Originally published May 2011
The Pictish people of early Scotland have long been a subject of debate. A reference to the “Picti” first appears in 297 and is speculated to be a Roman nickname meaning “the painted ones,” but it could also be a Latinized version of what the Picts called themselves. They are often described in ancient sources as an enemy on the Roman frontier in Britain. Although they have cause many a scholarly argument over what the ancient writers meant by Picts it seems to be a generic term for those peoples living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus (the narrow spot in the width of Scotland between the firths of Clyde and Forth).
Ptolemy wrote (circa 140-150 A.D.) that there were as many as 12 tribes in that area, but historians say the term Picti probably should not be used in terms of a “nation” or uniform group of people before the end of the 3rd century. The Romans may well have simply been distinguishing the inhabitants of Britain who had been at least partially “Romanized” from the northerners who held on to their more “barbaric” ways.
As someone who plays with creating Celtic knotwork, the symbols that survive from the Pictish culture are of most interest to me. There is a library of at least 50 designs or motifs that have been found on undressed stones, cave walls, rock outcrops, silver jewelry or carvings on bone or pebbles. Usually they appear in groups or at least pairs. Some examples carved into more than 60 dressed stones that have been recovered also include Christian iconography. Most of these are described as “monumental sculptures,” although rougher examples have been found on small bone or stone artifacts. It would not be too surprising if they were also used as motifs on more perishable materials like wood or leather (or possibly as tattoos if a Scottish bog-body is ever found from this era).
Two of the motifs are referred to as “V-rods” (Usually the V-shapes are also associated with a crescent shape and “Z-rods.” The Z-shapes often appear with two circle shapes. Examples of these motifs seem to have a wide distribution and in a larger number of examples compared to other “Pictish” symbols.
The third most common motif is some sort of animal sometimes referred to as a swimming elephant for its shape, but possibly representing a dolphin or some other aquatic animal from life or myth.
There are also variety of other animals that are more recognizable as well as recognizable objects such as combs and mirrors.
One scholar believes these symbols may represent parts of the Pictish language and may have been used to name people as a precursor to the majority of examples of post-Roman inscriptions in Scotland (and early medieval monumental sculptures in Britain and Scandinavia) that consist solely or largely of personal names.
Personally, based on my anthropology classes in college, I have often wondered if some of the animal motifs in Pictish or Celtic art might represent something akin to the tribal or family / clan totems documented in other cultures, but that, along with some of the claimed meanings in some “New Age” sources should probably be looked at as just speculation. Lacking more written records, or a “Rosetta Stone” to compare them to we’ll probably never know the true meanings behind most of these wonderful stylized animals and interesting geometric symbols.