There has been a lot of buzz about the frozen body of a 2,500 year old Pazyryk woman, known popularly as the “Siberian Ice Maiden.” She was mummified and then further well-preserved by the Siberian permafrost. The permafrost also preserved her tattoos well. One of the tattoos depicted a deer that appears to be flying. This tattoo has attracted particular interest among modern Pagans.. This includes those dedicated to the ancient deer goddess Elen of the Ways. Some followers of the goddess have gotten replica tattoos of the 2,500 year-old tattoo. As someone who himself works with Elen of the Ways, I’m not so sure that getting this ancient Pazyryk tattoo is such a good idea.
The Pazyryk culture was a nomadic culture that existed in the Eurasian steppes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE. They were first described by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. Much of what we know about them stems from archaeological findings found in the Altai Mountains of where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China converge. The elaborate tattoos found on their bodies are considered to be some of the most intricate in the world from that period of time. Their intricate patterns rival modern tattoos.
The “Siberian Ice Maiden’s” alleged link with Elen of the Ways
Rersearchers discovered the body of the “Siberian Ice Maiden,” in 1993 in the Altai Republic, an autonomous republic within Russia. Water flooded her tomb that later froze, and stayed frozen for millennia. This preserved her tomb extraordinarily well.
The tattoo that appeared on her shoulder depicts a deer that appears to be flying. It has a griffin’s beak instead of a muzzle. The tattoo has generated a lot of buzz in a Facebook group dedicated to Elen of the Ways. Several people have even gotten or talked about getting the exact replica of the artwork as a tattoo. People assume there is a link between this tattoo and Elen of the Ways.
People make the assumption about the connection based on the research that author Caroline Wise did. I will write about Caroline Wise and Elen of the Ways in greater detail in another post. But having read Wise’s 2015 book, I firmly believe that the links she makes between Elen of the Ways and other cultures are more “associations” than actual definitive connections. She documented very well how widespread the deer tracking and deer worship cultures were in Eurasia going back to Paleolithic times. (A small handful of those cultures still exist today.)
But Wise doesn’t establish the nature of those connections. I don’t get the sense that she even intended to. My sense is that she wanted to get people thinking about the nature and the breadth of deer culture. She succeeded in doing so. Wise’s 2015 book is actually an anthology of essays from multiple people. As such, I don’t think she ever intended to clearly define who Elen of the Ways is and isn’t.
So what does the “Siberian Ice Maiden’s” tattoo mean, then?
What do we know about the tattoos of the Pazyryk people? Dr. Natalia Polosmak, the researcher who discovered the remains, said, “Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification – like a passport now, if you like.” She also said that the Pazyryks also believed the tattoos “would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death”. She added, “Pazyryks repeated the same images of animals in other types of art, which is considered to be like a language of animal images, which represented their thoughts.”
There are some things about this tattoo that are remarkably different from other images of deer. The deer has a griffin’s beak. Griffins appeared in art from the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which existed around the same time. There are no writings from that ancient empire that clearly define the symbology of griffins in that region and era. But there is evidence that there was in fact contact between the Pazyryk culture and the Achaemenid Empire.
Clearly, these tattoos had deep meanings intended to transcend the lifetime of the person who was wearing them. I would hope that any Pagan using those symbols has an idea of what they mean. What if the researchers’ statements about the tattoos are true? What if the Pazyryk beliefs about the tattoos are also true? (Who’s to say they are any less true than other spiritual beliefs?) Perhaps the modern person with the tattoo might get a rude awakening in the next world by meeting some people they didn’t expect to meet.
So, again, yeah, it’s an incredible design. Reasonably speaking, I can’t say with any confidence whether there would be any negative personal consequences for getting such a tattoo or not. For me, personally, it’s not a risk that I would take.
Controversy surrounding the excavation of the “Siberian Ice Maiden”
Anyone considering getting the tattoo would probably also want to understand that the act of excavating the “Siberian Ice Maiden” from her tomb wasn’t without controversy.
The Altai Republic has a strong indigenous culture within the republic. Many locals have always been nervous about archaeological digs. One local said, “There are places here that it is considered a great sin to visit, even for our holy men. The energy and the spirits there are too dangerous.” He also that many bad things happened in the area as a result of the body of the “Siberian Ice Maiden” being disturbed. Rimma Erkinova, deputy director of the Republican National Museum in Altai’s capital said in 2004, “There are sacred items there. The Altai people never disturb the repose of their ancestors. We shouldn’t have any more excavations until we’ve worked out a proper moral and ethical approach.”
Shortly after the “Ice Maiden’s” discovery in 1993, researchers flooded the tomb with hot water in order to extract the bodies. They then took her body to a scientific institute in Novosibirsk 400 km further north. Her body also spent a brief time in Moscow where her body underwent further preservation efforts by the same scientists who maintain Vladimir Lenin’s body on display. At one point, people also took her remains on tour to Korea and Japan. One report said that her body “was met like a diva, with vast crowds, admirers on their knees and bouquets of red roses.” Meanwhile, locals in Altai attributed the increase in earthquakes as well as many other misfortunes to the removal of her body. Another report even claimed that the helicopter that carried her crashed.
