Skip to comments.(Posted October 2003) What Really Happened To The Picts?
Posted on 10/27/2003 4:58:29 PM PST by blam
What Really Happened to the Picts?
The indigenous people of the northern Great Britian who have been known throughout history as "The Picts", never called themselves Picts. They called themselves by many names according to their gods and their totum animals. They were known among themselves as the Catuvallani (the people of the cat), the Damnoni, the Epidii (the people of the horse), the Veniconea, the Novantae, the Caerini (the sheep folk), the Smertae (the smeared people) and many other names which have disappeared in the mists of time. However, the Romans called them "Picti", the pictured or painted people, supposedly because of painted or tattooed designs on their bodies. That is the title they have born throughout history.
Though they left many images carved in stone, the Picts themselves left no written records which we have been able to read. Their elaborate stone carvings were undoubtedly more than just decorative pictures, but aside from a few proper names, no one has successfully decoded them. One theory is that the picture stones were actually a form of heraldry, which no doubt spoke volumes to those who understood the symbols, but are un-readable to modern scholars.
Since there are no records that let the Northern tribes speak for themselves, modern investigators must read and interpret the records kept by those who encountered them. This makes much of what we "know" about the Picts subject to question.
The little we know about the Picts comes from a few lines recorded by the Roman writer, Eumenius. The information in the Roman records should be read with the understanding that the Romans hated the Picts. Hadrian's Wall was constructed by the Romans to keep Pictish invaders out of the lands that had been conquered by the Roman Legions in Britian. The Romans never hesitated to distort the truth to reflect their world view, which was that any society which had not surcumbed to Roman rule was inferior.
The Picts occupied a unique place in history. They were a prehistoric society which survived into historical times. The Dark Ages were a time of conflict and change. The few historical records that have survived are rife with conjecture and outright fabrication. To make things even worse, the surviving histories would be re-written to reflect favorably upon whichever ruler or faction was in control at the time.
I would like to propose a few theories. These are my own thoughts after reading everything I can find on the Picts. The reader should do your own research and come to your own conclusions:
No one is sure where the Picts originated. The Venerable Bede claimed that they were an ancient people who came to Britian across the sea. They have been identified by different scholars as being "Scythians", "Iberians" or "Finnish-Estonian". Some claim that they were early Celts (though as early as 556 A.D. Irish priests complained that they had to find interpreters because the Picts spoke a "foreign" language totally different than the Celtic languages with which the priests where familiar. Some scholars have tried to link them linguistically to the Basques.
The statement that they may have been Finnish struck a responsive chord with me. However, I don't believe that they were the robust blond peoples whom we usally think of as being "Finns". There is another cultural and physical type living in the northern regions of Finland. I personally believe that the Picts had the same genetic origins as the Saami(Lapps). There are several correlations between what we know about the Picts and what we know about the Saami:
The Saami are small, dark and rugged. They make their living in an inhospitable environment and have their own unique culture which is very different from the other groups living near them. Before the coming of Christianity, they worshipped multiple gods.
I see the prehistoric Picts living much as the Native Americans did prior to the coming of the Europeans. I believe the Picts had a tribal system in which several families would form small mobile communities under a clan chief. Though they may have done some farming, their main sources of food were probably their herds of sheep and goats, which would have been the highland equivilent to the herds of reindeer which the Saami continue to herd to this very day. They may have supplimented their diet with things the Mother provided, wild fruits and berries and the wild animals they hunted.
There is evidence that each clan or tribe held all property in common: what belonged to one belonged to all. Late comers complained that the Picts were thieves. It is very possible that the Picts simply could not comprehend the idea that land or property could belong to a single individual or group.
According to Bede, the succession in Pictish tribes was matriliniar. Either the leadership was passed directly to members of only one maternal line, or it went to the sister's son of the reigning chief. This must have seemed positively perverse to the paternal Romans and Saxons, who felt no qualms about overthrowing a culture which revered its women.
A serious cultural clash occured when later settlers including the Romans, Scots and Anglo Saxons encountered the Pictish tribes. The fierce conflicts which occurred when outsiders tried to occupy the territory in which the Picts had formerly ranged freely were the result of these dramatic cultural differences. The Romans built and manned Hadrian's Wall in a futile effort to keep the Picts out of the southen British areas. The Picts were fierce fighters. From the second to the fouth centuries they waged repeated war against the Romans south of the Wall. It is probable that they used guerrilla tactics against the well trained Roman Legions with great success.
