December 12, 2011

Queequegs Tattoos

This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.

The description of Queequeg’s tattoos quoted on the blog The Loom, the author of which has a new book out about science-inspired tattoos. It hadn’t occurred to me when reading Moby-Dick, but European sailors had only been decorating themselves with tattoos for some 80 years by the time the book came out — the first example of the word used in English was recorded in Captain Cook’s naturalist’s journals in 1769. 

(Here’s the original passage from Moby-Dick)