Rhynie Man

Rhynie Man
This month, a team of archaeologists is hoping to shed light on an ancient carving known as Rhynie Man. This mysterious figure, carrying an axe over his shoulder, appears on a slab of stone more than six feet high. The slab was found in 1978, on a field in the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie, near the site of a major Pictish fortress.

The archaeologists are currently excavating in the area, to see if anything can be learned of Rhynie Man’s original location and purpose. One possibility is that his stone was placed near the entrance of the fort – an entirely plausible setting for such an imposing image. The shape of his axe suggests a connection with sacrificial rites, so perhaps he represents a pagan priest of the sort who no doubt performed important ceremonies for the fort’s high-status occupants. This would fit with the pre-Christian context of the carving, which has been dated to c.500 AD, a hundred years before Pictish paganism began to retreat in the face of missionary activity from Iona and elsewhere.

I’m starting to wonder if Rhynie Man might even be a ‘Pictish druid’ like the ones encountered by St Columba near Inverness in the late sixth century.

The links below give further information about the archaeological excavation.

Rhynie Man’s blog at WordPress

Rhynie Man on Twitter

Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project

Celebrate ScotlandArchaeologists aim to uncover mystery of Rhynie Man

Press & Journal (newspaper) – New excavation seeks to unearth mystery of the Rhynie Man

The Herald (newspaper) – Dig may unlock secrets of ancient Pictish carving

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27 comments on “Rhynie Man

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I wondered if you had seen this Tim. Interesting isn’t it.

  2. jimthemorr says:

    I am tempted to be facetious because of the strange appearance of his ‘axe’ and the proximity of Inverurie and its former Loco Works. Perhaps he was an early medieval wheeltapper?

    • Tim says:

      Showing my age here, Jim, but your comment brought to mind an image of the old Wheeltappers & Shunters TV show from days of yore 😉

  3. dearieme says:

    Long sleeves hiding his tattoos, I suppose? Is he bald or is that a tonsure on display? Where did tonsures come from? Are they another bit of paganism imbedded in the churches? And why is he holding a candle-snuffer? Maybe he is an early Christian priest?

    • Tim says:

      The tonsure idea is probably worth keeping in mind (although see Henry’s comment below). Much debate surrounds the shape of the Celtic Christian tonsure, likewise the so-called ‘druidical’ tonsure that it supposedly imitated.

      You’re right about the axe looking like a candle-snuffer. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for visiting, Haydyn. I’m actually quite sceptical about using the word in early medieval contexts, hence the inverted commas in the blogpost. In the back of my mind I was thinking of the pagan Pictish priest/magician Broichan who taunted Columba at King Bridei’s fortress (see Adomnan’s Life of Columba). In some English translations, Broichan is described as a druid, a term that gets bandied about far too casually whenever Celtic paganism is mentioned. It seems to me quite anachronistic in a sixth-century context. Same goes for Merlin, or rather his sixth-century archetype in North Britain, who is frequently identified as a druid on the flimsiest evidence.

  4. The Green ‘Knight’ waiting at the Green Chapel to play The Beheading Game?

    • Tim says:

      Definitely a prime candidate, Henry!

    • Helen McKay says:

      Yes, a good candidate indeed. And the Green Knight is possibly the same as Cu Roi who also plays the beheading game. Otherwise there are very few candidates with an axe from insular literature.
      The axe is such an ancient and powerful neolithic weapon, found on places like the stones of Stonehenge. So I think its important to find a character with this weapon.
      Its also good to remember that an ‘axe’ just like this was found in the Sutton Hoo burial, and there it seems to have been symbolic, possibly functioning more like a sceptre for us today. (And I suspect like a number of other ‘English’ artefacts was actually sourced in Pictland, another story …)
      And the axe is oddly enough a prominent feature on many Pictish stones, despite the general lack in insular stories.
      But the most important character in western cultures who totes an axe around, is the god of the moon. If we were to think of a pantheon he wouldn’t be at the top, but in people’s day-to-day lives he was probably the most immediate deity they had, along with his female consort and sister the goddess of the sun. He was involved in many activities, but especially those with a ‘male’ aspect, so warfare, male fertility and things like that.
      I would seriously doubt that this is a portrayal of a druid. Although I hold no doubts at all we are dealing with the last of the druids in their final conservative refuge here in Pictland. We do have other ‘deities’ carved in the pagan period in Pictland, but nothing like a druid. We later get celtic priests/monks on CII stones, but even then they are portrayed in the same way as Roman genii were, (if found in England they would simply be assumed to be genii), so its often hard to tell them apart. (And perhaps we’re not meant to…)
      Helen

