Who Are the Picts?
Theodor de Bry took a poetic license in his famous engravings of “Pictish” warriors… But would modern artists really do any better?
Hi! You’re very welcome to my Pictish hut. Sit down near the fire, grab some ale (or your preferred drink) and make yourself comfy. My name is Meron and I invite you to learn a wee bit about my spirit helpers. Can you feel them all around? It’s ok… There is no need to make an effort to see them just yet. Their image will come in very gradually. Please leave all your assumptions by the door, you can pick them up again when you leave – or not. If you do not have any assumptions (even after seeing the image above? It’s up there for a reason), just join in anyway. I’ll tell you who they are based on their own words, and we can contrast it with the common stereotypes in the end.
You may have heard that once upon a time (for real now!) a confederation of tribes existed in the highlands of what today we call Scotland. This, I tell ye, is true. You may also have heard that the first people who saw these tribes were the Romans, against whom they fought naked and fearlessly. This, in turn, is false. Wait, did the Romans lie? Well… Not completely. The story is a wee bit more complicated, but we’ll get to that.
As you can see, none of the Picts here are naked. This is their own art.This lad, however, is clearly naked. He has a spear, but he isn’t in a battle – he is training.
Let’s first address the assumption that Romans were the first to see and write about the Picts. Actually, the first foreigner from the Classic world who ever caught a glimpse of them was a Greek, way before the Roman Empire was even a thing.
“The traveller’s name was Pytheas. He may have been commissioned by the senate or by a guild of merchants to prospect new trading routes, or perhaps, as a boy growing up in Massalia, he had contracted the incurable disease of curiosity”.
Robb, Graham. The Ancient Paths: discovering the lost map of Celtic Europe. Pp. 90-91
Indeed, Pytheas did not only catch a glimpse of the Picts in the 2nd century BCE, but he also enjoyed a bit of Pictish hospitality, having come in peace. Considering that the surviving accounts of his adventures claim he sailed as far North as the Orkney islands, he probably had to stop in a lot of places along the British Isles during his journey – including cozy Pictish huts like this one.
As one of my Pictish friends usually says, “we’re chill as long as you don’t try to build an Empire in our back garden”. I trust him in his honesty, and this tongue-in-cheek remark actually makes a lot of sense: the Picts were human beings like you and I. Complex and intelligent human beings, not nearly as animalesque as the stereotypes make them seem. I am a bit tired of seeing them depicted as these violent savages who would attack anyone they met. Of course the Roman didn’t see the friendliest side of them, but they only ever tried to invade Pictish lands. Right? Well… To be honest, some Romans casually met the Picts, outside of a battle context – and left written accounts to prove it!
“They live in huts, naked and barefooted […] they wear no clothing, lest they should hide the figures on their body”.
Dio Cassius (4th century AD), in his “History of Rome”, referring to the Northern Britons.
The above quote comes from a description of life in Northern Britain during the Iron Age. The context was not a conflict or any sort of warfare. If you click on the link, you’ll see a paper that tries to disprove the “myth” of Pictish tattoos (not completely a myth, but not what you think either. A topic for a whole other post!) but the author emphasises that Dio Cassius seemed really impressed with the Pictish habit of nudism – which along with the evidence carved in stone by the Picts themselves, leads us to conclude they did indeed spend the summer months naked… Just not in battle. What could be argued (and we needn’t go as far as looking for Roman descriptions – all we need to do is pay close attention to Pictish battle scenes in their own art) is that they went to battle without an armour. That is an entirely different thing! They consider armour a nuisance, but do not leave their shields at home anyway, much less offer their body as a human shield. LOL. Where does Hollywood get these ideas, I wonder! (I say it in the present tense, as I often see this phenomenon among Pictish spirits whenever we fight something together – no armour, but big shields).
