Woad, Celts and Picts
Perhaps the most popular assumption about the Picts is that they “stained themselves with woad”. If it’s true, why? Is woad good for the skin?
Well, today as you can see I brought some of it, so you can judge for yourself. Come on in the hut! I know… It stinks. It isn’t the most pleasant smell, but not the worst either. It’s just a herb. You’ll grow used to it.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a weed that produces a blue dye and was used extensively in Europe as a cheap means to dye clothing up until the 1500s before the discovery of indigo in America. Woad is native to the steppes and mainland northern Europe, and grows in the British Isles as an invasive species since the Roman times. Yes, I am implying a forbidden migration theory that will make a lot of today’s histiorans roll their eyes. Believe what you want, what I stated above is a scientific fact.
Not only is woad the most beloved Pictish stereotype in Hollywood (any Centurion fans here?); it’s also a very hot topic among historians. I love how most of them tend to hold very passionate opinions on the topic and are constantly arguing. There are trends, too. Up until the 1990s, most seemed to agree that the Picts used woad, citing Caesar and other Roman sources.
Today, however, opinions have mostly changed and a lot of people who study the Picts have suddenly become sceptical about the use of woad.I think we can all agree that Hollywood depictions of “woad paint” (which takes no woad in the composition, by the way) are exaggerated and somewhat comical, but why do so many researchers think they should go to the other extreme of the spectrum altogether and completely deny that the Picts used woad at all? It blows my mind.
But Meron, you aren’t up-to-date with Academia
I am no historian or celticist, I wish I was at this point (given how a lot of people dismiss my theories as somewhat less valuable). Although I have been following recent developments in Pictish studies (at least to the extent that Google Scholar will let me browse), my inclination is to trust the research done on the 20th century.
This is probably why people assume I’m not up to date when I mention the likes of Elizabeth Sutherland and Katherine Forsyth. I have, in fact, read recent stuff, and I simply don’t like it, more often than not. I think the 20th century was far from perfect, but at least the Celtic studies from that period tend to have a more objective methodology.
Here is what I think happened: up until the 1900s (with rare exceptions), there was a general anti-Celtic sentiment in the west. Celts were considered savages in much the same way the native tribes of America were outcasts. Likewise in Academia, most of the research done during this period about pre-Christian Europe was tarnished by an Imperialistic bias against the subject matter. So no, I don’t trust those papers.
The 20th century, however, saw the advent of many movements of rebellion against the status quo, revival of indigenous European cultures (or actually a failed attempt, but that’s a topic for another post). There was a growing sentiment of sympathy for the Celts, but still from a more experimental standpoint, keeping a “safe distance” from the actual folklore.
These movements ranged from Wicca to New Age Music. Aye, there are many problems with these movements. Ironically enough, the general sympathy for the Celts from a “safe distance” was very beneficial during the same time period, in a very different industry: Academia.
Most of the research done back then was influenced by the revolution I just mentioned, so people would attempt to relate to the Celts, but keeping a distance at the same time – this is the closest we ever got to an objective outlook. I love those papers because the 20th century authors kept subjectivity to a minimum: the general sentiment is “I won’t take the Celtic culture personally, it’s just something I’m looking into”.
Now, in the 21st century, we have gone back to a subjective outlook, but in favour of the Celts, an opposition to the Victorian sentiment. We won’t ever admit it, but we take Celtic culture very personally if we are into it at all. If anything negative connotations are found in archaeology. We simply deny its existence because accepting it would be the same as saying “I am a savage”. “I take it personally, I am a Celt, therefore I will paint a civilized image of them, whatever it takes”. *Sigh*.
Woad or Glass?
The most common 21st century argument I see against woad is the allegation that Caesar’s account refers to glass, not woad. It is a very biased, pseudo-intellectual argument filled with fake news and very easy to disprove. Caesar’s words, in Latin, translate as follows:
“All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible”.
You can easily Google the original Latin text; I won’t bother. This is not a blog post on linguistics. I will only comment one word in it: vitrum. This is the word that means both “glass” and “woad” (because guess what, this is how languages work, some words have multiple meanings, don’t get me started on English if you think Latin is so weird). Could it be a different plant, and not *exactly* woad? Maybe. Who cares. It definitely is not glass, only an insane person would think – and write for posterity – that it’s possible to dye your skin with glass. And if Caesar was insane, his accounts wouldn’t be trusted by so many people in the Empire.
Julius Caesar. I dislike him too, but don’t think he was a liar.
Some 21st century papers go a wee bit further and say Caesar was referring to scarification which he thought was made by cutting the skin with glass. Ok… But why would he say it produces a blue colour? I mean, even a 5-year-old could disprove this modern argument. It is clearly borne out of a desperation to fit the Celts into the mainstream modern idea of “civilized”. Ya know… tattoos and scarification are exotic but ok, whereas painting your skin for battle is something we associate with isolated tribes who act like animals and say ooga-booga. Maybe it’s time to do some shadow work on your bias? Just saying.
Why do we still have such a narrow definition for what counts as “civilized”? Why is it so important to deny your ancestors their right to differ from the 21st century social norm? And so on and so forth.
Did Caesar actually see “all the Britons”? We have no way to tell, but it’s unlikely he even came in contact with Northern tribes (later the “Picts”). This is another beloved 21st century argument. I dislike it too, because it implies the Picts were isolated. I know they weren’t, they had contacts as far away as Lapland (look at the Orkney hood), so why wouldn’t they inherit traditions from the south of Britain too?
