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Picts: Scourge Of Rome, Rulers Of The North – Noble & Evans (2023)

  • Picts

I ran into this fairly recent (Januari 2023) book which aims to update the readers about the current state of research into the Picts.

The authors begin with a broad stroke history of the research and the Picts themselves. This opening chapter is the most interesting of the book. In the last decades the knowledge about the Picts increased exponentially. There have been many findings. Older findings can now sometimes be (better) ascribed to the Picts. There are new methods of dating and new methods of finding spots. The authors mostly take you along the new information, but also say a thing or two about the new methods of research.

The following chapters are more specific subjects. Everyday life. Elite life. From paganism to Christendom. Funerary customs. The symbols. The end of the Pictish civilization.

To start with the latter. For five centuries the Picts have ruled (large parts of) what is now Scotland. It is not that the Picts were a homogeneous civilization though. There were different tribes, different overmen, even different languages. For a short while there was a larger Pictish kingdom. The Picts managed to keep the Romans at bay, but there were major influences from the Gauls from the South and the Vikings from the North. It seems that “Pictland” had been largely “Gaulisized” before the influx from the North started. In the end all (new) civilizations appear to have merged together. Also the influence of Christianity seems to have been larger and longer than earlier concluded.

As the book continues you will learn a thing or two about the way the Picts built their houses, forts, cemeteries, etc. A bit about Pictish society and a wee bit about their pagan and Christian believes. When it comes to the symbols, the best conclusion that the authors can distill from all that has been written before, is that they refer to names and in possible extension, rank and descent. The symbols disappeared together with the Pictish language, so the somewhat disappointing conclusion is that they represent some sort of writing.

Many questions are unanswered and many sites have to be investigated further. Finally the research into the Picts is making serious progress, but there is still a long way to go. In this book you get an update about where the researches stand today. The book is fairly dry, but not too academic.

2023 Birlinn, isbn 1780277784

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.

The stones would have functioned as some sort of open air Mithraea (in their original positions) and the symbols refer to Mithraic concepts, explaining them, rather than having to copy Mithraism itself entirely. So the Z-rod refers to the torch-bearers Cautes and Cautopates connected by Mithras. The “comb” are the seven-stage rungs of Mithraism. The notches in the notched rectangles are the places where the statues of Cautes and Cautopates could be found within the Mithraeum. The “mirror” is a symbol of Mithras’ birth from a rock and/or him holding the zodiac. The “Pictish beast” is the constellation Capricorn. In this way the author found explanations for many of the Pictish symbols and even explains the varieties within groups of symbols.

I like the idea that the Pictish stones refer to some sort of religion or cult and are not simple (grave)markers mentioning names. Who knows if that cult would have found inspiration from somewhere else. Penny incorporates Ulansey‘s astrological take on Mithraism into his Pictish cult which seems feasible.

Like I said, I do not find the hypothesis wholly convincing. There are symbols that do not fit which the author turns to pre Pictish Mithraism (Celtic) or post Pictish Mithraism (Celtic Christianity) symbols. This makes a somewhat odd timeline. Also I wonder why Romans or Picts would set up stones which are more study-objects which can teach about Mithraism, instead of ‘just’ bring Mithraism to the North? When Roman Mithraea were located in rocks and underground locations and there is no problem finding such locations in Scotland, why make a symbolic and open-air version of Mithraism?

The book sure is original and Penny performed a lot of work that other authors can build on, but I am not wholly convinced about the basic hypothesis.

2017 Austin Macauley Publishers, isbn 1786290235

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.

His conclusion is that the Pictish stone are markers that refer to specific dates by showing the position of (mostly) two stars or constellations. This can also help to date the stones. I find these conclusions not always convincing, but this is certainly a new approach that needs further investigation. Forbes continue to work out his theories at There you can also get an idea of the book of course.

2012 Amberley, isbn 9781445602301

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.

The author shows different theories to explain the symbols. Some people say that thet are markers of property or at least refer to persons. A symbol could be that person’s name, that person’s first or last name or the name of the commemorated person or the person who had the stone erected. Some of these connections seem likely when combined with the transliterations of ogham texts, but things are not completely convincing.