So when the Romans described life in Pictland, they weren’t lying. They told us the Picts had no shame in being naked… during moments of peace (we often overlook the context). I agree with the Picts, by the way (why wouldn’t I, a Pictish spirit lives inside me), we should really let go of the idea that nudity necessarily means a lack of morals. Not everything revolves around sex! But of course this “strange habit” would spark a lot of curiosity among Roman prudes, which is why they wrote about it so extensively. Dio Cassius’ account is definitely not the only one that mentions nudity, but I want this post to be brief and I don’t wanna bore you to death.
As for “…lest they should hide the figures on their body”, it is a very opinionated statement. For some reason, Roman authors have the annoying habit of thinking that they are the centre of the universe – everything the Picts do or don’t do is for them to see, for them to feel this or that. Well, not quite. They didn’t strip to show Romans their alleged tattoos. Picts will be Picts, regardless of who is looking. *shrugs*
Accurate? Well, still better than most reenactors. A warrior? Not necessarily.
The same applies to the fact “all Britons, without exception, stain their bodies with woad, which gives them a blue complexion in order for them to appear more terrible in battle“. Sigh. (and the award of biggest narcissist in History goes to… Julius Caesar, of course! Author of this quote). No, Caesar, the Britons (including Picts) weren’t trying to impress you. Woad is antiseptic, repeals insects and protects against superficial wounds – ya know, the same substance hunters and gatherers in Britain used while venturing into the wild – just in case. I know it not only from historic records, I actually have woad at home, tested and confirmed its uses. Another topic for another post.
woad dye. Source: woad.org.uk
Now that we debunked a few myths and learned that Pictland wasn’t Sparta, on to the interesting bit: who are “my” Picts? Well, aye, there is a very specific reason why the Picts – instead of a different people – chose me to be their messenger, but that would derail today’s post. In fairness I think I could write a whole blog post on how I met them and how I communicate with them… But to summarise here, least I leave ye all wondering and dying to know it: no, I do not speak Pictish. Thank god. I mean, it’s a lovely language, but I don’t wanna be any historian’s guinea pig, or become a Pictish version of Dorothy Eady. No, thanks. When I talk to the spirits of Picts (in general – not only warriors! Remember the motto: Pictland wasn’t Sparta), we communicate through feelings. In fairness, this is how I “talk” to most spirits, it’s my thing. In dreams, everything intensifies, but I often haven’t a clue if my bedtime “conversations” with spirits were actually verbal when I wake up – so I cannot tell (though the Picts insist I am fluent in their language when I’m unconscious. Go figure). Sometimes, I hear a word or two, so I do have some clairaudience. But for the most part, we convey to one another how we feel in the moment, and this is then translated into words if I wanna make a blog post about the message, for instance.
Some Pictish art for ye. Source: National Museum of Scotland
My main point with the communication vs language thing here is the following: I use the word “Picts” while I’m fully aware this was actually a nickname given by the Romans. I think it’s highly unlikely [early] Picts called themselves that word, especially because the tribes weren’t completely unified before the 6th century (my source here is spiritual, I have “friends in high places” so do take it with a grain of salt). However, as I said my communication with them is mostly non-verbal, I cannot know for sure if A) “Picts” actually comes from the name of the unified kingdom and was transliterated into Latin, or B) they had a totally different name for unified Pictland but tolerate my use of “Picts” because I don’t know better. All I got so far was a positive response from spirits, which doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. We’ll just have to use the term we know.
So far, I have only talked about early Pictish history. Their legacy extends to the early Middle Ages, and probably a bit further, but I think we’re covered for now, as the topic of Pictish Christianity deserves its own blog post. Phew! So many promises for future posts! Let’s take it bit by bit, aye? Ye all are welcome to the Pictish hut anytime. To summarise it all and wrap it up: the Picts were tribal societies in Northern Britain (today’s Scotland) who eventually united against a common enemy. They were essentially Celtic, with foreing influence here and there, given their geographical location. The Picts, like all Celts, were very spiritually savvy and have a lot to teach us when it comes to magic. I’ll walk you through some of the things they taught me whenever you visit me here. Here’s to new beginnings! Sláinte!