Sicanje, an Ancient Balkan Tattoo Tradition, Draws a New Generation
This from Atlas Obscura -
For millennia, women adorned their daughters, and sometimes sons, with symbols of belonging and protection. Then the practice vanished—until now.
For millennia, women in what is now Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina performed sicanje—the word means, literally, “to prick”—on their daughters. Using needles and a mixture of soot, spit, honey, and breast milk, the tattooing tradition covered the hands, chest, and sometimes forehead with deeply symbolic patterns.
In the 1920s, anthropologist Edith Durham wrote that sicanje had passed from one generation of women to the next for nearly 4,000 years. In the mid-20th century however, it vanished. Now, a new generation of Balkan women—and men—is reviving the tradition as part of a larger trend to reclaim and celebrate their heritage.
“Unfortunately we don’t have any primary sources [about the tradition’s origins]. We only have the Greeks talking about them as their opponents,” says Marija Maracic, coauthor of The Sicanje Project, an oral and visual history of the tradition. In written histories and on vases and other artwork, ancient Greeks depicted Balkan people with tattoos, and archaeologists working in the region have discovered bronze tattooing needles in 3,000-year-old graves. Some of the ancient designs appear universal, such as the kolo circle, representing family and unity; it shares a name with a traditional dance still performed at weddings and family reunions. Other tattoos, such as a particular combination of motifs, appear to signify a specific village or tribe.
In fact, sicanje symbolized identity but also protection, blessing, and beauty for centuries. As the Balkans became Christianized in the ninth century, the pagan tradition of sicanje evolved to incorporate Catholicism. For example, the kriz, a pagan symbol of the four cardinal directions, became a stylized Christian cross. And while women had traditionally marked their adolescent daughters on the vernal equinox as a rite of passage, they began doing it on the feast day of St. Joseph, which falls close to the arrival of spring.
In the 15th century, sicanje transformed again, this time into an act of resistance. Under Ottoman rule, Christian Balkan families were levied devshirme, sometimes called the blood tax. Boys as young as eight were taken to Istanbul in a system designed to surround the emperor with loyal foreign servants, limiting the power of the Turkish elite. Devshirme were often well educated, and served as high-ranking soldiers and bureaucrats, but they were still far from home.
During this period, Catholic Balkan mothers began tattooing boys as well as girls, marking them prominently with symbols of protection and belonging. And if devshirme ever returned to their village as an adult, their sicanje would identify them, no matter how many years had passed.
As the Ottoman empire waned, sicanje continued on as a mark of beauty and religious and tribal belonging. The tattoos remained most common on women, but some men also carried the marks. In the mid-20th century, however, under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the tradition of sicanje began to fade. Maracic says modernization, urbanization, and other trends changed attitudes about old customs. Women started to hide their marks, and their daughters declined to receive them. By the 1960s, sicanje lived on only in fading marks on grandmothers’ hands.
In the 21st century, a new generation of historians and artists are rediscovering the tradition. Maracic sees the growing global acceptance and interest in tattoos as a major factor in sicanje’s revival. Popularizing the nearly-lost art is also a way for people to celebrate their heritage and identity in a post-Yugoslavia world.