by Kym Lambert and copyright © 2000, 2004 Kym Lambert ní Dhoireann, all rights reserved, do not republish in any form
The Picts are a people of great speculation and controversy, with amazing outlandish claims made about them by Pagan and non-Pagan alike, Scot and non-Scot. It seems that many people think that there is so little known about the Picts that we can make up anything we want. This is not new for, while Margaret Murray (The God of the Witches) made the idea that the Faerie Folks were really small, dark-skinned remains of the Picts popular, she did not invent this. In the Historia Norvegiae a twelfth-century Icelander described them as "pygmies who 'did wonders in the mornings and the evenings but at mid-day lost their strength and hid in holes in the ground'" (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 1)
In 731 Bede reported that the Picts were Scythians (by which he may have meant Scandinavians) who landed in the north of Ireland and asked for land. The Irish sent them on to Scotland and gave the all male Picts Irish wives with the admonishment that the lineage must be traced through the women thus explaining the puzzle of matrilineage among the Picts (Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Within the Pictish Chronicle, a King List actually, the genesis of the Picts is given that man named Cruithne founded the nation with his seven sons, alluding perhaps to the seven clans or nations that once comprised the Pictish Kingdom. (Cummings The Age of the Picts pg 9-13) It is commonly believed today, by many NeoPagans, that the Picts were the matriarchal, peaceful pre-Celtic people that occupied all of Britain but were forced into Scotland by the more war like Celts, Saxons, and Romans. None of these ideas prove to hold out very well in light of what we do know however, although there may be good reasons for why they came about.
What's in a name?
The first known usage of the term Pict was by Eumenius in 297 CE. This doesn't mean it wasn't used before this time, but it is the first account we have. (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 5) The most popular theory is that it means "painted ones" and refers to tattooing or body painting, something that is thought to not have been exclusive to the Picts but may have seemed exotic to the Romans. "Cruithne" is the Irish name for the same people, as well as a people in parts of Northern Ireland. It may have the same meaning as "Pict" (if one assumes that "Pict" does in fact refer to pictures), but it may be the Irish form (Q-Celtic) of the Latin Pritani (Priteni, Pretani, Prytani...) which refered to the tribes of Britain in general and is the precursor to Brittoni, Britons, and Britain itself. (Cummings The Age of the Picts pg 12) But all these names are, of course, given to the Picts by others and not what they called themselves. The actual relevance to those the name was given to, their relationship among themselves, and who they were are not truly defined by these names. It is much like the term "Indian" given to the Native people of this country, which denied the highly diverse cultures by lumping them into one group with an inaccurately derived name.
Prior to these names, there were several tribes noted in what is now Scotland including the Caledonii, Maeatae, Taezli, Venicones. In the early 3rd Century CE Cassius Dio reported two groups of natives in the area, "the Caledonii and the Maeatae;" by 313 CE the Verona List had altered this to "the Picts and the Caledonians." By 6th Century it seems to just be "the Picts." ( Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 5 and Cummings The Age of the Picts pg 29)
Race, Language, and Identity
It is common to relegate Celts, Picts, and other groupings as "races." To ascribe specific coloring of skin and hair and say "this is what ____ looked like." For the Picts this has usually been short and dark skinned and haired while the Celts have been noted as tall, fair and blond. However, descriptions given by classical writers of the time show that the Celts varied greatly and Tacitus noted "The reddish hair and large limbs of the Caledonians proclaim a German origin;..." while going on to describe the Silures, a southern British tribe as being dark like the Spaniards. (Tacitus' The Agricola and The Germania pg. 61). This means that centuries prior to the name Pict being given there were people in what is now Scotland who were tall and fair. As with much of Northern Europe, it seems that there is a wide variety of "racial features" and tall/short, fair/dark peoples were probably well intermingled. There may be "tendencies" in certain areas but racial identity is not an appropriate categorization for any Indo-European peoples.
Cultures are identified by scholars of Indo-European peoples by language. Which brings us to another question mark regarding the Picts. What language did these people speak? Today most scholars seem to feel that it was a P-Celtic or Brittonic Celtic language, again belying the NeoPagan popular theory that the Picts were pre-Celtic. (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 20) Cummings points to a mixture of Brittonic and Gaelic (Q-Celtic) that became a distinctive Pictish language, which may have signified a taking over of the earlier Brittonic culture by the Scottish Gaelic culture that led to the loss of the Pictish people by absorption. (Cummings The Age of the Picts pg 47, 111-116) The theories are based primarily on place name records. Therefore the Picts were indeed a Celtic people despite all the protestations to this by many non-scholars.
