Woad Body Paint

Northern British warriors of old would paint themselves blue prior to going into battle, using a dye drawn from the woad plant. To look like a Braveheart extra (or indeed, Mel Gibson), you will need to convert your woad plants into dye.

First, find your plants. Seek out satis tinctoria, native to Northern Europe and parts of Asia (see the writeup below by JediBix783). To extract the dye, you should first finely chop up the above-ground parts of the plant, lightly pack the bits into glass jars and add boiling water until all the plant material is covered. Leave this mess to stew for an hour, then strain off the infusion and add an alkaline solution such as ammonia or lye. The more scientific among you will want to check for a pH in the region of 9, but higher values will not affect the outcome, only be wasteful of chemicals.

Aerate the solution by beating thoroughly for about 15 minutes (an old egg whisk will do, as few people like blue food). Be careful to wear rubber gloves and old clothes at this point, and watch where you do it - remember that you are dealing with a dye which will stain almost anything.

You are now almost ready to go - pour the liquid into jars and leave to settle. As time passes, the liquid separates into lighter and darker fractions - carefully pour off the lighter part and repeat until no more clear liquid appears. Finally, reduce the liquid in a non stick pan over a low heat until you have a dark blue solution.

Now you are ready to become the very picture of a fierce Pict warrior (sorry). The ancients mixed the dye with fats - the oil from sheep's fleece was a favourite, but any alcohol or oil-based substance will suffice. Apply to the skin and you're ready to rock!

Apparently the ancient Britons loved to freak out their enemies by charging into battle completely naked, covered in blue war paint and waving huge axes. While some might consider it lunacy to enter a fray butt naked, the sheer psych-out power of enormous blue naked guys running at you with stone axes is hard to beat.

Most likely the Britons went to war skyclad mainly for religious reasons - any clothing would have obstructed their connection with the Goddess. The potency of blue-smeared nudity is celebrated in this, one of my favourite folk songs. It goes to the same tune as Men of Harlech.


What's the use of wearing braces,
Hats and spats and shoes with laces?
All the things you buy in places
Down the Brompton Road

What's the use of shirts of cotton,
Studs that always get forgotten?
These affairs are simply rotten
Better far is woad!

Woad's the stuff to show men!
Woad to scare your foe men!
Boil it to a brilliant blue
And rub it on your back and your abdomen!

Ancient Britain never hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck or knees or where to sit on
Tailors, you be blowed!

Romans came across the Channel
All wrapped up in tin and flannel
Half a pint of woad per man'll
Clothe us more than these.

Saxons you can waste your stitches
Building beds for bugs with breeches.
We have woad to clothe us which is
Not a nest for fleas!

Romans keep your armours!
Saxons your pyjamas!
Hairy coats were meant for goats
Gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas!

Tramp up Snowdon with your woad on
Never mind if you get rained or blowed on
Never want a button sewed on
Go it, ancient B's!
- traditional

More on woad history at Prytani Tradition: http://www.witchvox.com/trads/trad_prytani2.html
One of several slightly different version of the song, along with a MIDI file of the tune: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/David_Rossall/song_wtu.htm

During the Roman conquest of Britain, Julius Caesar wrote, "All Britons dye themselves with woad which makes them blue, so that in battle their appearance is more terrible." Actually, the Romans imported the dye from the East to die their own shields, so I'm not too sure why Caesar was so excited to see it...

Woad is extracted from the European and Asian plant Isatis tinctoria. The blue part of the colorant is genetically identical with that of indigo (Indigofera), which is cultivated entirely in Asia. The plant will suck all the nutrients from any soil in which it is grown, causing those who cultivate it to move frequently. The plant is a member of the mustard family; it can be a winter annual, a biennial or a short-lived perennial. Aboveground the plant is about one to five feet in height, but the tap root can be up to five feet in length, and the plant tends to grow like a weed in disturbed areas (destroying the soil further). The spread of the plant in the Western states, especially Utah, is seriously disruptive to dormant farmland. Leaves are a bluish green with white veins; they also sport yellow flowers and bear fruit in the form of a purplish single-seed pod.

The ancient process of manufacturing woad was almost identical to that of indigo. The plants were dried out in the sun, then ground up and fermented in a giant pot. Inside the pot, they were beaten out so that a blue-colored froth would rise to the surface. Next, the plants were soaked in urine, which gives off ammonia gas as it evaporates. Because this process smelled absolutely disgusting, the dye-maker was forced to live on the outskirts of a village.

Thanks to the March 2002 edition of Natural History and my local nursery, Jarod's.

O.k, so heres the thing....

" Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem."

It doesnt mention woad. Woad is useless as a body paint, and it doesnt stain or stay on the skin. (u can mix it with talc, but the result is a dry flaky mess). And you cant tattoo it into your skin, as it burns and causes severe keloiding of the tattoo. And again, leaves no colour.

Woad IS used as a dye (well, it was, until it was superseded by indigo, now only people who specifically WANT woad, such as reenactors - like myself - and people who do traditional dyeing for a living) however - for MATERIAL. Not skin.

So, did the picts or celts use woad? no, no they didnt... they more than likely DID paint or tattoo themselves.. but they wouldnt have used the woad plant.

Editor's note: this is a matter of constant debate amongst woadologists. If woad was used there must have been something special done to prepare it properly, and we have no idea what this might have been. -- Tem42

Woad (?), n. [OE. wod, AS. wad; akin to D. weede, G. waid, OHG. weit, Dan. vaid, veid, Sw. veide, L. vitrum.] [Written also wad, and wade.]

1. Bot.

An herbaceous cruciferous plant (Isatis tinctoria). It was formerly cultivated for the blue coloring matter derived from its leaves.


A blue dyestuff, or coloring matter, consisting of the powdered and fermented leaves of the Isatis tinctoria. It is now superseded by indigo, but is somewhat used with indigo as a ferment in dyeing.

Their bodies . . . painted with woad in sundry figures. Milton.

Wild woad Bot., the weld (Reseda luteola). See Weld. -- Woad mill, a mill grinding and preparing woad.


© Webster 1913.

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