The Picts and Their Symbols



The ‘Painted People’
The Picts and their symbols are still today somewhat of a mystery. What is most commonly known about the Pictish people is that they were a Celtic tribe who inhabited the North of England and Scotland, and were known for two predominant characteristics. The first of these was their reputed habit of painting or tattooing their bodies.

The name ‘Picts’, in fact, which was given to them by the Romans who were then ruling southern Britain, is traditionally said to derive from the Latin pictus, or ‘painted’; hence the Picts were the ‘painted people’.

The ancient Greeks called them the ‘Pritanni’ (perhaps the origin of Britannic) and the Gaelic Celts knew them as ‘Cruithnii’ – both of which mean ‘People of the Designs’.Keep reading…

Whether the elaborate and often daunting pictures and designs were tattooed on the bodies and faces of the Picts or merely painted, the effect they had on their enemies was undoubtedly the same. According to Roman chroniclers, in fact, these fierce warriors went into battle with startling pictures of ferocious animals and strange creatures and symbols displayed on their naked bodies. The colour blue was predominant as, like the rest of the Celtic tribes, blue was considered sacred to the gods; for this reason the Picts are often traditionally referred to as the ‘Blue People’.

Pictish Symbols

Pictish Symbol Pair 1

Fig. 3 -The Goose and Salmon pair

Pictish Symbol Pair-2

Fig. 2 – The Serpent paired with the Double Disk and Z-rod

Pictish Symbol Pair-3

Fig. 1 – The Stag and Geometrical Symbol pair

Besides their tattooing and body-painting characteristic, the Picts are also known for the beautiful and mysterious symbols that are found carved on hundreds of standing stones around Scotland. These carvings portray various types of animals and mythical creatures, but also geometrical designs, crescents, broken rods (known as ‘Z-rods’) and other more obscure symbols.

To increase their mystery, moreover, they are frequently represented in pairs of two different symbols. The meanings of these symbol stones is still unclear, but they are believed to have been used as memorial stones, with the symbols denoting kinships, clans, lineages – in other words, surnames. The different animal symbols or geometrical symbols are thought to denote the characterising feature of the particular lineage.

The fact that they are found repeatedly in pairs (Figures 1, 2 & 3) is thought by some to represent the union of two lineages through marriage, while others suggest it might have a patronymic – or matronymic – meaning (the name of the son/daughter paired with the name of the father/mother). There is some debate, in fact, as to whether the Picts had a patriarchal or matriarchal society.