That there may have been other cultural elements, that perhaps some of those called Picts might have been actually Germanic or Norse, is of course possible. That there were remains of pre-Celtic blood is without a doubt, but this is true of ALL Indo-European peoples. But the predominance of the Picts and especially their leaders were without a doubt Celtic.
The Question of Lineage
Bede's Irish/Scythian (or Scandinavian) genesis of the Picts promotes the idea of matrilineage of the kings. The Chronicles do show that there is almost no succession by a son from his father. But the actual practice of this has come under fire. Smythe notes that the king lists may only represent the High Kings and not all the kings. This would mean that the High King would be chosen each time from amongst a group of leaders of different areas and not a hereditary succession at all. (Smyth Warlords and Holy Men pg 68-69) Smythe has not won over all scholars of the Picts however, Cummings The Age of the Picts) and others still hold that the Pictish Chronicles do support matrilineage and Dr. Anthony Jackson bases his interpretations of the Pictish stones solely on matrilineage (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 124)*
Matrilineage is often blamed for the demise of the Pictish culture, for Kenneth Mac Alpin managed to become king of both the Scots and the Picts and many people seem to claim with absolute authority, but no footnotes, that his mother was obviously Pictish and therefore he succeeded through her as he did his Scottish father. But is pure conjecture for there is absolutely nothing known of Mac Alpin's father except his obvious name (Alpin, which is British not Gaelic bringing into question how he got the Scottish throne too) let alone his mother. (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 18, pg 44, 140) It should be remember that this was a time of much warring, the last clearly Pictish king Oengus and his sons were killed in battle just prior to this, and succession by force is a most likely possibility. However, it is with Mac Alpin's taking of both thrones that the Picts vanish in the mid to late 9th century CE.
The "matriarchy" that we see promoted by some NeoPagans isn't in evidence at all. Even if there is a likelihood of matrilineage, there is no sign of female rule or a high status of women shown. This doesn't mean that women did not have a high status, for like many Celtic cultures there may have been a higher status for women than, say, the Romans had (again this does not mean it wasn't a patriarchy, just less oppressive than some).
Stones, Marks, and Tattoos?
At a later time I will probably go into theories on the symbols of the Pictish Stones. However, as it is all just theory and my own interpretations fall in the paragraph above, it is unlikely to ever be too deep. But the symbols on these stones, apart from the knotwork and spirals that are found among other Celts and other Indo-Europeans, are what mark the Picts as separate from the rest. There are many symbols not found in other Indo-European artwork and animal stylization is a bit different.
Did the Picts tattoo themselves? This is another question that will probably never be truly answered about them. We know that the most popular theory about the name Roman name "Picti" is that it refers to them being "painted" and the Gaelic "Cruithne" may refer to the "people of the shapes." It might be argued that this is actually in reference to their art in stone, rather than their body art, especially if body art was still common among the other British Celts. W.A. Cummings, for instance, questions that perhaps "Picti" is instead a latinized form of their native name, with no relationship to "painted." (Cummins The Age of the Picts pg. 3)
We do have this bit of evidence by the poet Claudius Claudianus, however: "Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis, Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferronque notatas Perlegit examines Picto moriente figures" "[This legion], which curbs the savage Scot and studies designs marked in iron on the face of the dying Pict." (emphasis mine, quote from T.C. Lethbridge The Painted Men pg. 161). This may indicate, again that they did tattoo themselves. Because of this and because it is indicated from Caesar's accounts that tattooing or body painting was known among the British (The Conquest of Gaul pg. 111) and because body marking is so universally found, I do believe that they likely did mark their bodies. Perhaps this was considered noteworthy as others may have stopped by this time. However, I strongly question the idea that it was woad that they used and this is further discussed in The Problem of the Woad.
