Tag Archive | Picts

Romancing the stones: Pictish carvings, from tattoos to t-shirts

Part I: The Symbols

Which came first–the splendid stone work of the Picts . . .  or the lavish tattoos that history says adorned their bodies, and whose designs are found on stones all over Scotland? (Note from the map that the stones are heavily concentrated in the east, north of the Forth and extending as far as the Orkney and Shetland islands.)

As an introduction to the unusual art of the Picts, let me say that historians and archaeologists long ago fossilized the Pictish stone work into “Classes,” depending on the assumed age of the carvings and on the subject matter. Here is a brief breakdown of those arbitrary categories:

Photo by R.L. Dixon 2007

Class I: Rough stones containing only symbols, dating from the 6th to 8th c AD.

Class II: Stones usually rectangular in shape, usually showing Christian crosses on one or both sides in addition to other symbols, dating from the 8th and 9th c AD

Class III: A controversial classification  that “throws in” such free-standing markers as gravestones, crosses and boundary markers; none of the class III stones bear symbols.

The first fact to note here is that the classifications all include post-Christian dates, i.e., from around 600 AD, a few generations after St. Patrick went to Ireland and sent his monks throughout Éire and Alba (modern Scotland).

And yet, the designs themselves tell of a people long predating the Christian influence.  There are anywhere from 30 to 50 such designs, with the following designations:

V-rod/with crescent

 

Z-rod/with double disc

Mirror case

Comb design

Horseshoe/arch design

These designs do not take into account the figures of animals, fish, birds, “monsters,” and humans that found their way onto the stones and that are so widely copied today on our bodies and clothing too. I will show these figures in part II of this article next week.

The point I am making here is that the symbols shown above seem to reflect a society and a style far older than the 6th c AD. I tend to agree with those who theorize that these symbols were first painted on walls, made into jewelry, and placed on everything from door lintels to shields–even  on the bodies of the Picts themselves–before they were carved into stones. This would mean that the Picts’ artistic influence was felt long before many scholars theorize. It would also give credence to the Roman chroniclers’ accounts of blue tattoos on the bodies of these warriors whom they apparently feared enough to erect an immense wall to keep them out of Britannia. (See the article “Hadrian’s Wall” in these archives.)

According to a web article at www.orkneyjar.com:

These symbols, it has been suggested, predate the symbol stones and were perhaps based on the tattoos the Pictish tribes used to decorate their bodies.

From body adornments, which may have had symbolic or magical properties, the symbols may have been transferred onto objects such as jewellery, shields and doorposts before finally ending up on the symbol stones.

The article “Pictish stones” in Wikipedia says:

Simple or early forms of the symbols are carved on the walls of coastal caves at East Wemyss, Fife and Covesea, Moray. It is therefore thought likely that they were represented in other more perishable forms that have not survived in the archaeological record, perhaps including clothing and tattoos.

I have absolutely no doubt that Pictish inscriptions were painted in caves, and that they will be found by archaeologists, along with creature symbols to rival those of the neanderthal-age cave paintings in France.

The stone pictured on the right is called the Dunnichen Stone, a Class I stone as you can see from the presence of symbols only, and the lack of any Christian cross design. Some have said that the “comb and mirror” designations reflect the matrilineal society of the Picts and perhaps denote the property, grave or other territory of a locally powerful female figure. The top figure on the stone is  thought to be a  flower, a relatively rare symbol in Pictish stone work.

The stone was found in a farmer’s field, plowed up to expose its sandstone face. It has since been moved to nearby Dunnichen in Scotland. The stone measures a little over four and a half feet tall, two feet wide and one foot thick.

My writer’s imagination immediately seized on this spectacular stone, and I have given it the name “The Queen’s Stone.” It  shall find a place in my writing, and a lovely woman shall be created to befit the stone. You read it here first, my friends.

Here is another stone found near Aberlemno in Angus (roughly 20 miles NE of Dundee, Scotland) that is famously called the Serpent Stone. Archaeologists call it Aberlemno I, referring to its “class I status” as I describe above. As much as the first stone reminds me of a powerful woman, this one speaks of a strong male figure, perhaps a king. It is five feet tall, and the back of the stone is incised by “cup marks,” perhaps carved in a distant prehistoric time. The “feminine” symbols of mirror and comb are located near the bottom, and the center, like the Dunnichen Stone, is dominated by the Z-rod and disk symbols. The dominant position of the serpent  and the overall phallic shape are, to me, remarkably a male, just as as the flower and overall shape of the Dunnichen Stone conjure up a female image.

This one is a roadside stone, marred somewhat by plow marks, located in a dry stone wall.  It is one of the few that have been left in their original location; most have been moved to churchyards and museums.

My  identification of “male” and “female” symbols and stones are strictly my own, based on a fertile imagination and a lifelong love of stones.

Next week, I will show some of  the fascinating creatures that have made their way from the stones to modern tattoos and t-shirts. Stay tuned for a red snake…a grey bull…a hound, a deer, and a nice red boar that found its way onto a 21st century t-shirt.

The writing of Erin O’Quinn (as of September 2012) can be found in six novels, all centered on the ancient world of Ireland and surrounding lands.

Photo by R.L. Dixon 2007

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/
Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Ride Hard on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/P2eRDO
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

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Who were the Picts? And what about those tattoos?

While reading about those mysterious people called “Picts,” I found out a few interesting bits that I’d like to share with my readers.

True or false? The Picts were really Caledonians, the people who later became Scoti to the Romans, and finally “Scots.” Answer:  PROBABLY FALSE.

