The names of the Pictish symbols are invented by the scholars who dealt with them. In the Table with Pictish symbols you can see that not always the same names are used. Here I will just use the most frequently used name for each symbol and hopefully someday there will be consensus over the correct names. We must remain conscious of the fact that these names do not say anything about the true meaning of the symbols. It is, for instance, improbable that the Picts really envisioned an elephant when they displayed the Elephant-symbol on a monument.
Most of the Pictish symbols have been found on the so-called symbol stones. These stones often bear two incised symbols placed above each other. See for example the stone that is known as Inveravon No. 4.
This monument has two Pictish symbols; on top the Crescent and V-rod and underneath the Elephant. The symbol-pairs appear in non-fixed pairs. In the entire Pictish area you can find monuments that bear pairs of Pictish symbols. The monuments and symbols seem randomly arranged through Pictland.
Some Pictish symbols appear more frequently than others, these are: (see Table: Common Pictish Symbols from left to right) Double Disc and Z-rod, Crescent and V-rod, Horseshoe, Elephant and Double Disc. There are also rare Pictish symbols, such as: (see Table: Rare Pictish symbols from left to right) Stag, Boar, Flower, Hammer and Animal’s Head.
|Common Pictish symbols||Rare Pictish symbols|
The Pictish symbols can be divided into three main groups based on their appearance. There are Animal symbols, Geometric symbols and there are symbols that look like everyday objects such as the Sword and Scissors. Sometimes it is difficult to place a Pictish symbols within one of these groups, an example is the Pictish Flower (Which is the symbol in the left corner of the rare Pictish symbols). A flower is not an animal, nor is it an everyday utensil or a geometric design. Keep in mind that this division in groups is made by scholars; it is an easy way to sort the symbols but it probably has little to do with the way the Picts looked at them.
Some Geometric symbols can be executed in two different ways, with or without a so-called rod. These rods are shaped in a V- or a Z-form and they seem to cross the Pictish symbol. The rods are always decorated at the endings. The symbols that can be executed with rods are the Crescent, Double Disc, Notched Rectangle and the Snake (which is not a Geometric symbol but an Animal symbol). Because these symbols can appear in two different ways, with or without a rod, scholars tend to give them a special meaning in comparison to the Pictish symbols that do not bear rods.
Pictish symbols are always executed in the same way but each design can be decorated differently. The comparison between the “Great stone” (or Aberlemno 3) with the Clynekirkton 1 stone illustrates this beautifully. Both monuments bear a Crescent with V-rod but the “Great Stone” Crescent is decorated with intricate interlace and key patterns whereas the Clynekirkton 1 stone Crescent is decorated with a more simple curvilinear design.
There is one Pictish symbol that is the odd one out:
the Mirror and Comb symbol. Technically, this symbol is also a pair, a Mirror and a Comb, but they are always combined with each other. Furthermore, the Mirror and Comb are always placed at the bottom of a pair of Pictish symbols, they never appear on a Pictish stone by themselves. See for example the stone of Kinblethmont. On this monument you see the Crescent and V-rod on top and the Elephant below. It is the exact same pair as on the Inveravon No. 4 stone that was mentioned above. The only thing different on the Kinblethmont monument is the Mirror and Comb that are placed underneath this pair. The Mirror and Comb must be seen as an addition, they can only be added to a pair of symbols. Although the Mirror and Comb appear almost always together, it is possible that only a Mirror or only a Comb is represented on a monument. When this happens, the Mirror or Comb will keep its position at the bottom of a pair. It must come as no surprise that the strange place of the Mirror and Comb within the Pictish Symbol system plays an important role in most theories about the function and meaning of these signs.
Although Pictish symbols are stylistically unique within Early Medieval Europe, there is a relationship between these signs and the Celtic-Saxon gospel books of the seventh and eighth centuries. These gospel books, such as the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow were made by Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks. The similarities between the Pictish symbols and the decoration in the gospel books is best seen in the representation of Animals. Pictish animals are drawn with distinctive curled joints. This feature is also displayed in, for instance, the animal decoration in the Book of Durrow. Although written sources cannot provide us with extended information about the way in which this relationship between the insular monks and the Picts worked, imagery shows us that there was most definitely a connection!
- For everyone who is interested in the connections between the Pictish symbols and the Celtic-Saxon illumination I can recommend the works of George and Isabel Henderson as a good starting point. The art of the Picts, of course, but also ‘Pictish art and the Book of Kells’ and, ‘The implications of the Staffordshire hoard for the understanding of the origins and development of the Insular art style as it appears in manuscripts and sculpture’. Read it online at: https://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/georgeandisabelhenderson
 Cummins 1999, 24-26, 30-34.