Despite the claims of some NeoPagan authors, such as Ray Buckland, and many others in the Pagan Community, we really know little about the Pict's Pagan religion. It is likely that it resembled other Celtic religions, possibly with some Germanic influences (but there is a GREAT similarity here too). If they were originally Brittonic speaking there is some chance it might be closer to the Welsh than the Irish, but we don't have a lot of Welsh material from Pagan times either. Chances are that some of the stones may represent some of the Pagan symbology, but this leaves us with little to go on. (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg. 21-13)
The Picts, at least those in the more southern parts of Scotland, were Christianized fairly early on. Bede noted that while the southern Picts had been led from "the errors of idolatry" by St. Ninnian much earlier, the Northern Picts were converted by Columba (Columkille) in 565. He also makes mention that Columba kept to the "wrong" date of Easter, marking him as a Celtic Christian (this being the big rift between the Roman and the Celtic churches) and it does seem that the southern Picts kept to the Roman calendar. (Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People pg 148-149 also Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 24 and Cummings The Age of the Picts pg 83-88) This hardly means that all the Picts were converted and that Paganism died right then and there but within the next few centuries it was on it's way out and we are left with no record of their Pagan beliefs. (Laing and Laing The Picts and the Scots pg 25)
For those of us following them
At this time, there is no reason to believe any of the claims of any modern Pagans who say they know the way of the Pagan Picts. These claims stem from the idea that as we know little about them we can make up what we want and present it as fact. And the truth is that there are many in the Pagan Community ready to believe these claims. However, all such "ancient ways" are clearly of modern origin.
There are a few Reconstructionists who have taken a look at the Picts as potential material to develop their practices, including myself. The difference is that we make no claims that what we reconstruct is actually what was believed or practiced. We look at the material we have, make comparisions with what we know of similar cultures, and sometimes we may "channel" material as well. But what marks us as unique is that we won't say that what we "channel" or intuit is a fact. (Another doing this is Jehana Silverwing and I highly recommend her Pictish investigations The Picts at Pour Down Like Silver)
Again, although I use Pictish symbols in some of my tattoos, I do not know what they meant to the originators nor do I know they were tattooed....although I BELIEVE them to have been. For this reason I only have two "symbols" and the rest are animals. One is a spiral and one is the crescent-and-v-rod and these only because they spoke strongly to me. Until other symbols speak as strongly I would be reluctant to take them.
We cannot fully know or follow the Pagan ways of the Picts, but we can be inspired by them. Research what we can and admit to not knowing what we can't. It does neither ourselves or the Picts justice to make things up as "The Truth" but rather to use what we do know of the Picts and other Indo-European peoples to build something for today.
This all just touches the surface of course, below are some links and books which can take you deeper than this little article can as well as sources used:
Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Julius Caesar The Gallic War
W. A. Cummins The Age of the Picts
Anthony Jackson The Symbol Stones of Scotland
Lloyd and Jenny Laing The Picts and the Scots
T.C. Lethbridge The Painted Men 1954: Andrew Melrose (not on Amazon.com)
Ian Ralston and Jim Inglis Foul Hordes: The Picts in the North-East and Their Background 1984: Waverly Press (not found on Amazon.com)
Anne Ritchie Picts
Anne Ross The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands
Alfred P Smyth Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000
I.M. Stead, J.B. Bourke, and D. Brothwell. Lindow Man: The Body in the Bog
Tacitus The Agricola and The Germania
R.C. Turner and R.G. Scaife Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives
The Problem of the Woad
Scottish Archaeology/University of Glasgow
Pictish Arts Society
Symbolstone a database of the Pictish stones with pictures, drawings and notes
Scotland's Past Scottish history, including the Picts
Cyberscotia Scottish history including the Picts...and more
Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust Scottish heritage with some Pictish materal
The Picts at Pour Down Like Silver Jehana Silverwing's work on Pictish Reconstructionism, a must see for the would-be modern Pagan Pict!
Preface to Claudian
*I had bought and began reading Jackson's The Symbol Stones of Scotland while in Scotland in 1990, but then mailed it home only to have a package of Caribbean travel brochures arrive wrapped up in the torn envelope....I have yet to replace it and wonder how the travel agent who may have received this, and several other Celtic books, liked them.
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Kym ní Dhoireann, all
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Wolf and crow sketches copyright © 2002 Aaron Miller for Dùn Sgàthan . No not use. Background modified by Kym from Pictish spiral (as featured in George Bain's Celtic Art). Ditto.
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