"The Little People"
Folklore may provide clues to the physical type and life-style of the early Picts which is as valid as the Roman records. Many of the attributes given to the denizens of Faery may have been true of the Picts when the Romans first encountered them. They were small in stature (probably no more than 4 feet tall) and dark of hair and eyes. Archiological evidence shows that they probably spent the icy winters in underground structures which were entered by narrow tunnels, much like an igloo built of stone. These were hidden from view by a covering of sod which made the final stucture look like a rounded hill.2
The legends of wayfarers stumbling upon a fairy hill where small people feasted and danced may simply have been the distorted memories of visits to a Pictish broch. These underground stuctures were still in use by Scottish shepherds as lates as the 17th century.
Did the Picts become the Pixies?
The Romans may have begun to believe in "Pictish magic" when they could not defend themselves against their smaller, more poorly armed attackers. Fairytales which tell of the faery dread of iron may cloak the grimmer tale of a primitive culture fighting with stone or possibly bronze weapons against the more technologically advanced steel weapons of the Romans. The Picts reportedly used small flint-headed arrows. No distinctively Pictish weapons have been identified. Whether the Picts used stone, bronze, or steel for their arms, one thing is clear: they proved to be equal to and often superior to the Romans. According to Cassius Dio, around 180 the northen tribes 'crossed the wall that separated them from the Roman forts, did a great deal of damage and cut down a general and his troops'. When the Romans couldn't defeat them, they tried to buy them off 'for a great sum'. There is some evidence that Roman silver was reaching northern Scotland in appreciable quantities in the third and fourth centuries. Silver was the metal of choice for ornamental metalwork in Pictland and it is difficult to to see from where silver was obtained if not from...stocks of Roman metalwork.1
"Come away, O human child
Some of the most disturbing and enduring legends of the Scottish Highlands are the tales of stolen children. The tales of stolen babies and changlings may have had a basis in fact. It is possible that the Pictish people had some congenital weakness which made conception or delivery of a healthy child difficult. In a time when nothing was known about genetics and every illness or abnormality was attributed to witchcraft, one thing is certain, non-Pictish peoples were terrified that the Picts might steal their children.
It is possible that a few children were taken from parents whom the Picts deemed unworthy. The traditional tales indicate that the "stolen" children had usually been left unattended in a cottage or field. If the Pictish tribes valued children as highly as they seem to have, they may have taken children they felt were being abused or neglected.
A more likely scenario is that the Picts were trying to continue with the outlanders the system of fosterage they used among themselves. The indigenous peoples of Britian sealed alliances and settled conflicts by sending their children to be fostered by others. Fosterage by a fine warrior or king was considered to be a great honor. Perhaps Pictish children were exchanged for children of the invaders. If the non-Pictish parents felt that that they had been coerced into giving their "human" children in exchange for "fairy" children, whom they considered ugly and uncouth, it would have been quite easy for these exchanges to be twisted and given a sinster aspect they never had in reality. Like so many other things about the Picts, we will never really know.
Did the Picts really paint themselves?
Tattooing designs on the skin is a feature of many cultures both ancient and modern. In prehistoric times tattoos were used in many cultures to denote social status. Bodies bearing elaborate tattoos have been discovered in Denmark, Siberia, Chile and Peru. In 1984 the tattooed body of a man was removed from the Lindow bog in central England. It has been suggested that the man was a druid sacrifice. Radio-carbon dating puts his death between 50-100 a.d.3 That the Picts may have used tattoos as a sign of initiation, tribal identification or status is quite possible. That the Roman writers mention it at all says more about the Roman craving for the exotic than that the practice was unusual.
Where did they go?
