LAURA NAUM SPEAKING SCARS
Why did my great-grandmother—and Aromanian women in general—use to have a cross tattooed on their forehead? What was the primary purpose of such a tattoo? What did it actually mean? Was it a mere aesthetic adornment? Why a cross, then? And, why on such a visible part of the body? Did it have something to do with the particularity of being Aromanian? Or, maybe it had a religious purpose behind it?
My great-grandmother, Tomaida (or, Maia Toma, how I liked to call her), was 90 when she passed away. Even though I was very young, I still have very clear memories of her. In fact, whenever I think of the earliest memories of my existence, I envision her—Tomaida, my great-grandmother. I cannot remember the sound of her voice, nor the touch of her skin, but what I do remember is her appearance: she was always wearing a black blouse, a long black skirt (with, of course, matching black shoes), as well as a black scarf, inseparable from her entire being, that covered her head almost in entirety, only allowing her wrinkly forehead to show. While the black apparel did not bewilder me (as wearing black is as common for Aromanian women as it is everywhere around the world), it was the space that delimited her thick eyebrows from her well-defined hairline that marked my early childhood. Actually, not the body part per se, but rather the faded cross tattooed right in the middle of her forehead, just like a ritualic device that provided her inner thoughts, as well as her past experiences, with a meaningful voice.
As a child, I never thought of it as uncommon or bizarre, not in the least out of the ordinary; I never questioned why she was the only person in my family with such a distinctive sign. However, with the interest in exploring my family’s history gradually expanding as I grew up, it was when I recently discovered a picture of her that I had an epiphany. My great-grandmother had an actual cross tattooed on her forehead! Questions without answers started pouring into my head. Soon I found myself under the impression that, maybe, just maybe, I was imagining it. Could it be just a strange shade in the photo? Could it be a mark, a stretch, or a spot that has gradually settled in with the relentless passage of time? The only person who could elucidate this ancestral mystery was my grandfather, and Tomaida’s son-in-law, Lefterie (or, Papu, as I call him). At once, I decided to pay him a visit, to find a reasonable explanation to what I was seeing—or, to what I thought I was seeing.
In that crisp morning of late October, the sun was still gleaming through the leafless trees, cautiously caressing my cheeks. As expected, I found Papu at home, and, despite his initial surprise to see me, he seemed eager to help me with my quest.
‘Papu, what do you remember about my great-grandmother?’
‘Oh, what a wonderful woman. Her eyes expressed kindness, but also determination. She had a firm personality. She was the wisest woman I ever met.’
When I inquired about the tattoo, my grandfather maintained his initial serenity, yet the look in his eyes became more firm than before. He was now alternating his sharp stare between various imaginary points that he had fixed—rather randomly—on the white wall of his living room. Despite this silent uncertainty that dominated our initial interaction, it wasn’t long until I came to realise the cross tattoos were quite common for Aromanian women.
Aromanians—everywhere, yet nowhere
Originally coming from different parts of the Balkans, Aromanians (Armâńi / Rrămăńi) are now spread unevenly across Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and the Republic of Macedonia. These communities were, in fact, clustered in small, isolated areas, and, according to the place they inhabited, Aromanians received different regional names: in Albania they were known as Frasheroti, in Greece as Gramusteni and Pindeni, in Macedonia as Moglen, or Meglen Vlachs, and in the region of Muzakiya as muzakiri. Regardless of their geographical settlement, most Aromanians are Eastern Orthodox Christians and speak a Romance dialect closely related to Romanian (of course, as well as the official language of their current country of residence). In fact, historians largely agree that Aromanians are the last remnants of the Latin speaking population that existed in the Balkans since the incorporation of ancient Macedonia into the Roman Empire in 148 B.C. Yet, despite a decent amount of literature devoted to their existence, their line of ancestry remains rather obscure, shrouded by time and unsettled by constant exoduses toward more favourable conditions. The current demographic of Aromanians is, therefore, difficult to estimate with accuracy (measurements range from 100,000 to 250,000 in Eastern Europe alone), not only due to their geographical unevenness, but especially due to the number of mixed marriages as well as an increasing deficiency in preserving the authentic Aromanian heritage (language, traditions, culture).
Tomaida Chiacu, my great-grandmother, was born into a Christian family in 1904 in the city of Korçë, Albania, a country which, back then, was still under Ottoman control (and, until the Albanian National Awakening in 1912, continued to be subordinated to the Sublime Porte). She came to Romania in 1939 with her husband, Halciu, and, after a rough period of political instability for minorities, settled in the South-Eastern part of Romania, or the Dobrogea area, in Constanța. Mirroring those times of blind struggle and conflict, Dobrogea, with its rugged landscape purged by the whirling waves of the Danube (to the West) and the Black Sea (to the East), remained, in spite of everything, my family’s safe haven. It remained, after all, the protective refuge that kept us safe during the Second World War and where my family chose to return to after being deported in the other corner of the country, in Timișoara, in 1944. Remaining one of the very few regions where we survived and even thrived in keeping our traditions alive, Dobrogea is the place where my grandmother, Ana, and, my mother, Tana, were born.
