Pictish Symbols as Religious or Spiritual Signs

Every author who has dealt with the problem of their meaning eventually comes to the conclusion that the Pictish monuments must have had some sort of religious or spiritual function. The reason for this supposition is found in the Pictish monuments that bear Pictish symbols as well as motifs from Christian iconography. Only authors who focus on religion with respect to the main function of the Pictish monuments will be examined in this part.

afb 3 - pictish remains - monumental stones

Aberlemno 2 (Kirkyard Stone): Fish Monster, Notched Rectangle and Triple Disc (source: see images)


John Stuart

Stuart explains his ideas about the function and meaning of the Pictish symbol stones in his second volume.[2] He claims that the Pictish monumental stones were memorial signs erected for the deceased, or that they served as a remembrance of important historical events (see: Pictish symbols as memorial signs). However, in his first volume, Stuart has given the supposition that the Pictish symbol stones could be part of a Pictish religion. Although Stuart rejects these ideas altogether in his second volume, others did see a connection between the Pictish symbols and (Christian) religion and based their theories on Stuart’s conjecture.

The early scholars on this subject do not only accept the monuments that display Pictish symbols to be of Pictish origin, they claim that all Early Medieval stone-monuments in Pictland must be of Pictish origin. This means that all Early Medieval stone-monuments without Pictish symbols but with Christian-, or other-, iconography should be considered to be of Pictish origin. This conjecture left them with a completely different corpus in which there are far more ‘Pictish’ monuments with Christian iconography than without. In Stuart’s corpus 50% of all the Pictish monuments bear Christian iconography, whereas Anderson and Allen’s corpus implies that this percentage is even higher.[3]

According to Stuart the stones were part of pagan sanctuaries and were gradually ‘converted’ to Christian monuments. In his first volume he cites the theory of George Petrie about Saint Patrick to explain this idea. Petrie claimed that Saint Patrick travelled through Ireland and placed Christian statues upon pagan pillar stones. The same practice might have been applied to the Pictish symbol stones. Stuart claims that the placing of Christian statues upon pagan sanctuaries was a common early practice in the church. In a letter of pope Gregory the Great to abbot Mellitus, written in 601, the pope explains that the temples of the idols in England should not be destroyed, but the idols themselves should be destroyed. The pagans should continue to use their familiar place of worship and should slowly get accustomed to Christianity.[4]

John Romilly Allen & Joseph Anderson

Their Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, published in 1903, can be considered as a keywork on the subject of the Pictish symbol stones. Therefore it was republished in 1993, with an introduction by Isabel Henderson.

Anderson and Allen claim that, after their thorough investigation, their results show that although the characteristics of the class 1 stones do not present obvious indications of Christianity, they do represent links in the chain of a system of symbolism which, in its later links, becomes a prominent feature on the monuments that are undeniably Christian in character. Anderson and Allen state that the extension of Christianity to Western Europe is responsible for the erection of the Pictish symbol stones. The domination of the Romans in Britannia did not endure and was of lesser influence than the Roman domination on the mainland. According to them, this explains why the Picts did take over the Roman custom of erecting stones for sacral purposes, but did not use the Latin language to incise these stones. The Picts used their own signs and symbols and the Irish Ogham script to incise their monumental stones. Anderson and Allen claim that the Pictish symbols always had a religious function within the Christian tradition, but when the Picts were more and more influenced by the Romans they abandoned their old Christian sign language and conformed to the Roman tradition.[5]

Class 1 monuments only display Pictish symbols and do not bear any Christian iconography. These class 1 monuments represent the first primitive link in a system which eventually turns into ‘western’ Christian symbolism. Class 2 must be seen as a transitional phase for in this class a monument bears Pictish symbols as well as Christian motifs. Finally, class 3 represents the final phase in which a monument only displays scenes and motifs from Christian iconography. According to Anderson and Allen these phases follow upon each other chronologically. They state that this is even visible in the finish of the monuments. Class 1 stones do not have a smooth surface or a perfect square top, they only bear clear incised symbols which are not decorated in relief. Class 2 and 3 monuments have a more finished and sophisticated look with decorations in relief; they therefore show a higher level of craftsmanship in a and more developed quality.[6]