After living in obscurity for centuries, the Picts came to the attention of the world in the Third Century when they formed a military alliance to oppose the Roman invaders. They seemed to disappear from the face of the earth before the end of the Ninth Century
The "problem of the Picts" has troubled historians for centuries. The last recorded "King of the Picts" was Aed mac Kenneth in 878. It would seem that between one ruler and the next the Picts ceased to exist as a political or social entity. One possible explanation is that those who recorded the histories began to write in the vernacular rather than in Latin. By the time Aed took the throne, the Picts had been attacked by the Romans, the Scots and the Vikings and had also intermarried with those groups. They had begun to speak Gaelic or English and had lost much of their tribal autonomy. The people themselves did not disappear, but they had begun to lose their tribal identity.
Perhaps the most damaging invasion came cloaked in a veil of of love. St. Columba visited the court of the Pictish king, Bridei, in the fifth century. The Picts began to convert to the New Religion in the sixth century and by the eighth century had suffered a fate shared by countless indigenous peoples throughout history: they merged with the invaders. They adopted the language, religion and values of foreigners and in the process lost themselves. They left only their picture stones, a hoard of enameled silver, and the legends of the little people who lived underground and painted themselves blue.
I found this piece of poetry by one of my favorite authors, Robert E. Howard. (Alright, I confess--Conan the Barbarian has always been one of my favorite movies!) I thought that anyone with an interest in the Picts might enjoy it as well. It is Copyrighted material, but is doing no one any good lost in an un-read book, so I share it with you here. I will gladly remove it if a representative of Howard's estate requests me to... A Song of the ( Pictish ) Race
High on his throne sat Bran Mak Morn When the sun-god sank and the west was red; He beckoned a girl with his drinking horn, And, "Sing me a song of the race," he said.
Her eyes were as dark as the seas of night, Her lips were as red as the setting sun, As, a dusky rose in the fading light, She let her fingers dreamily run
Over the golden-whispered strings, Seeking the soul of her ancient lyre; Bran sate still on the throne of kings, Bronze face limned in the sunset's fire
"First of the race of men," she sang, "Far from an unknown land we came, From the rim of the world where mountains hang And the seas burn red with the sunset flame."
"First and the last of the race are we, Gone is the old world's gilt and pride, Mu is a myth of the western sea, Through halls of Atlantis the white sharks glide."
An image of bronze, the king sate still, Javelins of crimson shot the west, She brushed the strings and a murmured thrill Swept up the chords to the highest crest.
"Hear ye the tale that the ancients tell, Promised of yore by the god of the moon, Hurled on the shore a deep sea shell, Carved on the surface a mystic rune:"
" 'As ye were first in the mystic past Out of the fogs of the dim of Time, So shall the men of your race be last When the world shall crumble,' so ran the rhyme."
" 'A man of your race, on peaks that clash, Shall gaze on the reeling world below; To billowing smoke shall he see it crash, A floating fog of the winds that blow.' "
" 'Star-dust falling for aye through space. Whirling about in the winds that spin; Ye that were first, be the last-most race, For one of your men shall be the last of men.' "
Into the silence her voice trailed off, Yet it echoed across the dusk, Over the heather the night-wind soft Bore the scent of the forest's musk.
Red lips lifted, and dark eyes dreamed, Bats came wheeling on stealthy wings; But the moon rose gold and the far stars gleamed, And the king still sate on the throne of kings.
-Robert E. Howard
The part dealing with the Picts 'short stature' and living in 'sod' mounds where access is gained by holes is reminiscent of Tolkien's creation........Hobbits.
To this day, every woman in my line is a liberal, and every man, a stone-age conservative.
We like it that way.
Women - every house need fire!
Men-Fire? Let them eat raw! Tastes better!
Hey kb2614 - good reading here. Also, I found that book on the Celts we were talking about. You can borrow it - remind me next time you are over.
At various times, I have tried to associate the Picts to the Xiongnu and the Schytians. (Can't make a good case yet)
Circa 866, I think.
Oral history - who can believe it?
Not the ones we saw. The Saemieh were rather light skinned, blue eyes predominated and lots of blond hair, in fact more than the average Finlander we met.
They constantly defined themselves as ancestors of the Vikings.
IMHO likely. Lallans Scots, nae doot.
The Fomorians were the first people of Ireland and they do mention some elves showing up around 2200BC. Is that you?
Indeed, as they lived this rustic existence they evolved into the little people who would populate the lands and imaginations of both Britian and Ireland. It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who would read about and eventually find pics of the Picts!
That would be The Tuatha De Danann, the tribe of Dan.
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