Sacred Ink: The Magical Power of Tattoos

Tattooing at a temple in Thailand - © Lars Krutak

When the preserved 5000-year-old body of 'Ötzi the Iceman' was recovered from the ice of the Italian Alps in 1991, it was found be covered with over 50 tattoos. Earlier this year, a CAT scan of a 1300-year-old Sudanese mummy discovered what appears to be a tattoo of an angel on the inner thigh. The list of similar discoveries goes on: in fact, it has been estimated that around the time of Columbus, a thousand or more indigenous societies practiced tattooing.

Taken from the Polynesian tatau, the word 'tattoo' refers to (usually permanent) markings on human skin, sometimes created through scarification, but more often known as the process of inserting ink into the dermis layer of the skin. In recent decades, tattooing has become extremely popular (some 25% of Australians under 30 now have a tattoo). The reasons for getting a tattoo in the modern world are many - from simple decoration through to professions of eternal love - but a lesser known reason, still seen in many tribal societies, is for magical reasons.

Lars Krutak, an anthropologist with a fascination for tattoos, has spent 10 years traveling the world surveying "how people have used tattoos, scarification and body modification to channel supernatural power into their bodies". He documented this journey, along with sumptuous images, in his book Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification:

Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification is a photographic masterwork in two parts exploring the secret world of magical tattooing and scarification across the tribal world. Based on one decade of tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak's fieldwork among animistic and shamanic societies of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Melanesia, Spiritual Skin journeys into highly sacred territory to reveal how people utilize ritual body modification to enhance their access to the supernatural.

The first part delves into the ancient art of Thai tattooing or sak yant that is administered by holy monks who harness the energy and power of the Buddha himself. Emblazoned with numerous images of dramatically tattooed bodies, this chapter provides tattoo enthusiasts with a passport into the esoteric world of sak yank symbols and their meanings. Also included is an in-depth study into the tattooing worlds of the Amerindians. From Woodlands warriors to Amazonian shamans, tattoos were worn as enchanted symbols embodied with tutelary and protective spirit power. The discussion of talismanic tattooing is concluded with a detailed look at the individuals who created magical tattoos and the various techniques they used.

Here's Krutak discussing the project:

On his website you can also find a number of fascinating articles relating to his fieldwork. The essay "Shamanic Skin: The Art of Magical Tattoos" offers a fantastic introduction to the topic with its survey of the many tattooing practices found in shamanistic societies:

For millennia, nearly all indigenous people who tattooed practiced shamanism, the oldest human spiritual religion. Death was the first teacher, the boundary beyond which life ended and wonder began. Shamanistic religion was nurtured by mystery and magic, but it was also born of the hunt and of the harvest and from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that they had to kill that which they most revered: plants, animals, and sometimes other men who competed for resources or whose souls provided magical benefits.

...Shamanism is animism: the belief that all life – whether animal, vegetable, or human – is endowed with a spiritual life force. Sacrificial offerings, especially those made in blood, were like financial transactions that satisfied spirits because they were essentially “paid off” for lending their services to humankind or to satisfy debts like infractions of a moral code which most indigenous peoples around the world observed.

For example, the heavily tattooed Iban of Borneo respect adat or the accepted code of conduct, manners, and conventions that governs all life. Adat safeguards the state of human and spiritual affairs in which all parts of the universe are healthy and tranquil and in balance. Breaches of adat disturb this state and are visited by “fines” or contributions to the ritual necessary to restore the balance and to allay the wrath of individuals, the community, or of the deities. Traditionally, such rituals included the sacrifice of a chicken, pig, or in special instances even another human – especially when a new longhouse was built.

…Apart from their role as the guardians of tribal religion, some shamans actively participated in tattooing traditions themselves. Among the Paiwan of Taiwan, the Chukchi of Siberia and the Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, female tattoo artists – who were usually shamans – worked via supernatural channels to cure their patients of “soul-loss” which was attributable to disease-bearing spirits that could be either human or animal. Sometimes proper treatments included the application of medicinal tattoos at particular points on the body or “tattoo foils” to disguise the identity of the sufferer from such malevolent entities.

…The Kayan tattooists of Borneo, who were always female, tattooed a design called lukut or “antique bead” on the wrists of men to prevent the loss of their soul. When a man was ill, it was supposed that his soul had escaped from his body: his recovery showing that his soul had returned to him. To prevent the soul’s departure, the man would “tie it in” by fastening round his wrist a piece of string on which was threaded a lukut within which some magic was considered to reside. Of course, the string could get broken and the bead lost, so the Kayan replaced it with a tattooed bead motif that has come to be regarded as a charm to ward off all disease.

