18 February, 2007

Pictish symbol stones – the comb and mirror symbol

Pictish symbol stones are found in Scotland, mainly north of the Forth and Clyde, and are generally dated to the period of the 6th to 9th centuries AD. They are usually interpreted as personal memorials although few remain in their original locations. They are characterised by striking ‘Pictish’ symbols, some of which are realistic representations of animals and/or objects and some of which appear to be purely abstract. The example shown here is a drawing of a stone in Aberlemno, and shows the very common arrangement of two symbols above a comb and mirror. The top symbol is recognisably a serpent, the one in the middle is an abstract design looking like a ‘Z’ combined with a pair of discs, and at the bottom is a round hand-mirror next to a small comb. Presumably the symbols carried a clear meaning to the people who erected the stones, but what might it have been?

There are about fifty different ‘Pictish’ symbols, of which some are far more common than others (Cummins 1995). The frequency distribution of the common symbols is a fair match for the frequency distribution for the Pictish names recorded in the king lists, which is consistent with the theory that the symbols may represent names. This is also consistent with the pattern observed on Welsh inscribed stones from the same period, where the most common elements in the inscriptions are names. Most Pictish symbols occur in pairs, which could plausibly be interpreted either as a single name containing two elements, or as a name plus a patronymic (“X son of Y”). The names in the Pictish king lists do not look obviously like two-element names to me, but are mostly in the form “X son of Y”, so I would tend to favour the patronymic interpretation. No doubt others are possible.

The one exception to this pattern of Pictish symbols is the comb and mirror symbol. This is a clearly recognisable line drawing of a comb and a round hand-mirror, and can be seen clearly at the bottom of the stone in the drawing. A similar symbol, in which the comb’s teeth are shown as lines instead of as a few points, can be seen on the Dunnichen stone. (There are many more stones with the same symbol, but this was the clearest image I could find on the web). Occasionally the mirror appears without the comb, but they usually appear together and tend to be treated as a single symbol. The comb and mirror symbol occurs on about a third of Pictish symbol stones, almost always at the bottom of the stone beneath a pair of other symbols, as in the drawing and in the Dunnichen stone in the above link (Cummins 1995). So this would suggest that the comb and mirror does not represent a name, but has some other function. What might this be?

The comb and particularly the mirror are traditionally associated with females. Pope Boniface in the seventh century (contemporary with the Pictish symbol stones) considered an expensive comb and mirror appropriate diplomatic gifts to send to a Christian queen in northern England (Bede Book II Ch. 11). A 3rd century AD statue from Roman Asia Minor shows the goddess Venus holding a hand-mirror and comb, and in later astrology the symbol of Venus was a stylised mirror (still used to this day to indicate the female gender).

So if the comb and mirror is associated with females, what might this signify on a Pictish symbol stone?

One suggestion is that the pairs of symbols represent two-element names, such as those familiar from Old English records (e.g. Aethelstan = Aethel (noble) + stan (stone)), and that the mirror and comb symbol indicated that the person commemorated on the stone was a woman. The author of this article comments that this could indicate that women in Pictish society had unusually high status, given the high proportion of symbol stones carrying the comb and mirror symbol. In his sample, 20% of the stones have the comb and mirror symbol, whereas in early Ireland only about 200-300 female names are known compared with 10,000 male names, about 2%. So if he is correct that the comb and mirror symbol means the stone commemorates a woman, this would imply that women in Pictland were ten times more likely to be commemorated in this way than their counterparts in Ireland.

Another theory was put forward by WA Cummins in his book The Age of the Picts (Cummins 1995). He observes that the only two common elements on Welsh inscribed stones that are not names are “son/daughter of” and “Here lies”, which occur on 40% and 30% of a sample of 170 Welsh inscribed stones, respectively. Analysing a sample of 66 complete Pictish symbol stones, he finds that the mirror and comb, or the mirror by itself, occurs on 36% of the sample. This could match either the occurrence of the patronymic indicator or “Here lies” on the Welsh sample. Cummins argues that the common occurrence of symbol pairs without the mirror and comb implies that the relationship between the symbol pairs could be understood without needing a special symbol, perhaps by reading the symbols from top to bottom. If this is correct, the mirror and comb could stand for something else, and by analogy with the Welsh sample he suggests that it might signify “Here lies”.

I don’t think one can tell these two theories apart on the available evidence; either could be true, or both could be wrong. On the whole, I like Cummins’ theory the better of the two, because it takes the Pictish symbol stones as being similar to inscribed stones of a contemporary neighbouring culture. If the inhabitants of what is now Wales were in the habit of writing "Here lies" on a third of stone markers, maybe the Picts were too, and just used a different style of writing. Cummins doesn’t mention the female association of the mirror and comb, and suggests that the mirror may represent the afterlife as a reflection of life on earth, or that it symbolised the afterlife as a time of peace when one would have leisure for grooming. I wonder if the traditionally female association of the mirror symbol might have some particular significance for “Here lies”.