Yet, despite this fascinating initiation into my genealogical lineage, numerous questions were still gurgling and bubbling inside my head: Why did my great-grandmother—and Aromanian women in general—use to have a cross tattooed so noticeably? What was the primary purpose of such a tattoo? What did it actually mean? Was it a mere aesthetic adornment? Why a cross, then? And, why on such a visible part of the body? Did it have something to do with the particularity of being Aromanian? Or, maybe it had a religious purpose behind it? I will try and address these questions in the following paragraphs.
Aromanian tattoos as a ritual of resistance
From the very beginning it is important to mention that the subject of tattoos has always played an important role in a wide range of disciplines, from ethnology and anthropology to forensic medicine or the arts. For instance, pioneer scholars in the field of criminology, such as Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) in France, his professional rival Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) in Italy, or Nicolae S. Minovici (1868-1941) in Romania, were the first to study the iconography of the European tattoo. In fact, the current availability of archival and historical material pertaining to the European tattoo owes a great deal to the work of criminologists and their surviving collections of drawings, photographs, as well as preserved specimens safely kept in archives and universities across Europe. Especially with regard to questions of identity, such early efforts to gather, classify, and analyse tattoo-related data have generated a valuable body of iconographic material for documenting the techniques of getting a tattoo as well as studying the reasons that stood behind getting a tattoo.
The taxonomy of tattoos seems to be much more extended following a historical perspective, than it is in contemporaneity, when tattoos are mostly made for aesthetic purposes. Minovici differentiates between the subsequent kinds of tattoos: therapeutic, religious, war, professional, tribal, ethnic, and family. Going back to the case of my great-grandmother, and given the very particularity of our genealogy, I start my investigation by looking into the meanings and roles of ethnic tattoos. Yet, instead of looking at the mere theoretical classification of tattoos, I believe that a relatively deeper optic is required: going beyond their physical nature, tattoos transcend their initial state of a mere (self-)inflicted wound, of an ink mark engraved onto the firm skin of one’s body, and further materialise into a sociocultural signal, or a self-disclosed message heavily imbued with psychological meaning. Tattoos are speaking scars that tell a bygone story.
Within the notion of ethnic tattoos, another interesting reason for marking one’s body has been found to be that of identification. In the not so far history of Eastern Europe, Minovici found this practice to be a common one for the (a)Romanians living in Macedonia. In fact, tattooing children became prevalent during the ongoing clashes between Ottoman Turks and Christians in the Balkans. In order to identify their children’s bodies (in the case they were injured or murdered), Aromanian families resorted to this unconventional mechanism of recognition, where Christian crosses were tattooed on their upper limbs and other visible parts of the body. Nevertheless, most of the scholarship focusing on this subject matter fails to provide any evidence that this practice may be universally applicable for both genders. In fact, I could not find any proof of cross tattoos on the skin of men. So, why was this kind of tattooing common only for women? With the chances of finding a living Aromanian woman with a cross tattoo available for an interview being rather slim, I continued my quest. I returned to my grandfather for more explanations, and, despite his habitual difficulties to remember, his memories of Tomaida remained intact.
I quickly discovered that, in the case of my great-grandmother (as well as probably of other Aromanian women), the reasons for getting a tattoo were very much safety-oriented. We should not forget that we are not talking about any kind of tattoo; in fact, the Christian cross was intended to obstruct the very attempts of the Turks to take advantage of Aromanian women. Accounting that women with such distinctive marks on their body were considered sinful (and mutilated) by the Ottomans, such a tattoo became, on the one hand, a tool of protection against rape and molestation, and, on other other, a strategy of avoiding being taken into their harems. In conjunction with the symbolic message, it was the bodily location of the tattoo that mattered: the spaces where these tattoos were engraved (limbs and forehead) were as noticeable and visible as possible. They were made to be seen. All these elements are part of a straightforward and highly effective plan of action that shielded Aromanian women from the invader’s wrath. Through these tattoos, the surface of the body becomes a new spatial dimension, through which the emotions, as well as the inner drives (of survival), are rendered in a form that remains acutely temporal—“the permanence of the tattoo means that it functions as a lasting memory of corporeal, emotional existence.” Despite that, at a first glance, cross tattoos may come across as an extreme measure, for many, such bodily changes granted its possessors their survival.
In addition to seeing Aromanian tattoos as a means of resistance and a method of survival, tattooed crosses ultimately represented an overt affirmation and ratification of one’s Christian beliefs. In this regard, I believe that Émile Durkheim’s views on religion, as “an eminently collective thing,” become increasingly relevant. After all, representations of religiosity are collective representations that correspond to collective realities. Following Durkheim’s thought, religious rites are ways of acting that are inherently present at the core of communities, whose ultimate “purpose is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups.” My great-grandmother’s decision to have a cross tattooed on her body is, therefore, inherently connected not only with the geographical place she was born into (a deteriorating minority in unsettled Albania), or with the socio-political circumstances of Aromanians at the beginning of 20th century (crossing swords with the much more powerful Ottoman Turks), but also with the religious inclinations of the community she was part of. Following this intricate puzzle of predicaments, Tomaida’s act of tattooing a cross is part of religious ritual of resistance, one that gave her, as well as other Aromanian women, the chance to live.
