Seems I just can’t let go of the idea that Pictish symbols represent personal names. I’m not even sure why I prefer this theory over the alternatives, some of which are far more popular, or at least far more creative. I can’t even say I’m 100% swayed by this one myself. But it remains alive and kicking until someone finds a Pictish Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of the symbols once and for all. I’m aware of the other theories – astronomical, agricultural, mythological, territorial or whatever – but this is the one I choose to run with at the moment.
As usual with blogposts on this topic I’ll be referring to a book called The Picts and their symbols by W.A. Cummins which supports the symbols=names theory. I begin however with a short article by the archaeologist Craig Cessford. This was published in the Pictish Arts Society Journal in 1997, under the title Re-reading St Madoes 1. Its focus was a cross-slab that used to stand near the parish church in St Madoes, Perthshire, before being moved to the main museum at Perth. As the older of two Pictish stones from the village it is usually known as St Madoes 1. It was carved in the 8th century and has a large cross on the front face. The above photograph, which unfortunately isn’t very clear, shows the back of the stone, which is divided into six panels. The three upper panels each contain a hooded horseman, while the lower three contain symbols. In diagrammatic form the carvings can be represented thus:
crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
Horseman C carries what looks like a book in a leather satchel. This and the hoods suggest that all three figures are monks. But what is their relationship to one another, and to the symbols beneath them?
Craig Cessford questioned the popular notion that each horseman is represented by one of the three symbols. As Craig pointed out, symbols usually occur in pairs and seem intended to be viewed as a twosome rather than individually. He proposed instead that we should see this trio of symbols as an inverted triangle designed to be read clockwise as three conjoined symbol-pairs, like so:
crescent & V-rod, double-disc & Z-rod
double-disc & Z-rod, Pictish beast
Pictish beast, crescent & V-rod
I think this works quite well. But if it is indeed the correct ‘reading’, what do these symbol-pairs mean? Craig wondered if they might denote names, ranks or titles, or something else.
We come now to W.A. Cummins whose belief that Pictish symbols represent personal names led him to see the symbols on St Madoes 1 as the names of the three horsemen. His reading of the stone can be illustrated in the following way:
Horseman A’s name is crescent & V-rod
Horseman B’s name is double-disc & Z-rod
Horseman C’s name is Pictish beast
Elsewhere in his book, Cummins proposed that some of the more common symbols can be matched to certain Pictish names that appear frequently in old chronicles and king-lists. By applying these matches to St Madoes 1 he saw the figures and symbols as a genealogical statement which looks something like this:
Horseman A = Brude
Horseman B = Drust
Horseman C = their father Edern
But if we then blend the Cummins symbol/name matches with Cessford’s triangle of conjoined symbol-pairs we get three men with different patronyms:
Brude, son of Drust
Drust, son of Edern
Edern, son of Brude
Taking this a step further, we could possibly read St Madoes 1 as a memorial to three monks who, although not related by kinship, were commemorated together because they lived in the same monastery and died at roughly the same time. Or maybe they were three abbots who succeeded each other in the same abbacy? I’ll leave the final words of this blogpost to Craig Cessford. Although not committing himself to a particular theory about Pictish symbols, he ended his brief study of the stone with this thought: ‘Are we looking at three members of a monastic community with similar names?’
Craig Cessford, ‘Re-reading St Madoes 1’ Pictish Arts Society Journal no.11 (Summer 1997), p.32
W.A. Cummins, The Picts and their symbols (Stroud, 1999), p.112