Did the Celts Wear War Paint?


Modern media depictions of the Celts often portray them in bright blue war paint. Even Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Scotsman William Wallace in Braveheart featured the iconic blue paint. Did actual Celtic warriors wear this paint, though, or is it a Hollywood fabrication?

Some Celts wore blue war paint, possibly made of woad. Some of this “paint” was actual paint. Sometimes, though, the Celts tattooed their bodies instead. Despite popular belief, not all Celtic people used war paint. Instead, it seems to have been most prevalent among the Celtic Picts.

This article will go into more detail about why the Celts wore war paint. It will also explain why the color was blue and whether other civilizations knew about the paint. 

Celts
Why did the Celts wear war paint? See below

Why Did the Celts Wear War Paint?

The Celts likely wore war paint for three primary reasons: 

  • To separate themselves from their enemies in battle 
  • Because it made them look wilder and more ferocious
  • Because the war paint helped heal scars received in battle

The following sections will look at each of these reasons in more detail.

War Paint Allowed Celts To Separate Themselves From Their Enemies in Battle and Quickly Recognize Friend From Foe

Many scholars agree that the use of woad dye was more likely medicinal than strategic. Even so, the blue color would undoubtedly be an identifying feature of the warriors who wore it.

So while this reason may have been an unintended perk of the blue dye, it was a perk nonetheless. In the heat of battle, it can be hard to recognize friend from foe. Turning around to kill someone and noticing they had a blue streak across their face likely resulted in less accidental ally slaying.

War Paint Made the Celt Look Wilder and More Ferocious

It’s human nature to fear what can’t be understood. And the wilder and more foreign something looks, the fewer humans can understand it. 

Covering themselves in a blue dye made the Celts look otherworldly. [1] They were more like strange creatures from the forest than humans. Opposing warriors were likely already off-balance and afraid. The Celts’ odd appearance probably did quite a bit to enhance those feelings.

Other cultures have used these same techniques throughout the centuries. Japanese samurai wore ferocious, fiery red masks to intimidate their enemies. [2] Various Native American tribes wore war paint for the same reason.

Woad, the Blue Dye, Helped Heal Battle Scars

Today, most scholars agree that the Celts who wore blue paint likely did so for medicinal purposes. For one thing, people who have tested woad on their skin found that it burns them, like an antiseptic. [3]

Most people wouldn’t cover themselves in something that caused them pain just to look ferocious. That’s why most historians agree that there was probably another, more likely reason.

And that other, “more likely” reason is that woad has healing properties. Slathering it on their scars and wounds presumably helped them heal.

The other advantages – a fearsome and easily recognizable appearance – were probably just happy coincidences.

Celtic cross green
Why did the Celts paint themselves Blue? See below

Other Theories As To Why the Celts Used War Paint

There are two other prevalent theories concerning why the Celts used war paint. The first, that woad was a hallucinogenic that got them high before battle, has been disproven. [4] The second is that they tattooed themselves with blue dye as part of a spiritual process. 

That last one holds some truth. According to Herodian, the Celts “puncture[d] their bodies with pictured forms of every sort of animal.” [5] There are other accounts from Roman writers claiming the Celts had tattoos. They also referred to them as “the painted ones.” 

These tattoos likely had little to do with battle and everything to do with a spiritual or religious experience. They might not have used woad for this ink, however. As any tattooist can attest, copper is an excellent source of blue pigment.

It would have been a more vibrant color and wouldn’t have burned. Therefore, the Celts may have used it instead.

As for the hallucinogenic argument, it holds little weight. The portion of woad that makes blue dye is not hallucinogenic.

Why Did the Celts Paint Themselves Blue?

The Celts who painted themselves blue likely did so to cover their scars and try to heal them. Woad was a readily available ingredient in areas where the Celts lived. They would have quickly learned about its antiseptic properties and started using it medicinally. 

As mentioned above, however, some scholars believe they might have used copper to source their blue dye. Either way, the most common reasons the Celts painted themselves can be found above. 

They probably painted themselves blue because blue was the dye color that was most readily available for them.

Celtic cross
Celtic cross

Did Other Ancient People Groups Mention Their War Paint?

Many Roman writers mention the Celtic warriors’ penchant for painting their faces and bodies with war paint. The most notable of these are Herodian, a Roman civil servant, and Julius Caesar.

Caesar was the person who had the most influence on scholars’ belief that the Celts used woad for their dye. He stated it outright when he wrote, “All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue color and gives a wild appearance in battle.” [6]

While potentially true, the statement contained some inaccurate information. Firstly, not all Britons dyed their bodies. Secondly, as outlined above, those they did likely did so for healing purposes. They weren’t trying to have a “wild appearance in battle.”  

And finally, scholars aren’t sure that the Celts used woad for their blue dye. As also stated above, the verdigris that often formed on copper was another option and a less painful one.

Even so, the general consensus is that the Celts used woad. Historians and scholars might argue against it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to change people’s minds about something they’ve believed for hundreds of years.

Conclusion

Some Celts, notably the Celtic Picts of Scotland, wore war paint. However, the reasons for it – and the source of the dye – are still contested.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source

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