Category Archives: Picts

Pictish-Mithraism – Norman Penny (2017)

For many, many years there has been the website In 2010 the author commented on a Mithraic article of mine. In 2013 when I wrote about Pictish symbols I wrote:

So far I have found only one brave attempt to interpret the Pictish symbols. This is immediately a rather uncommon interpretation though. The website is called “Pictish Mithraism” which also tells you in what direction the interpretations go. The author argues against several of the standing hypothesis, both the symbolic and the historic ones. The biggest merit of the website is that the author categorises the symbols and tells his readers how he came to his interpretations.

I have the idea that I knew that Penny was working on turning his website into a book, but I am not sure. When in Scotland in September 2018 I ran into the little book. What I wrote about the website also goes for the book. It is still the only attempt that I know to explain the symbols and the author does that by grouping the symbols. Penny helps even those who do not agree with his hypothesis. I must say that after these years, I still find the hypothesis daring and interesting, but little convincing. The book does add something to the hypothesis that I do not remember from the website though.

The idea is that the Romans brought Mithraism into what nowadays is Scotland. Before the partial withdrawal the Romans settled much further North than what would later be the Hadrian’s and Antonine walls. Penny suggests that there, in Aberdeenshire, Romans who were “pensioned off” with a piece a land, stayed and turned their Mithraic beliefs into “Pictisch Mithraism” which spread from there. read more

The Last Of The Druids * Ian W.G. Forbes (2012)

Forbes presents a whole new approach to the elusive Pictish symbols. The title of the book gives away that the author is of the opinion that the Picts were a Celtic people. This is not the most eyecatching hypothesis of this book though.

The author found the so-called “hunting scene” on the Shandwick stone (not the one of the cover, this is the Hilton of Cadboll Stone that is displayed in the museum of Scotland in Edinburgh) looking somewhat odd. He goes at great length to show that the strange arrangement of characters refer to stars and constellations that appear in a period of time at sunrise, ‘peaking’ at Midwinter. Thus the author discovered that the Picts had an interest in astronomy or astrology and were well acquainted with the night sky. The theory looks a bit forced since Forbes has to reckon that the Pictish astronomical system was not entirely like ours. His findings are quite striking nonetheless.

Then the author goes on to other symbol stones to test his theory. He comes to original conclusions and perhaps most striking is that a lot of gaps and questions can be answered by looking at Hindu astrology. When a picturing of a star and constellations seems rather off compared to what we know, Hindus appear to have to come similar conclusions. Even the strange “Pictish beast” has an Indian counterpart in the Makara.

So what about the abstract symbols then? Forbes also connects these to stars and (parts of) constellations and here these connections are even less obvious than with the more recognisable images. He does come with some noteworthy thoughts on the rods, mirrors, combs and the like. read more

Symbols and Pictures * Alastair Mack (2007)

When you are going to hunt Pictish stones in Scotland, first be sure to lay your hands on the tiny, but very helpfull Wee Guide to the Picts. This little book gives general information and is most helpfull because it gives clues where to find the stones. These postal codes for the stones also form one of the appendices of Symbols and Pictures: the Pictish Legacy in Stone. That is not so much a stone hunters’ book, but more a book to read when you want to learn more about the Picts and their symbol stones.

Mack wrote the book as if he is thinking out loud. I would have preferred him being more to the point. The biggest merit of the book is that the author compares different theories and puts them to the test. I bought this book in the little Meigle museum, mostly because my eye fell on the chapter about the oghams on some stones and hoped that the book says what the oghams say.

Mack proves himself to be a dry and practical thinker. There are wild theories about the Pictish stones and Mack often quickly shoves some of them aside with sound logic. ‘The oghams have to be added later, since they are from the 8th century’ which makes Mack wonder how it is possible that the other carvings on the some left a perfect spot to the oghams to be added centuries later. Similar approaches Mack offers for the spreading of the stone (where are many “class I” or many “class II” stones, etc.), to guess the (original) purpose of the stones (many where found on or near church-yards or “commemorating places” so they were probably erected to commemorate persons) or to connect certain symbols (for example the mirror-and-comb) to certain people (in this case: women).
This approach works up to a certain level. I am no fond of wild theories backed up with half evidence, but the problem is no theory proves to be unshakable. For example, many stones were not found near church-yards, etc., not every mirror-and-comb can be connected to women. read more