But then, another intense desire started to contort and grapple with my mind. How were these tattoos actually made? As my grandfather could not provide accurate details, I continued my quest until I came across the Museum of Ethnography and Popular Art of Tulcea, located somewhere toward the northern end of Dobrogea. Here, I found a coherent documentation with regards to aspects of cultural identity of the different peoples that had lived historically in Dobrogea—and, likewise, who continue to live in harmony today. According to their evidence, the pigment used for Aromanian tattoos was carbon black, a derivative of coal. In fact, in addition to the symbolic object that it gave shape to (crosses in our case), carbon black itself was believed to have purificatory powers; following the tokens of popular tradition, carbon black protected women from the mischievous charms of the Evil Eye and other misfortunes. With this kind of tattooing being engraved exclusively by (and for) women, the sign of the cross was drawn onto the skin with a paste that resulted from the mixture between carbon black and alcohol. Afterwards, with the help of two needless, the tattoo was punctured. The area was then bound with a piece of cloth and released after ten days. Resembling a genuine ritual, the act of tattooing was done in secret, following specific codes of each community of Aromanians. Rather interestingly, I soon found out that women sometimes used other motifs, such as dates of birth, trees, or embroidery patterns (these adding perhaps an aesthetic function to the the one Tomaida had).
Yet, despite these helpful insights offered by the museum, I did not manage to find answers to other crucial questions. (Were there any rules or customs for the act of tattooing? Were there any types of ceremonies, or any types of steps that needed to be followed?) What is beyond any doubt with regards to Aromanian tattoos is that, today, the customs has faded away and is no longer practiced. Perhaps, this is because Aromanian women no longer face the same dangers as they did several hundred years ago. But if tattoos seem to have slowly disappeared, crosses have not: at weddings, crosses play a central role in our symbolic imagery. Hlambura is made out of a wooden cross with three apples stuck at the end of each arm and with a white flag hoisted around it. In a sort of symbolic convoy toward prosperity, wedding guests carry this cross and every hora (a circle dance performed at festive occasions) needs to be led by the person who carries the cross. Once engraved onto one’s skin, crosses actively worked as a functional object of safeguarding and protection; at weddings, they now symbolise stability for the newlyweds, as well as fertility.
The bottom line being that necessity is the mother of invention, Aromanian women take control of their own bodies and survive in uncertain times. The body, therefore, becomes a site of resistance, a space of social significance, where the imprint of ink onto the layer of skin evolves into a communicative signifier, a semiotic safeguarding against oppression and dangers. The body also becomes a textual material through which my great-grandmother, as well as other Aromanian women, publicly and explicitly proclaim their own manifesto: one that does not allude to futile opulence and grandeur, yet one that keeps their integrity intact and, above all, keeps them alive. Surpassing the symbolic liberation that contemporary tattoos allegedly bring, Aromanian women have to resort to such ingenious acts of subversion in order to survive. Aromanian tattoos, therefore, become more than just mere ink on skin: they reverberate throughout time and history and they cannot be comprehended without accounting the mythology of their own bearers. As it was the case with Tomaida, such distinguishing marks convey deeper meanings concerning her own identity and beliefs. Consciously, women like my great-grandmother bend the Christian rules of a sanctified and unaltered body and further expand the social boundaries imposed against minority groups. The body, the skin, the self are, therefore, weapons of survival that should be found in every community’s toolkit of resistance.
- Nikolov S.E. (2011) Aromanians, in Cole J.E. Ethnic groups of Europe: en encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, pp.16-19.
- Krutak L. (2010) The Vlachs, retrieved from http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/north_africa_tattoo_history_7.htm
- Angel G. (2015) Roses & Daggers: Expressions of Emotional Pain & Devotion in 19th-Century Tattoos, in Rosenthal C. & Vanderbeke D. Probing the Skin: Cultural Representations of Our Contact Zone, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p.214.
- Minovici N.S. (2007) Tatuajele în România [Tattoos in Romania], București: Curtea Veche, pp.15-26.
- Lacassagne A. (1881) Les tatouages: étude anthropologique et médico-légale [Tattoos: anthropological and medico-legal studies], Paris: J.B. Baillière.
- Angel G. (2015) Roses & Daggers, p.226.
- Durkheim É. (1995) Formele elementare ale vieții religioase [Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse], București: Polirom, p.7.
- The Evil Eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something else. The supernatural harm may come in the form of anything from a minor misfortune to disease, injury or even death. Ranging from paranormal phenomenon to mere superstition, the Evil Eye arguably exists, yet it cannot be explained in current scientific terms. At most, it is magic. Others (perhaps positive scepticals) believe—without scientific evidence, but in a scientific spirit—that the Evil Eye has energetical influence on the victim’s body and speak of the bioelectric currents of the body, trying to please unknown facts with what is already known. The reality is that, for now, nobody knows what the Evil Eye truly is or whether it truly exists.