Allen and Anderson conclude that it is impossible to detect the true meaning behind every individual symbol but they do give a few possible explanations of some common symbols. Almost all animal symbols are ‘naturalistic’ but there are also fabulous animals like the beast with the long mouth (also known as the Elephant) and the centaur. In some cases these animals show similarities with the animals in Christian iconography. The increased use of Animal symbols on Class 2 monuments could be explained by the overall increase of animals in European art and the popularity of the bestiaries. A bestiary is an illuminated manuscript which contains stories about animals and mythical creatures. A lot of these stories have Christian metaphors and they were very popular in the Middle Ages.[7] The Pictish Animal symbols might have had a similar meaning in which they represent a Christian value or Biblical story. Anderson and Allen claim that the Z-rods and V-rods might be similar to the sceptres that royal figures and saints carried, as can be seen in illuminated books from the 9th and 10th century.[8]

Finally, the Mirror and Comb were used in the early-medieval Christian Church as sacral objects, but Allen and Anderson argue that there is a special female connection to these symbols. They maintain that a letter, written in 625 by pope Bonifatius to Ethelburga, the wife of king Edwin of Northumbria, explains this connection. In this letter the pope blessed Ethelburga in the name of St. Peter by giving her a mirror and a comb. This argumentation seems odd because Edwin and Ethelburga were Anglo-Saxons and not Pictish. However, Anderson and Allen viewed the population of Britain as homogenous because they only focus on their Christian identity. If all peoples that lived in Britain were converted to Christianity at an early age, this would mean, according to Anderson and Allen, that they all must have professed their faith more or less in the same manner.[9]

 Inga Gilbert

Inga Gilbert published The Symbolism of the Pictish Stones in Scotland; a study of Origins in 1995. In this book she examines Bede’s assertions about the origin of the Picts. According to Bede, the Picts came from overseas and, after a quick encounter with Ireland and its inhabitants, went to live in Scotland. Bede claims in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum that the Picts originally come from Scythia. The influence of Phoenician, Asiatic and Scythian art on the Pictish symbols seems highly unlikely and has therefore never been investigated properly. Gilbert did make an attempt to connect these cultures with the Picts but her argumentation is sometimes ambiguous and not always based on historically proven facts.[10]

Gilbert states that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia, written in circa 1136, also mentions the Scythian heritage of the Picts. According to Geoffrey there was an English king called Sulgenius (or Fulgenius) that did not stand a chance against the powerful Romans that tried to take over his territory. He decided to cross the sea to Scythia and ask the help of the Pictish warriors (who lived there) in order to defeat the Romans. Gilbert admits that the chronicles of Geoffrey are a little extensive and imaginative. She does find his writings plausible because the chronicle is nicely ordered and must therefore be based on an earlier Irish chronicle.[11]

These assumptions could mean that there was a connection between the Picts and the Scythians, but this does not explain the connection between Pictish and Scythian art. The flourishing days of the Scythian empire were almost 5500 years earlier than the era of the Picts. Gilbert states that the Picts did not have the urge to make their symbol stones before they came into contact with Christians. In the Christian world it was custom to express faith by making images and objects.  The Picts  applied this custom in connection with their own faith and erected their own religious monuments. Their early Scythian myths and legends served as inspiration for the Pictish symbols.[12]

Gilbert gives an extensive argumentation about the possible links between Scythian mythology and Pictish symbolism, but in the present paper I can only give a brief overview of her unconventional findings. Gilbert states that the representation of Animals in Pictish symbolism can be explained by looking at the Scythian culture in which wild animals are considered more important and more powerful than humans. Gilbert thinks that every Pictish tribe choose their own Animal symbol as a totem or some sort of talisman. The Stag is the most represented animal in Scythian art and should not be interpreted as a totem- or talisman symbol.[13] Gilbert explains that this animal was important within the Scythian faith because it is constantly chased by other animals and therefore shows how evanescent life is. Gilbert believes that Pictish and Scythian symbols that represent the same animal also have the same symbolic meaning. For example, the Pictish Stag would symbolizes impermanence.[14]

