Of Berber Women by Sarah Corbett
Tattoos in a tribal context are as much a communicator as they are a means of Adornment. They can be understood in the capacity of an expression of self, a sign of religious belonging, or relieve symptoms of spiritual or physical ills.
In all cases Tattoos serve as a means of portraying ones identity.
Within Amazigh ( Berber culture) women were historically tattooed facially. In times pre-dating the arrival of Islam in North Africa the practice was widespread. However since the arrival of the Islamic faith, the belief that to alter a creation of Allah is haram ( forbidden) has lead to the almost complete decline of the practice.
For important ceremonies and celebrations henna or Harquus are often used to replace the significant symbolism of the tattoo, but on a temporary basis.
These temporary adornments are often limited to the hands and the feet, as such the art of facial tattooing is a vanishing art.
The placement of Berber Tattoos was often around openings in the body.( eyes, nose, mouth, navel and vagina) or upon surfaces of the body which may be perceived as vulnerable ( the feet and the hands).
These areas of the body were perceived to require protection from the ‘Jnoun’ ( bad spirits) which may try to enter her body and possess her.
Many tattoo designs were of a style and placement on the body so as to offer protection from the evil eye. Indeed the name for Berber tattoos is ‘Jedwel’ meaning Talisman.
Tattoos would be relevant to rites of passage and added at key stages of life.
The first of the facial tattoos is called ‘siyala’ and is on the chin. Siyala often takes the form of a symbolic palm tree tattoo which consists of a simple straight line from the bottom of the lip to the bottom of the chin. This line would sometimes be flanked by dots representing seeds.
The second tattoo is called ‘ghemaza’ and is placed between the eyebrows. This tattoo when later extended to the forehead is known as ‘el – ayach’ ( the lucky charm)
There are many abstract elements to Berber tattoo designs and symbols, yet many others are reoccurring , such as :
The tree – representing strength.
Seeds – representing fertility.
Frog and Spider – representing fertility and magical rites.
Snakes – representing the Phallus, fertility and healing.
Fish bones – representing water, prosperity and fertility.
The lizard – representing re birth and light.
Flies and bees – representing stamina and energy.
Diamond shapes – representing protection of personal space.
Khamsa – representing protection form the evil eye.
Tattoos like other forms of adornment are a language in themselves. An unspoken language immersed in deep beliefs and the need to be protected against invisible perceived threats.