      • henrywgc says:

        Thanks! I suspect we’ll never know, but this figure reminds me of the ogres of my childhood. Perhaps the axe is a normal size, but the figure represents a giant? To me, there is something otherworldly about it. Perhaps not a ‘palace’ but a temple? If the amphora fragments are 5th-6th c. that could well be still within the pre-Columban period.

        • Tim says:

          Yes, there is definitely something of the Otherworld about Rhynie Man.

          It’s tempting to wonder if an ogre or giant, armed with an axe, featured in Pictish mythology and that the Rhynie people identified with him in some way.

          Interesting also to note Helen’s point about Christian clergy on Pictish stones looking very similar to Roman genii (hoods, etc).

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    How fascinating, Tim! I do think and hope you are right, that he may be a druid. I wonder if that hairstyle is a tonsure, as another reader has suggested. I am intrigued by the apparent fragility of his ‘axe’ – it looks more as if he’s off to have a game of croquet, albeit with rather sinister intentions.

    • henrywgc says:

      Unlikely to be a conventional tonsure, which would be front half of scalp, ear to ear.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jo. Yes, a croquet mallet would probably be a more useful weapon than whatever he’s carrying 🙂

      I did wonder about a possible tonsure when I first saw Rhynie Man. Henry in his reply to you is correct about the conventional Insular (British/Irish) tonsure usually being envisaged as ear-to-ear. But it’s a controversial topic, with a number of theories in the mix. I have a note somewhere to write a blogpost on it.

  6. dearieme says:

    You know, I think that could be a tonsure. Here’s WKPD:

    The Celtic, the exact shape of which is unclear from the sources, but in some way involved shaving the head from ear to ear. The shape may have been semicircular, arcing forward from a line between the ears, but another popular suggestion, less borne out in the sources, proposes that the entire forehead was shaved back to the ears. More recently a triangular shape, with one point at the front of the head going back to a line between the ears, has been suggested. The Celtic tonsure was worn in Ireland and Great Britain and was connected to the distinct set of practices known as Celtic Christianity. It was despised by those affiliated with the later Roman custom, who considered it unorthodox and associated it with Simon Magus. However, there is no evidence to connect Simon Magus and this tradition. All that can be said is that the very earliest Christians in the British Isles followed this more ancient tradition, which the later Roman tradition opposed. Many adherents to the Celtic tradition continued to maintain the old way well into the 8th and 9th centuries. Some sources have also suggested links between this tonsure and that worn by druids in the Pre-Roman Iron Age.

  7. Erik Von Norden says:

    Tim, you give several plausible answers. Which do you think is most likely?

    • Tim says:

      I’m wondering if he might be a character from Pictish folklore/mythology, e.g. a legendary warrior who was famed in local stories – a sort of ‘Pictish superhero’. The imagery of the carving suggests strength, ferocity, martial prowess, etc.

  8. Why do you suppose the ax handle is so impossibly thin?

  9. Helen McKay says:

    The way the handle of the axe is drawn as one thin line may be odd, but its the way the other Pictish axes are drawn too.
    But its not the weirdest thing about Pictish axes – some of them are like no known ‘real’ weapon in the shape of their head either. So a mystery all round.
    Here is a picture of a similar axe – apparently its from a Kent burial not Sutton Hoo (as I had thought), although there is considerable confusion. http://www.sheshen-eceni.co.uk/images/sutt%20hoo%20axe%20dn1.JPG
    Here is discussion about the two different axes: http://myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.19591.html
    And we should also bear in mind I think that a tiny model of this axe was also found at Rhynie – making it very symbolic and central to the perception of Rhynie man.
    The site above says its ‘ceremonial’ or ‘for sacrifices’, but with its long thin handle its also similar to other kingship ‘sceptres’ or rods held by early kings and saints. Hard to know what a Pictish axe is doing in a Kent burial though – or the other way round, unless of course we have a deity figure who is common to both.
    On the Irish high crosses Christ holds a long-stemmed cross in one hand and one with spirals and horns (sun and moon symbols?) in the other, but no one seems to know anything about this sceptre. On some Angus-Pictish stones, seated people also hold rods with odd-shaped ends, and these too are possibly king and queen portraits. So there does seem to be a theme of sceptres with long thin handles going.