According to Gilbert the Scythians worshipped the sun, the moon and fertility goddesses. Pictish geometric symbols could be explained as representatives of these gods. The Z-rod and the V-rod stand for lightning, Gilbert states that they represent the Scythian God of lightning and war, Adad.[15]

Edward Peterson

As Gilbert already illustrates, some theories mentioned are quite unconventional. It is however, important to discuss them because their attempt to solve the problem of the Picts could lead to new insights and ideas. Peterson’s book, The Message of Scotland’s Symbol Stones, published in 1996, must also be seen as an unconventional attempt to explain the function, meaning and origin of the Pictish symbol stones. According to Peterson the Pictish symbol stones can be explained in three ways: 1) as representatives of nature’s continuity, 2) as parts of the Pictish worship of the sea, and 3) as representatives of early Christianity.

Peterson believes that all peoples on earth, including the Picts, have focused on the sun, the moon and the stars in their worship. According to Peterson the spiral symbol is important in all nature religions, it symbolizes nature and the constant development of nature. This spiral form can be seen in Pictish symbolism in the decorations of the Geometric symbols, and also in the joints of the Animal symbols. Peterson claims that this spiral symbolism has entered Pictland trough seafaring Indo-European peoples that lived around the Mediterranean Sea and arrived in Britannia around 3300-2800 B.C.[16]

Peterson states that the Pictish symbol stones are a representation of the Pictish worship of the sea. The Romans had observed that the Picts did not include fish in their diets, even although the seas around the Pictish coast were teeming with fish. Peterson claims that the early Christian missionaries had also reported that the Picts did not eat fish and that they worshipped the sea and the creatures that lived in the water. Peterson claims that the overall shapes of the class 1 Pictish stones, which a lot of authors claim to be rude, must actually be seen as the shape of sea-creatures that raise their heads above the water, such as fish, seals and whales.[17]

Peterson also believes that the Pictish symbols could be seen as a representative of early Christianity in Pictland. Peterson claims that Christianity reached Britain very early in the first century. These Christians were later persecuted by the Romans and other non-believers, which made them move northwards into Pictland. According to Peterson the Picts welcomed these new inhabitants because of their skills and knowledge. They even married Christian wives. These marriages brought the Christian iconography into Pictish symbolism. The Fish symbol, for instance, could be an example of this early introduction to Christianity.[18]

 Read more

  • Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 2 vols., Aberdeen, 1856-1857. These volumes can be consulted online: https://archive.org/details/sculpturedstones01stua/page/n5
  • Romilly Allen & J. Anderson, The Early Christian monument of Scotland, 2 vols., Balgavies (reprint of the edition Edinburgh 1903), 1993.
  • Gilbert, The Symbolism of the Pictish Stones in Scotland: a study of Origins, Dorchester, 1995.
  • Peterson, The Message of Scotland’s Symbol Stones, Aberuthven, 1996.


[2] Cf. Pictish symbols as memorial signs [3] Stuart 1856, VI. [4] Stuart 1856, II, XIII. [5] Allen & Anderson 1993, I,  IV. [6] Allen & Anderson 1993, I, XXXII. [7] Allen & Anderson 1993, I, XL-XLI. [8]Allen & Anderson 1993, I, XXXIV-XXXV. [9] Allen & Anderson 1993, I, XXXVI-XXXVII. [10] Gilbert 1995, 12-14. [11] Gilbert 1995, 30-31. [12] Gilbert 1995, 82-84. [13] Cf. Pictish remains: table.  [14] Gilbert 1995, 39-44. [15] Gilbert 1995, 107-110.  [16] Peterson 1996, 9-11. [17] Peterson 1996, 18. [18]Peterson 1996, 16-17.