True or false? The Picts bore blue tattoos on their bodies, virtually from head to toe. Answer: MAYBE.

I realize that I’m hedging my bets here. But almost 2,000 years after the Romans wrote about those people with picti, or pictures on their body, who’s to know for sure where they came from and what those blue marks really were?

Let me begin with the first “myth”–that the Picts were really just an offshoot of the Caledoni, the tribes that the Romans found when they invaded present-day Scotland at the dawn of the first century AD.

If the evolution of language is a way to trace the ancestry of a people, then perhaps it’s only a myth that our present day Scotsmen can trace their lineage to the Picts. Even though the Roman chroniclers were careful to distinguish among the people they conquered–and even those they did not–it seems that the Picts were one group of people, a distinct race, among others that the Romans found when they invaded the north of the great island of Britannia.

There is one school of thought that traces the Picts back to Iberia, the Roman’s name for modern Spain. Others think that the Picts originated in the Orkney and even the Shetland islands, two island groups that lie well north of the Scottish mainland. Could the original immigrants have come from Norway–or even Iceland and beyond–and settled in those islands, centuries before the Norsemen penetrated as far as Britannia itself?

Most scholars think that the Picts were a large distinct tribe that inhabited most of present-day Scotland until about the fifth century AD. Then they began to be subsumed with the people the Romans named the Scoti, a nation of people that emigrated from the region called “Dál Riada,” encompassing the modern day Inner Hebrides and a portion of Northern Ireland, modern Co. Antrim. On the satellite image pictured here, Dál Riada is in the shaded oval. Thus the Irish Gaels merged with the Picti to form a nation called Scoti, or Scots. The term “Caledonian” seems to be almost generic, a term the Romans used to refer to anyone beyond the great walls they erected to keep the savages from penetrating the rest of Britannia.

The question that no scholars have been able to answer is this: how could such a large number of people, spread throughout thousands of miles, have virtually disappeared in a few generations? It’s possible that instead of disappearing, the hardy Picti merely intermarried with the Scoti, to form the rugged, handsome people we now call Scots.

Mind you, this is a guess. No one knows for sure. One of the greatest mysteries of the Picts is their language. Not a trace of their language remains except in stone markings called “ogham,” a language that has been traced to the so-called P-Celtic tongue. Not a trace of their widespread early culture remains except in the form of standing stones with distinctive artwork, in unearthed burrows, and in the traces of stone houses, among other remnants.

Likewise, no one really knows the truth about the famous Pictish “tattoos.”

I’m almost reluctant to use the word “tattoo,” originating as it does from Tahiti/Samoa as late as the 17th century. In fact, in a short story I wrote about a blue-marked Pict, I used the term “pricked-in” to refer to the falcon embedded on his chest, and below you’ll see why I settled on that term.

The very word “pict” derives from the term used by  a Roman chronicler who thought that these people were covered with blue “pictures.” The blueness of the markings has been thought for centuries to be derived from a plant called “woad,” a member of the mustard family, whose ground roots render a distinctive blue dye.

Until recently, it was assumed that the woad plant was inserted under the skin after elaborate markings were picked, or pricked-in, with some kind of slender needle. But experiments show that first of all, the woad dye is short-lived, lasting only a week or two before it becomes so faded that it almost disappears. Second, anyone injected with woad paste or powder becomes very ill. It’s a substance that humans can hardly tolerate.

So how did the Picts make their tattoos?

Well, it’s entirely possible that the markings were not picked into their skin at all, but were painted–much the same as the Amerind “war paint.” I like to think that those who saw the distinctive blue swirls and designs were on the wrong side of the Picts’ better nature, and those marks were the sign of outright hostility–war paint, if you will.

Another plausible theory is that the blue paste worked under their skin was woad mixed with an iron-based pigment that would ensure that the marks remained, and that did not sicken the wearer.

I like to think that these ancient warriors, with a  culture based on matrilineal descent, were naturally drawn to the  intricate curved and geometric designs that we think of to this day as “Celtic” or “Pictish.”

Remembering that the Picts lived in a matriarchal society, ask yourself:  Who but a woman would have thought first of adorning herself with lovely patterns that highlight the muscles and natural curves of the body? You read it here first, my friends: Pictish tattoos were invented by a woman. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  😉

The early novels of Erin O’Quinn are centered largely in the northern portion of ancient Ireland–Derry, Inishowen, Tyrconnell (Donegal), Coleraine. From there, the characters have journeyed to sacred Armagh and Tara, south  to Wales, across Britannia to Deva Victrix, to Cambria, north to the great wall of Hadrian and beyond.

Join the growing number of readers who are beginning to learn about the wild-ass people of this exciting time on the cusp of written history through a series of unique novels.

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/

Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

This short story explores, in part, the history of homoerotica in the 8th C AD. Why did Ireland stand apart in its “modern” attitude about gay love?

FalconZon#gay #fantasy #historical #erotic #romance
Kindle US: http://amzn.to/1WQ59IQ
Kindle UK: http://goo.gl/vxtk4T

I do everything backwards, I think. Here’s the prequel to the book above…all about the mother of the Pict Tawn. Just published! (March 2017) It’s much more mainstream, yet it has a certain sensual charm…

QUEEN’S STONES

#mf #fantasy #historical #romancequeen secret coll=pizap.com14893794293486

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2mtvf90
Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2mbamgj
http://www.seatoskybooks.com/erin-oquinn/5744-queens-stones/?page=2
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/709851 (pdf)

Original art of woman by dreams2media Rebecca Poole