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The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth

By Richard Dibon-Smith

“All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”–J. Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 5.14

The above observation is the only remark Caesar ever made about Britons dyeing themselves, and apparently the only notice of this practice ever made by an eye-witness. But this one sentence, casually included in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, would fuel the imagination of Greek and Roman poets for centuries, and would lead to one of the most widespread beliefs concerning the peoples of ancient Britain: the tattooing of the Picts. This belief was consciously nurtured by a number of poets and historians over several centuries until it has today become an accepted ‘fact’, one of the few known about the Picts.

By tracing the extant literary references based on Caesar’s remark it is possible to see just how the innocent observation came to apply to a totally different people—how the myth was born.

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