Yes, them oghams. The funny thing is that oghams seem to be of Celtic origin and the Celtic origin of the Picts is not undisputed. We can read Celtic oghams, but apparently we can not read Pictish oghams! The oghams are transliterated the way we know the Celtic oghams to, but this makes undecipherable strings of letters. This lead some investigators to conclude that the Picts spoke a non-Indo-European language! At least one investigator (amusingly to Mack) is able to find Scandinavian texts in every line of oghams (the Viking have visited Scotland a lot), but the sollution does not seem to be there either, but even Mack does not seem to have thought of the option that the characters that look like ogham, may stand for different letters altogether.

What remains is the suggestion that many symbols come in pairs, are not easy to date (the “class I” and “class II” periods overlap) and some suggestions are raised for explanations, none of them convincing. “The best may again be to wigh the evidence oneself – and then decide for oneself! the book ends. Strange, 257 pages of theories only to conclude that the Pictish stones remain an enigma. On the other hand, I think I prefer this to authors who think they have found the sollution and manipulate the evidence to back up their theories.

Mack’s book ends with a range of appendices that are very helpfull for other investigators. Stones with findspots and current locations; stones arranged by (combinations of) symbols; statistics with symbols; etc.

No answers, but a lot of information!

2007 The Pinkfoot Press, isbn 9781874012481

Pagan Symbols Of The Picts * Stuart McHardy (2013)

I ran into this book when I was looking into the Pictish symbols. I bought and read it in Scotland. The title is promising. McHardy is a Scotsman himself and wrote several books about the Picts. While reading the book, I get the idea that he is an’interested layman’ rather than a ‘specialist’. McHardy’s book has pros and cons. What is good about the book is that McHardy dares to defy some of the standard scholarly hypotheses. It still seems as if everybody thinks that peoples can be told about by looking at the language they spoke, but things are not that easy. Take the discussion about Celts and Germans in my own country (Netherlands), the same goes for ancient Scotland. There lived Gaelic, Pict and Norse people, all similar, but different and probably there was a lot of contact between the different groups, marriages even. It it too simple to just talk about Celts and Picts. Then there is the leading idea that the Picts came from Ireland, but the author suggests that the Picts are actually the indigenous people of a part of what is nowadays Scotland, or perhaps they were (partly) immigrants from Scandinavia. In any case, they suddenly ‘disappeared’, suggesting that they merged with the (incomming) Gaelic peoples.
Having said that, the author takes another route to interpret the Pictish stones than what I read thus far. He sets out to search for the pagan religion of the Picts and see the stones in that perspective. In that search, McHardy looks around in Welsh, Irish, broader Celtic, Scandinavian, etc. mythology to find meanings for the symbols. What is good about this approach is that he looks at every symbol and does not (like other authors, including myself) leave out the animals and hunting scenes. On the other hand, the author goes at length explaining symbols that are hardly found, but about which he found a lot of information. Also the book contains too many easy conclusions. New (to me), but not worked out very well is the suggestion that many of the animals (especially those when there is only a head) are animal disguises. Had McHardy combined this with the notion that Picts are called Picts (by the Romans) because they painted their bodies, there would have been an easy bridge to Männerbünde which in that regard may suggest a direction for the enigmatic geometrical symbols. What I do like in this book, is that McHardy does not look at Pictish art as a separate phenomenon, rather a continuation of what was already present. The double discs could be linked with the prehistoric rock carvings of spirals (for which the author has an interesting explanation). Then again, with his purely ‘religious’ approach, McHardy has no sight for ‘mystery’ and thus the Z-rod is a lightning bolt for example. His suggestion for the ‘crescent and V-rod’ is interesting though: the three phases of the moon, since the crescent-moon is divided in three parts by the V-rod.
So, perhaps not a great book with the ultimate answers, but certainly a few paths to think along further.
2013 Luath Press, isbn 1908373148