves realised by their totem animals. Animal tattoos remain among the most popular designs requested and although this may be for aesthetic reasons among the general public they are symbolic for a lot of magical practitioners for bringing the characteristics of that animal into their body (think wolf for survival, bird for freedom, tiger for power).
Ultimately the possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the witch. So next time you seen a tattoo or an unusual piece of body modification look at it carefully. It may well be a fashion design but just perhaps it may be so much more.
Image at top of page http://www.freeimages.com/photo/473178%20markdesign
I'll leave you with a couple of images from my own personal gallery showing my own adornment. And if anyone wishes to share their own pictures and the story behind them I'd be delighted to publish in a future update. Just email to firstname.lastname@example.org