The Picts are ‘evidently plastic people who can be moulded into any desired shape’
The picture on the top of this page is from the comic-book Asterix and at the Picts. It represents the Picts with blue spiral tattoos and kilts. They herd sheep and live in wooden houses with straw roofings and they like to toss the cabers. Although the Asterix and Obelix comics do not standout as historically correct literature, it is actually interesting to see which habits the artists who produced this comic attributed to the Picts. They could even be right, because contemporary sources do not give any information about the living conditions of the Picts. It is interesting to pursue our present-day notions of how the Picts looked and lived, but these hypothetical views were created in our minds through literature and movies. But how where these mythical Picts created?
It actually started with the Romans. They were the ones that called the Picts the ‘Picti’ which in Latin means: painted people or tattooed people. The Insular sources that deal with the Picts a few centuries later never mention these tattoos. It could be possible that the Picts stopped tattooing their bodies in the period between the Roman and Insular sources, but it is highly unlikely that the Insular sources would not have known older Picts that had tattoos. When Gildas mentions the Picts in his work about the terrible condition of Britain he calls the Picts savage people that came across the sea, and he claims that they have a lust for bloodshed. Gildas would certainly have mentioned their tattooed bodies, because it was seen as a barbaric trait to paint your body. Gildas did indeed mention their bodies, remarking that the Picts rather covered their villainous faces with hair than hid their private and surrounding parts with clothes. He surely would have mentioned their tattoos within this unpleasant description of the Picts. The Roman sources that claim that the Picts were tattooing their bodies must be seen in the context of other Classical references to the practice of body-painting among barbarians. In the Roman world body-painting was something typically barbarian, buth mention of it should not been taken too literally. The idea of the tattooed or painted Picts revived in the Renaissance when scholars rediscovered the Classical authors. Jacques le Moyne de Morgues painted his perception of a Pictish woman, completely covered with tattoos of in beautiful flowers. He painted this portrait in ca. 1585.
It could be possible that the Picts had tattoos on their bodies, but I highly doubt that the Picts looked like the Le Moyne de Morgues painting. There are other myths concerning the Picts that claim to know how they looked like. In the Historia Norwegiae, written around the middle of the twelfth century by an anonymous author, the Picts are represented as very little people that lived in caves. The idea of the Picts living underground is even older, and was already mentioned in the History of the Archbischops of Hamburg-Bremen that was written by Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century. There is no possible way to find out if the Picts were little people and if they lived underground. These stories about the Picts are probably older and were first told as folk-tales and later written down in manuscripts. The words ‘pecht’, ‘picht’ and ‘pict’ were used until the twentieth century as terms to describe a small undersized person.
The Scots became the dominant group around the middle of the ninth century. The Picts are represented as Scots, or with Scottish characteristics, because of this predominance, for instance the kilts that the Picts are wearing in the Asterix and Obelisk comic. It is highly unlikely that the Picts have worn kilts, because the first record of highlanders who actually wore this garment date from the sixteenth century. Interestingly enough, the identification of the Picts with Scots also works the other way around. The movie Braveheart (1995) tells the story of William Wallace during the battle for Scottish independence in the thirteenth century. In the movie the Scots paint their faces blue before battle. This is not a reference to Scottish practice but to (a supposition or concerning) Pictish heritage. Because it is so difficult to grasp Pictish culture, the mythical proportions of this people are enormous. It makes the story of the Picts even more fascinating and shows us our own curiosity and our will to possess an understanding of the unknown. We probably will never know how the Picts lived. The made-up stories and the representation of the Picts in movies are not correct, but do give us a feeling as if we know what they were like. We rather like to live with this fantasized image of the Picts than live with the idea that we just do not know a lot about them. But isn’t that the beauty of the Picts? In this time, in which you can find almost everything online and in libraries, we probably will never have an answer on what happened to the Picts and why they incised weird symbols on big stones for centuries.
- I highly recommend a visit to https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3658134 where you will find information about the painting of the Pichtish daughter by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues. It is also possible to zoom in at the painting and see all the details!
- Fraser, ‘From ancient Scythia to The Problem of the Picts: thoughts on the quest for Pictish origins’ in: S. T. Driscoll, J. Geddes and M. A. Hall (ed.), Pictish Progress: New studies on northern Britain in the early middle ages, Leiden, 2011, 15-44.
- Woolf, ‘On the nature of the Picts’, in: The Scottish Historical Review, 96 (2017), 214-217. This article focuses on the origin of the word Picti.
- Ritchie, Perceptions of the Picts: from Eumenius to John Buchan, Rosemarkie,1994. http://www.groamhouse.org.uk/index.asp?pageid=642061
- Ferguson, ‘George Buchanan and the Picts’, in: Scottish Tradition, 116 (1990-1991), 18-32.