Believe whatever you want to believe. Keep being stubborn, dear 21st century “Celts”. Stubbornness is a very Pictish trait. Very much like your blood ancestors.
But we tried in practice and failed…
So, something I see a lot is people claiming that they “tried” to make face paint or even tattoo paint out of woad and failed miserably. (**Please don’t try this!**) Ye all may be wondering how I just happen to know the recipe.
First attempt, too much lime in it, but it still works. Testing the limits maybe?
Well, the reason I know the recipe is very simple: I asked the Picts and they shared it with me. As a person who is not related to people in Celtic nations by blood (as far as I can tell), I tend to see my connection with them as entirely spiritual, so I don’t really care about “my Celtic lineage’s image before society” (contains sarcasm). I keep my mind completely open when they talk.
All the attempts at reviving the Celtic woad tradition, so far, were made by people who clearly had a bias against the idea of “painted Celts”. Their agenda was to disprove it, so they played it safe by doing things that have a very high chance of failing. The first total gem of an experiment is available here (along with all the anti-woad bias I mentioned above, plus more. It’s fun to read).
The blogger says it is “caustic” and will cause the wound “not to heal”. Well, I admire your courage, dear blogger. Thanks for proving it is antiseptic, anyway, because this is exactly what antiseptics do when injected and why their use is topic, not internal.
So, woad was not tattoo paint. Maybe we should trust Caesar and try topical use instead. Anyone with some basic training (or curiosity) in dyeing natural fibers with natural pigments probably knows that woad powder requires ammonia in order to become colourfast. In other words: it will just wash off and the colour won’t stay unless you pee on it. No, seriously, I’m not being sarcastic. Horse urine was used for woad dyeing during the Medieval period and you can find a very enlightening video on the topic here. It just blows my mind how people are brave enough to inject woad on themselves but won’t even try the stinky mixture on their skin. even though it probably doesn’t last long if you shower with soap.
Kidding…I’m not actually surprised. This isn’t about danger, this is about bias. As I said, these people desperately wanted their experiments to fail. So you guessed it – the experiments on topical use were basically woad and water. It washes off after a few minutes with water or sweat, doesn’t stay. I tried it too (for a completely different reason. Keep reading and you’ll see).
Why Use Woad at All?
But why? Now we finally have an interesting question to answer. Well, as we already saw (and this info can also be found in 20th century papers, not surprisingly), woad is antiseptic, it prevents infections from scratches and superficial wounds. It also smells and repels insects, in a similar way to citronella. I’m sure the Picts would have preferred citronella, as it has a strong smell too but at least it’s pleasant – however, it doesn’t grow outside the tropical zone, so they just had to use woad instead. I’m not an expert in chemistry, so I couldn’t explain exactly why the smell of urine is counterproductive – it attracts insects – so please don’t use the fabric dyeing mixture on your skin.
Water will do (just a tiny wee bit of water, the higher concentration of woad the better) – the colour fades gradually, but the repellent properties last a long time – and it’s all natural, won’t be toxic for wildlife. No, I don’t think there is any research attesting what I say here, I talk from experience. Try it for yourself! Plenty businesses in Britain, Europe and America sell woad powder. It’s fun.
Pictish hunters, gatherers, farmers and other traders who would occasionally venture into the wild often wore woad. My source here is entirely spiritual, but the gnosis also makes sense. Protecting your skin would make you more efficient in your work, as it would mean not worrying about the annoying insects or minor accidents. However, as the colour quickly fades, it probably wouldn’t be noticed by onlookers, which explains why Roman observers describing the daily lives of the Britons never mention it.
So, did warriors wear woad?
So you guessed it, the warrior recipe was a wee bit different. What I was told is 3 parts woad for 1 part refined limestone powder (and a wee bit of water, still maintaining the highest concentration rule), but you’re welcome to experiment. Woad grants colour and protection, whereas lime helps hold it in place, although the dry mixture can “crack” a bit on the surface of the skin but who cares. Both were abundant in Britain.
Finding limestone powder today is a bit of a challenge. **Please be careful not to use quicklime, it is not what you’re looking for.** Natural lime isn’t toxic as long as you don’t burn it. My best bet was to order some nutritional supplement for parrots from a specialised pet shop online, as it is basically limestone. Apparently it’s also popular with horse owners, so you can definitely get it in higher quantities too.
Magical Uses of Woad
Woad isn’t only a mundane substance that happens to appear in British history. As a spirit worker who collaborates with Picts, I also see it as an offering to the warriors, war gods, Pictish farmers and hunters. Whenever I work with these beings, I sometimes add woad to their usual offering and they tend to appreciate it. I’m not a heathen, but I have read somewhere it can also be an offering to Odin, especially if it’s the plant itself. This is open to correction by actual heathens.
If you connect to the egregore of “war protection”, woad can also be used in banishings, cleansings and as an aid to spiritual shielding. I have done it multiple times and obtained success. You’re all welcome to try.
Outside the realm of defensive magic, woad can definitely be included in sacred arts and crafts as a dye (you can definitely use ammonia from less stinky sources, have a look here). I’m sure a lot of European and Asian spirits would appreciate it, it’s definitely not only a Celtic thing – if anything, it predates the Celts by several millennia.
I feel that we definitely need to demystify woad. It is far from a mysterious substance. There is extensive research and lore on it, and I thank you all for joining me in the revival.