  10. Helen McKay says:

    Rhynie man is a very precise carving though, and in many aspects similar to other Pictish carvings of standing warriors. So I think we should take all aspects of the carving as deliberate, not a modern form of exaggerated cartoon. All other ‘people’ on the Pictish stones are similarly carved in a ‘realisitic’ fashion, so there’s no reason to think that Rhynie man isn’t drawn after some very real person, even if he represents a deity. But who would the Picts know who has such a beak of a nose? (apart from a few stray Romans). Scottish people don’t tend to go in for big hooked noses on the whole. We know what ancient native Celtic faces were carved like, we know what the Picts saw in Roman and Greek artwork, and we know that they borrowed many things into their art for their own use.
    Which I think only presents one simple answer that I can come up with. Scythian art. Here’s an example : https://www.lessingimages.com/viewimage.asp?i=08020762+&cr=9&cl=1
    And many people before me have commented how Pictish art has that same flavour, same magical balance found in Scythian art. But why would the Picts have borrowed a big nose from the Scythians? the answer is again simple, but strangely controversial to this day – they had an origin myth that says that the Pictish kingdom was founded by a group of Scythian warriors. And it doesn’t need to be true, as long as people believe in a story, then they will also act on it. And there’s loads of evidence that the Picts thought themselves to have a royal house of Scythians – its writ large all over their stones, another story for another day.
    The Picts also had plenty of opportunity to see Scythian artwork, there was a massive group of Scythians put to guard the wall at one point, and a couple of centuries later another massive group was imported to become a buffer in Brittany.
    But would that mean that Rhynie man is a Scythian deity? perhaps … or perhaps not … my guess is that it is more likely the art form was used to portray a native deity … but can’t say for sure there …

    • Tim says:

      I must admit to deep scepticism about any borrowing from Scythian to Pictish culture. The Scythia origin-myth, as reported by Bede, is a fascinating item in its own right but I’m not convinced it had any legs outside Pictish storytelling circles. Also, I’m not sure how Scythians on the northern frontier would be an influence on Pictish art. I think it more likely that the presence of Roman forces – of whatever origin – would prompt an intensifying of indigenous Pictish culture rather than borrowing from the enemy. More could be said, no doubt….

  11. Bill Patterson says:

    Tim wrote: “I’m wondering if he might be a character from Pictish folklore/mythology, e.g. a legendary warrior who was famed in local stories – a sort of ‘Pictish superhero’”.
    Curiously enough there is modern folklore mentioned by Peter Drummond in his book on Scottish Hill and Mountain Names, which relates not to Rhynie in itself but to the massive hill fort on nearby Tap o’ Noth. According to the legend the giant Jack o’ Noth stole the sweetheart of the rival giant Jack o’ Bennachie, and in revenge the latter hurled a rock which flattened the giant’s house on Tap o’ Noth together with its occupants. Bennachie is also notable for its massive stone fortifications at unusually high elevation, and their distance apart is such that one can readily believe that they were once defensive nodes for rival tribal groups. It seems that there could have been a period of overlap in their usage, during the Iron Age. The involvement of a female figure in the story also has rather obvious connotations of the ‘lady with the mead cup’ sovereignty goddess.
    The axe-wielding man of intimidating appearance is slightly reminiscent of some of the depictions of the Hittite storm god, though obviously the Rhynie figure lacks any lightning symbol in the left hand.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for reporting the Tap o’Noth legend, Bill. I wasn’t aware of it, but it’s the kind of tale I could imagine Rhynie Man featuring in. That whole area must be full of interesting old lore, as well as plenty of great archaeology. Bennachie’s Mither Tap is believed by some to be the real Mons Graupius where Agricola defeated the Caledonians in AD 84.

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