“Bring her home!”
A campaign ensued to return the “Siberian Ice Maiden’s” body back to the Altai Republic. The researchers fought vigorously against the idea. At one point the Siberian Federal District presidential envoy Leonid Drachevsky traveled to the Altai Republic in response. He declared that the mummies wouldn’t be returned. He also said he was “uncomfortable hearing about angry spirits, as if we were living in the Middle Ages.”
It’s important to note the significant cultural differences between Novosibirsk and the Altai Republic. Novosibirsk is the the third largest city in Russia. Its population is 93.7% Russian. It is culturally very different from the Altai Republic, which is just 53.7% Russian and 37% Altai. So of course, they are going to have very different views of the matter of the “Siberian Ice Maiden.”
Russian researchers claim DNA evidence shows no genetic linkage between the Altai peoples of the region and the Pazyryk culture. But that claim is logically at odds with the history of the Eurasian Steppes. The steppes were historically a crossroad between many historic civilizations. People from China, Europe, Persia, the Middle East and India regularly interacted with each other. The genetic heritage of both the Pazyryk and Altai peoples show this. And other sources claim that there is, in fact, evidence of a genetic link between the ancient Pazyryk people and the modern Altai people. Under such conditions, claiming a genetic separation between the Pazyryk and Altai people is preposterous. Quite frankly, seeing how the researchers in Novosibirsk try to define the Pazyryk peoples as Caucasian while branding the local Altai as “Asian,” it’s not hard to see the inherent white supremacy in their attempt to draw this distinction.
Furthermore, the claim that there is no relation between the remains of ancient peoples and the local culture has been used as an excuse not to return them to the local culture. Pro Publica reported earlier this year that this tactic is widely used by American research institutions. They do so to skirt the the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
In any case, Rimma Erkinova of the the Republican National Museum negotiated a compromise. Instead of returning the “Siberian Ice Maiden” to her grave she would be placed in mausoleum specially designed to preserve her body. She would also be put her on display in a glass sarcophagus in the museum. Another part of the compromise lets the researchers in Novosibirsk keep the “intellectual property rights” to her.
Ethics of getting this ancient tattoo in today’s world
To what extent is this history important when considering getting a tattoo? It depends on your values. It’s worth noting that we are only able to even see this tattoo due to what many local people consider to be a desecration of a grave site. They believe there were serious spiritual consequences to this act. To what extent do you want to be a part of that? On the other hand, someone could argue that that getting the tattoo would cause no further harm to the Altai and Pazyryk peoples. As to the risk to the wearer, one may argue that’s a personal choice.
It’s fair to ask what a member of the Pazyryk culture would think. What if they traveled from their time into the modern era? What if they saw a European or American sporting that ancient tattoo? Maybe they’d be honored. Maybe they’d be deeply offended. Perhaps they’d say, “What the living f*** are you doing? Do you know what this means???” Or maybe they wouldn’t be able to stop laughing at these silly modern people. In any case, it reminds me of some rather hilarious examples of Asian character tattoos not meaning what the person getting the tattoo thought it meant.
Is this cultural appropriation?
This blog has taken a pretty firm stance against cultural appropriation in the Pagan community. Taking a piece of culture from different group of people and using it for different purposes without the culture’s permission is a serious issue. Sometimes it can sometimes cause long term harm to the original group of people.
One aspect of Celtic appropriation that I have documented as being particularly harmful is the way that it contributes to the erasure of Celtic culture. This erasure occurs by misrepresenting the culture or not properly attributing elements of the culture. Sometimes cultural appropriation can make it harder for people to learn about their own culture. Perhaps the most disturbing example is how a lot of people refer to the Celtic fire holidays as “Wiccan” (or even “English”) without any mention of the Celts.
There is still a Celtic culture to defend, but is there still a Pazyryk culture that would need defending?
Researchers typically say that the Pazyryk culture existed until sometime in the 3rd century BCE. Do elements of it still exist in modern Altai culture? Maybe, maybe not.I don’t know how possible it is to even figure out such things. I couldn’t find any evidence that anybody has tried to study this. It’s not as easy to link this tattoo with the cultural erasure I described in this blog post. But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been harm done.
Again, I do not wish to condemn anyone who chooses to get this tattoo. I see its appeal. I have to admit that the thought of getting the tattoo for myself briefly crossed my mind. But as I look into the history of this tattoo more and more, I’m thinking, “um, no.” I find more and more reasons I personally don’t want to get it tattooed into my skin.
In any case, I would defer to the Altai peoples about the “Siberian Ice Maiden.” I believe they are the best ones to determine whether to consider it to be cultural appropriation or not.