…The Mentawai of Siberut Island also wear intricate bead tattoos on the backs of their hands. One man told me that these permanent beads “tied-in” his soul to the body but that they also made him more skillful whenever he needed to use his hands to perform various tasks. It should be noted that the Mentawai people are one the most profusely tattooed people living today. The reason for this, they say, is that their beautifully adorned bodies keep their souls “close” because they are pleased by beautiful things like beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, facial paint, and above all tattoos (titi).

For those fascinated by tattoos, or shamanism (or both!), I highly recommend taking the time to sit down and browse Lars Krutak's website, and pick up a copy of his book on the topic, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification.

Link: Lars Krutak - Tattoo Anthropologist

Link: Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification on

News Briefs 15-10-2014

Hey America, it's all very well to get into the spirit of things, but it's still not Hallowe'en yet.

Quote of the Day:

Where there is no imagination there is no horror.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.

Skeptic Abused and Threatened by Husband of 'Psychic Sally Morgan'

A few years ago a controversy erupted in the U.K. concerning allegedly nefarious techniques being used by popular 'psychic', Sally Morgan. At the time, I wrote a commentary concerning how quickly skeptics turned hearsay into a witch hunt (literally?), based only on anecdotal evidence. Now comes a new controversy, though this time there is far less reason to offer any defence of Morgan. In the above video (NSFW language), skeptic Mark Tilbrook documents the harassment and threats directed his way by Psychic Sally's husband (and tour manager) John Morgan while handing out skeptical information regarding psychics outside of one of Morgan's shows:

As I explained in the Guardian on 7 October, 2014, I decided earlier this year to leaflet outside various psychic stage shows, encouraging members of the audience to ask themselves questions about psychic ability. My first three visits were to shows by Sally Morgan, and on each occasion her husband John Morgan approached me. I found him to be threatening and abusive.

After being threatened during my first encounter with John Morgan, I felt it necessary to have a camera with me when leafleting, to record events and provide evidence of the threats I faced. This footage shows what happened on the third occasion, at the Shaw Theatre in London on March 30, 2014. I’ve subtitled the video as accurately as I can make out, and you can make up your mind about his behaviour after seeing it for yourself.

None of this has stopped me from being determined to continue leafleting at psychic stage shows. This is why I have been working with the Good Thinking Society to hand out more leaflets at psychic shows throughout October 2014. You can find out about 'Psychic Awareness Month' at the Good Thinking website

Now while I don't think this necessarily provides any direct evidence that Sally Morgan is a fraud, and can understand family members sticking up for their loved ones, in this case things are beyond the pale. John Morgan comes across like a standover man and a bigot, with his threats against Tilbrook surely verging on being criminal (caveat: I'm no expert on British law). I have no problem with Tilbrook providing information outside the theatre - indeed, I encourage people to understand the debate about psychic abilities as thoroughly as possible - as long as he wasn't bothering those attending, or causing real distress to Sally Morgan in some way.

Hayley Stevens has written an intelligent blog post pointing out that, in the somewhat dodgy world of people claiming psychic ability, when too many incidents start adding up, perhaps it might be time to consider the likelihood that you're being fooled (and also, whether you're fooling yourself) - rather than making excuses for the behaviour of people like John Morgan.

When people make excuses for this sort of behaviour what they’re actually doing is acting in their own best interests. They are convincing themselves that the person they have put their faith in- Sally Morgan -is not dodgy in any way and that the beliefs they have invested in are not tainted by any of this controversy. It is difficult to accept that a psychic you so strongly believe in has fooled you into thinking they are psychic and are a good, caring person… but at what point to do you accept that you’re wrong?

While I would say Hayley's list of negatives against Sally Morgan is longer than mine would be - e.g. I don't blame anyone for not being tested within James Randi's framework - it is a very good point. As Robert Anton Wilson once counseled, in regards to the tension between not being dogmatic but needing to make decisions: "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions." At a certain time, too many suspicions should at least set alarm bells ringing.

For her part Sally Morgan has sacked her husband, saying she is "utterly ashamed" of his behaviour and is not sure where this leaves their marriage. But perhaps at this point further redemption is needed - such as allowing herself to be tested by open-minded scientists endowed with enough skepticism to provide a valid examination of claimed abilities.

Though I'd like to see some sort of system doing exactly that for all professional psychics, regardless of how dickish their spouses are...


The Origin of Robotics: A 4000 Year Journey

imageWhen you think of robots, what image does that conjure in your mind?  Does it engender visions of 1950’s futurism?  The Jetsons?  Maybe 21st century manufacturing processes?  Bomb squad rovers?  Perhaps sci-fi movies like iRobot or The Bicentennial Man?  It’s a safe bet that, for most people, when they think of robots, they think of examples from contemporary culture.

