Pictish symbols as alliance markers

Charles Thomas has already expressed the notion that some monuments could possibly have served as territory markers. However, Anthony Jackson has tried to prove this theory at great length in his book The symbol stones of Scotland, published in 1984.[1]

Anthony Jackson

According to Jackson the designs on the Pictish symbol stones stand for different Pictish lineages that proclaim permanent political alliances through marriage. According to Jackson a Pictish symbol is only a ‘true’ Pictish symbol when one is combined with another symbol to form a pair. Most Pictish monuments bear two Pictish symbols which are placed above each-other.[2] These pairs of symbols are ‘true’ symbols and are according to Jackson representatives of a lineage or family. Two symbols on one monument means an alliance, a marriage, of two lineages.[3]

Jackson states that dualism was extremely important within Pictish society. He has written an extensive overview of how this dualism is seen in the distribution across Pictland and in the repetition of the symbols. His statistics, sometimes difficult to grasp, do offer the best and clearest data derived from the Pictish symbol stones. His materials, not necessarily his conclusions, may be considered to be Jackson’s true contribution to the field of Pictish research.

Jackson claims that there are only 28 true symbols because there are only 28 symbols that are used in combination to form pairs on monumental stones. These 28 symbols represent the 28 lineages that existed in Pictland. The upper symbol is a representative of the female lineage and the lower symbol symbolizes the male lineage. The addition of the Mirror and Comb on a monumental stone is almost always displayed next to the lower symbol, the male lineage. The Mirror and Comb represents the bride-wealth, the male lineage has to provide this bride-wealth to the female lineage. According to Bede the Picts had a matrineal descent and therefore sons inherited through their mother. When there is not a Mirror and Comb displayed on a monument, it means that the male lineage has not given a bride-wealth to the female family. In this case, the lineage of the male is inferior to the family of the female and they acknowledge this by not providing a bride-wealth. Ergo, a Pictish monument with two symbols, but without a Mirror and Comb symbol, means that the man is marrying into a higher social level than his own.[4]

Finally, Jackson states that Animal symbols of domesticated animals, such as the Bull, Horse and Hound are never true symbols, because it is not common for tribes to identify with domesticated species. Wild species are not under the control of man and were therefore considered solely appropriate to represent a lineage. The domesticated Animal symbols were used for spiritual reasons only, as for example the votive tablets of the Burghead Bull.[5]

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  • Anthony Jackson is a social anthropologist. He wrote his doctorate on the religion of the Na-Khi, a tribe in south-west China and did research on social change in the Faroe Islands. His research on the Pictish symbol stones is innovative because of his anthropological approach. Other works (not Pictish): A. Jackson, Na-Khi Religion: an Analytical Appraisel of the Na-Khi Ritual Texts, The Hague, 1979 and A. Jackson, The Faroes: Faraway Islands, London, 1991.
  • A. Jackson, The Symbol Stones of Scotland: a social anthropological resolution of the problem of the Picts, Stromness, 1984.
  • A. Jackson, Pictish symbol stones?, Edinburgh, 1993.
  • A. Jackson also wrote a handbook for visiting Pictish monumental stones in Scotland: A. Jackson, The Pictish Trail: A travellers guide to the old Pictish kingdoms, Kirkwall, 1989.

 [1] Cf. Pictish symbols as memorial signs. [2] Cf. Pictish monumental stones. [3] Jackson 1984, 18-19, 24-26. [4] Jackson 1984, 82, 88-91. [5] Jackson 1984, 75.