Here’s a theory. Could the comb and mirror symbol represent a female deity, rather than a human woman? Perhaps the symbol suggests that the person commemorated on the stone, male or female, has gone to live with a goddess of the dead. This could represent a particular goddess out of a pantheon of deities, like Freyja in Norse mythology who took dead maidens and a share of the warriors killed in battle into her hall (Ellis Davidson 1964). Or it might represent some kind of mother goddess, who perhaps takes the dead back into her womb after their life on earth. The crouched position of Bronze Age burials has been argued as support for this idea of returning to the womb after death. Possibly some similar belief existed in Pictland at some stage in its history, and was either retained into the period when the symbol stones were being erected or survived as an abstract symbol for death and/or the afterlife.

If there was a tradition of belief in a powerful female deity in Pictland, either extant or only recently extinct, this may be connected to the contemporary belief among the Picts’ neighbours in 8th-century Northumbria that the Picts reckoned royal descent through the female line. Bede may or may not have been right about this facet of Pictish political organisation, but unless his account is an elaborate leg-pull, it was believed when he wrote the Ecclesiastical History in 731 AD. Perhaps Pictish royalty claimed or had claimed divine descent from a female deity, in the same way as the surviving English genealogies all claim descent from a god, nearly always Woden.

Does this make sense? Unfortunately, I’m not sure how one could test the hypothesis.

Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.

Ellis Davidson HR. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-030670-1.


Gabriele C. said...

The problem is that part of the Pictish stones (the II and II types) date from Christian times, that makes a female deity a bit unlikely. But I don't see a necessary connection between combs and women, either; the Pictish men had long hair judging from the stones, and in German warrior burials, combs have been found. It's not that those old day hotties had their mane all in tangles. :)

But I don't have an explanation for the symbols, either.

Alex Bordessa said...

All sounds like a prehistorian's theory to me :-) Prehistorians make it all up - thing is, they can't be proved either way. Some ideas are pleasing, others are off the wall. All could be wrong, all could be right ... Parts could be OK. Who is to know? Opinion counts. Certainly fine to use in a fictional context. Sorry, I daresay I'm being unhelpful as usual ...

Bernita said...

I rather like the female deity/descent theory.
I sometimes wonder, though, about interpreting the crouched or embryonic position of early burials as a return to the womb, particularly those from the neolithic period - cyst burials? - which practise may have continued because of tradition into the Bronze period.
(I did a paper on it in undergrad with maps, now lost.)
It always struck me first as the most efficient position to place a body - especially considering the tools and labour involved.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating, though I couldn't even begin to guess at the meaning myself.

Carla said...

Gabriele - combs appear in male burials such as at Sutton Hoo, so there seems little doubt that both sexes used them. What about mirrors? I was thinking of the mirror in particular as associated with women. I was also thinking that a symbol might have survived as an abstract after the belief that spawned it had gone, in the same way that everybody recognises the symbol on the Ladies nowadays without necessarily associating it with Venus' mirror.

Alex - indeed, I couldn't frame it as a testable hypothesis.

Bernita - i.e., the crouched burial requires the smallest amount of grave space, is that the idea? Very possible - I don't suppose one can tell how much is fashion and ritual and how much is purely practical, if indeed the two can be separated... That sounds like an interesting paper of yours. Did the maps show regional variations in burial practice, or what?

Susan - nobody really knows what the symbols mean, nor do I suppose we ever will unless someone finds the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone (or invents the time machine). Without that, everybody's guessing.

Bernita said...

Yes, I think the practical is likely to be paramount.
I can't remember now, Carla, think the map showed some association with neolithic flints/tools finds.

Carla said...

Maybe not always paramount, given that people will put extraordinary effort into things that don't seem terribly practical, like pyramids, but the practical is bound to play a role.

Gabriele C. said...

I think a time machine would be more fun. :)

Carla said...

Just imagine the fun you could have with it. All these knotty historical problems solved - what happened to the Princes in the Tower? Did King Arthur exist and if so when? Was Macbeth Earl Thorfinn of Orkney? Where is Boudica buried? What happened to Cartimandua? Did King Alexander really fall off that Fife cliff by accident? Was Mary Queen of Scots involved in Darnley's death? What exactly did Elizabeth I do, or not do, with Robert Dudley?
And what on earth would historians (or novelists) do for a living?

elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting! I am have long found the Picts a source of fascination. Thanks for the article!

Carla said...

Elena - I'm pleased you found it interesting! I share your interest in the Picts, though there's a good deal of uncertainty and controversy about many aspects of their culture and history.

Mark Carmichael said...

I think the "uncertainty and controversy" is what makes the Picts so interesting. If there was an account or accounts covering the Picts they wouldn't be half as intriguing. Walking round somewhere like Pictavia it's great to let your mind wonder over the different interpretations and even conjure up some yourself! :0)

Carla said...

Hello Mark and welcome. Indeed, it's the lack of hard facts and consequent room for the imagination to play that gives the Picts some of their fascination. Not unlike King Arthur in that respect, perhaps.

Mark Carmichael said...

Have you read Kingdom of the Ark by Lorraine Evans?
I have to admit, I have only glossed over this book myself but it came to mind when reading about your comb and mirror theory.

Carla said...

Mark - I haven't. Is that the one that suggests a connection with Ancient Egypt? How does it fit with the comb and mirror symbol?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that mirror and comb always occurs on stones close to lakes.The mirror is round lake comb is rectangular lake.Mirror reflects light like lake comb