Robots are actually everywhere today, though it’s not nearly as overt as Will Smith’s pseudo-utopia.  They’re out there though, doing our heavy lifting, enduring our mundane operations, and standing between us and our dangerous endeavours.  Of course, in most cases they look nothing like the movies portray.  And in fact, the advent of robotics isn’t actually a new-age, high-tech movement at all, not in the sense that it’s all titanium and silicon circuit boards.

Before we go down this road though, we need to get a grasp on a couple terms.

What is a robot?  The word itself is derived from an Old Church Slavonic word – robata – which evolved in to the Czech robotnik.  Both words refer to servitude and slavery, though the former was specifically related to religious servitude.  In 1923, the Czech play titled Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti was translated to English in the UK, and became Rossums’ Universal Robots.  The author of the play, Karel Čapek, claimed that his brother and collaborator Josef was responsible for coining the term, but however it came about, the word robot quickly supplanted all other terms previously used for that purpose.  Eventually the famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov adopted the term in 1941, cementing it in the modern lexicon.  He then formulated the even more famous three laws of robotics in 1968.  Since then the word robot has come to mean anything remotely mechanical, autonomous, and computerised.

Though it’s not technically synonymous, robot is often viewed as interchangeable with the terms cyborg, android, and even artificial intelligence.  Which perhaps demonstrates how that word has become central to our idea of mechanical personhood, but the developments in robotics from the last 100 years, whether actual or fictional, are only a small part of the story of robots.

Prior to 1923, the things we now call robots were known by other names; automata, simulacra, and even simply machine (or their transliterated equivalent) were the common terms, and the origin of such devices long predates Rossum’s Universal Robots.


Depending on how we define examples of automata, the earliest such devices come from one of the earliest civilizations we know of; Babylon.  Specifically dating to the Old Babylonian period c. 2000 BCE, these earliest forms of robots were water clocks, now commonly called clypsidra (Greek, meaning to steal water).  A water clock is a very simple means of measuring the passage of time using bowls of various shapes and sizes with a single small hole drilled in the bottom.  That hole would allow water to escape the bowl at a constant rate.  Babylonians measured the passage of time according to the weight of the water that had escaped the bowl, in units of measure known as qa.

You may find it a bit of a stretch to label a simple water clock a robot, but it does fit the description; an automatic mechanism used to perform a specific function.  By the time of the ninth Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, water clocks had become somewhat more complicated. Priests at the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak used water clocks that consisted of twelve separate columns with marked gradations measuring months, days, and hours according to the water level remaining in the container.

The use of water clocks was spread across several disparate cultures, from the various Mesopotamian peoples, to India, and even China.  The Chinese water clocks of the first century CE employed clypsidra escapement, water wheels, and chain drives.  And with those advances, we edge closer to our modern understanding of the concept of robotics.

The next great advances in the realm of automata is credited to the ancient Greeks during the scientific awakening of classical antiquity.  The great Archimedes of Syracuse, considered the greatest mathematician of the era (and possibly all time), pushed the innovation of mathematics and geometry, and was responsible for inventing the screw pump, compound pulleys, and other intricate machines.  Most importantly (for this discussion) he was the first to accurately explain the action of a lever and of water displacement – or hydrostatics – which led to more complex mechanisms and more efficient use of available energy resources.  Archimedes’ work influenced nearly everything that followed, and it ultimately represented a true revolution in the area of robotics.

The fruits of Archimedes’ labours didn’t really gain a solid foothold in robotics though, until the Islamic Golden Age, c. 622 - 1258/1492 CE.  But when they did…

Some of the most magnificent, complex, and innovative automata that has ever been created came out of the workshops of Muslim scholars and craftsmen during the middle ages.  Much like the Chinese equivalent, the water clocks developed by the 11th century Arab mechanical engineer Alī Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī of Iberia, began to employ water wheels, but al-Murādi took things a step further.  He invented complex segmented and epicyclic gearing which allowed fine movement and more precise measures of time.

In 1206 CE, a Muslim polymath named Badi'al-Zaman Abū al-'Izz ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī wrote a treatise on innovative mechanisms, titled al-Jāmiʿ bain al-ʿilm wa al-ʿamal al-nāfiʿ fī ṣināʿat al-ḥiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), and with this document al-Jazari became the rightful father of modern robotics – among other things.  Al-Jazari was prolific as an inventor and engineer; the list of basic mechanical devices credited to him is staggering.  Without al-Jazari and his inventions we would be without camshafts and crankshafts, which are fundamental to internal-combustion engines (cars).  We wouldn’t have fine segmented gears, such as in modern clockworks.  We wouldn’t even have simple water pumps and the concept of irrigation.  We owe him much.

His most celebrated works though, are in fact robots.  Al-Jazari automata and water clocks (al-Jazari Elephant clock pictured above) are considered to be the pinnacle of his work, and are unparalleled in quality.  While most of his robotic inventions seem, in this day and age, to be quaint conversation pieces, imagine how revolutionary an automatic, mechanical, humanoid drink serving waitress would be in a world that still largely believed that the planet was flat.  Or the wonder that would be inspired by an automatic hand washing machine, complete with a flushing mechanism.  A flushing mechanism, incidentally, that’s still used in modern toilets.

Our history books credit a lot of people with the precursors to much of our modern conveniences.  Leonardo da Vinci is rightly considered to have been one of the most important thinkers of the early Renaissance, with his art, his musings, and his many inventions – from flying machines (which didn’t work), to tactical submarines, to his own automata – but few correctly illustrate the influence of al-Jazari and his contemporary Muslim scientists and engineers on all of the great scientific minds that followed.  Da Vinci himself was very likely directly influenced by al-Jazari’s drink server and mechanical musical band when he built his brilliant robotic lion.  That robotic lion is quite often given as the origin of modern robotics.  Obviously, at this point, we know better.  But when you think of all that’s come out of these early efforts, it does truly blow one’s mind.

Modern robotics are so far beyond the earliest examples, but even with computers and integrated circuit boards, and brilliantly written software, the fundamental mechanism behind the most cutting edge robots from Japanese developers and MIT engineers are virtually identical to those used by al-Jazari and al-Murādi, and even early Chinese inventors.  The only real difference between the technologies is that engineers from the middle-ages and earlier didn’t have access to electricity.

So while self-driving cars, and sprinting robots, and space-age tools are impressive, imagine where we’d be without Babylonian water clocks.

Powers: What if the World was Full of Superheroes who aren’t Actually Heroic at all?

This looks like an interesting and fun premise for a TV show (although perhaps not totally original, with aspects of X-Men and Hancock in there):

Powers, an edgy dramatic series from Sony Pictures Television and inspired by Brian Michael Bendis’ graphic novel series of the same name, follows the lives of two homicide detectives, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, who are assigned to investigate cases involving people with extraordinary abilities, referred to as “Powers.” Set amidst today’s paparazzi culture, Powers asks the questions, what if the world was full of superheroes who aren’t actually heroic at all? What if all that power was just one more excuse for mischief, mayhem, murder, and endorsement deals? Enter the men and women of the Powers Division, the only people brave enough to go up against the overpaid, commercialized, superhumans who glide through the sky imposing their power over the crowds below who both worship and fear them.

Certainly some decent actors involved as well, including Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) and Noah Taylor (Shine, A Game of Thrones).

Link: First trailer for the Powers TV show

News Briefs 14-10-2014

Just a little pin-prick...

Quote of the Day:

They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’

Astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, describing going through airport security with his Nobel Prize

Some Mexican Dude Talking About UFOs

Many MANY things happened during the 3rd installment of the Paradigm Symposium, which ended a week ago. One of those things is that I gave my very first video interview for UFO Hub, an online platform dedicated to discuss UFOs, paranormal & metaphysical subjects.

The guy who runs the site, Adnan Ademovic, approached me while we were at the event and asked me to talk with me, so he could learn a bit more of where I stand on the subject of UFOs. Since chatting with like-minded people is one of the main reasons why I travel 1800 miles to Minneapolis, I was more than happy to do so.

I guess I did make a good 1st impression, because after I wore his ear off with all my ramblings about anything from UFOs & synchronicities, to the subject of human consciousness, he asked me to do a little video recording for his Youtube channel later that night.

We did everything in one take, as you may easily deduct; and even though I'm upset over the fact that my tongue got twisted a couple of times, in the end I even surprised myself on how I managed to say something intelligible about my favorite Fortean topic. I even decided to add a final thought about my recent position on Consciousness, and how it might just turn out to be the key that will help us unlock all these seemingly unrelated mysteries, which are unfortunately still addressed independently by researchers --with dismayingly little success...

I also realize that what I said isn't really that 'new', since it was proposed by luminaries like Vallee & Keel decades ago. But perhaps the time is now ripe to finally admit that the phenomenon refuses to fit into our neat little pet theories. As a matter of fact, shamelessly challenging our comforting notions of what Reality is, might just be the greatest gift UFOs could dispense to mankind.

On the UFO Hub channel you can also find more interviews of a few of the Paradigm speakers, including Nick Redfern & Chase Kloetzke, 2 people I know consider good friends, thanks to the Paradigm Symposium.

News Briefs 10-10-2014

"Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge."

Quote of the Day:

“If any man seeks for greatness, let him forget greatness and ask for truth, and he will find both.”

H. Mann

Jason Silva on 'Hacking Our Flow State'

What if we could use those peak experiences to make us whole, to render us holy?... and in Houston Smith's immortal words: 'Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?

More Jason Silva monologues: