Recent thinking is that it may be related to
The Pictish Beast comprises roughly 2 in 5 of all Pictish animal depictions, and so was obviously of great importance.
It is thought that it was either an important figure in Pictish mythology, and/or a political symbol.
- Celtic art
- Jones, Duncan, A Wee Guide to The Picts, (Musselburgh, 2003)
- Cessford, Craig, The Heroic Age: A Journal of Medieval Northwestern Europe, issue 8 (2005) ISSN 1526-1857
The originating site included the comment "Doesn't (#11) Look familiar eh? Nessy is that you? "
Pictish Beast§9. The symbol usually referred to as either the "Pictish Beast" or the "swimming elephant" is a sinuous animal with a long snout, spiralled feet and a drooping, typically spiral-ended tail. It is one of the most common symbols in the Pictish repertoire, occurring twenty-nine times on Class I stones, twenty-five times on Class II stones, and five times on the walls of caves. Various origins and identifications have been suggested for this symbol. It has been argued that it is derived from the ornamental repertoire of eighth century Insular art; is based upon some unknown type of object (Mack 1997, 8-9); is a depiction of a deer (Thomas 1963, 49-52); a mythical animal such as the kelpie, eich uisge (water horse), or tarve uisge (water bull) of later Scottish folklore (Foster 1996, 74; G. Murray 1986, 243; Sutherland 1997, 86-88); or a sea mammal such as a dolphin (Foster 1996, 74; Thomas 1986, 166) or beaked whale (Macleod and Wilson 2001).
§10. The most coherent argument for it being a dolphin is that advanced by Carola Hicks (1996). She identifies a number of recurrent features that support the identification as a dolphin, including its diagonal posture as if plunging upwards, the head lappet indicated by a single or double line, a long snout curling outwards at the tip, limbs which end in coiled scrolls not feet and a rudimentary tail shown by a single line (Hicks 1996, 49-50). Whilst this identification of certain elements of the Pictish Beast as dolphin-based appears credible, Hick's view is perhaps a little simplistic and requires modification. Isabel Henderson (1996, 15) has argued that the Pictish Beast is "manifestly . . . an imaginative composite made up of parts of animals including horned and marine creatures, but essentially a pure hybrid with no core species." The view that this is a composite beast with dolphin elements has found support Carver 1999, 18). The more recent suggestion that it is a beaked whale rather than a dolphin (Macleod and Wilson 2001) is intriguing, but this argument is based largely on the shape of the head and does not explain the whole symbol.
§11. When attempting to identify the origins of Pictish symbols, it is important to remember that although the surviving examples, mainly carved in stone, date to the second half of the first millennium AD, it is likely that they were initially developed several centuries earlier, possibly around the first and second centuries AD, for utilisation on organic materials that have not survived. This means that the symbols that survive are relatively late and developed forms that do not necessarily have a particularly close relationship to the earliest forms, so even if it is possible to recognise typological developments (e.g., Henderson 1958, 51-52; G. Murray 1986, 243-49) these are not particularly helpful. Elements of the head of the Pictish Beast are apparently derived from the crested heads of dragonesque brooches of the first and second centuries AD, which it has been argued were then grafted on to the body of a quadruped or hippocamp (Laing and Laing 1993, 120-21). This raises the possibility that the Pictish Beast is based upon the dragonesque brooch.
§13. Another possible piece of supporting evidence is a symbol on the Mortlach 2 stone, described as "hitherto unrecorded and I am unable to hazard even a conjecture as to what it may represent" (Simpson 1926, 274-78). This symbol was so unusual that Henderson failed to list it in her catalogue of symbols, recording only the Pictish Beast on the stone above it (Henderson 1958, 58) and the RCAHMS catalogue(1994, 13) describes it simply as a "curvilinear symbol." This symbol has been identified as either a dragonesque brooch (Thomas 1963, 57) or a uniquely shaped version of a symbol known as the ogee (Mack 1997, 103). This identification as an ogee appears unlikely and Thomas's identification is more plausible. The striking thing about the symbol on Mortlach 2 is its similarity in alignment and overall form to the Pictish Beast symbol above it, with projections corresponding to the head, tail and upper and lower limbs of the Pictish Beast identifiable. The relationship is so close that it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the carver of the Mortlach 2 stone is depicting the Pictish Beast symbol and its origins.
§14. Dragonesque brooches are S-shaped pieces of jewellery depicting double-headed animals with large upstanding ears and curled snouts that appear to date from between the mid-first and later second centuries AD (Bulmer 1938; Feachem 1951; Johns 1996, 151-53; Kilbride-Jones 1980, 170-83; MacGregror 1976, vol. 1:127-29). Their distribution is concentrated in northern England and southern Scotland, with the closest examples to the area of the Pictish symbols being six from Traprain Law. Although none have been found further north, several other types of artifact that Pictish symbols are based upon, such as mirrors (Cessford 1997) or cauldrons (Cessford 2001a), are also completely or largely absent from the area where the symbols are found. If dragonesque brooches are the origin of the Pictish Beast symbol then this raise the question what animal do the brooches depict? Unfortunately it is impossible to tell if they are based on a real or mythical creature, although if it is a real animal then the most likely candidate is thought to be a hare (Johns 1996, 152).
§15. It seems likely the Pictish Beast symbol originated as a depiction of a dragonesque brooch and subsequently acquired elements based upon sea mammals such as dolphins and beaked whales. Why this should have happened is uncertain. Dolphins were an attribute of Neptune and Venus in the Classical world and were frequently shown on funerary monuments, including some in Northern Britain. Later on they were adopted as a Christian symbol because of their role on pagan funerary monuments. In Early Christian art they have a dual nature, with a fish element symbolising Christians and Christ and a whale element relating to Jonah, whose story prefigures Christ's death and resurrection. It could therefore be argued that as dragonesque brooches went out of use and faded from memory the general form of the symbol was enough to suggest dolphins, and that either the Classical or Christian overtones of this animal were appropriate to the meaning of the symbol. It is also possible that dolphins had a pre-existing local significance in the beliefs of northern Scotland that could have played a role. Certainly there is evidence from bones recovered from archaeological sites that various sea mammals were known to the inhabitants of the area (Mulville 2002).
§16. If the Pictish Beast is originally a depiction of a dragonesque brooch then although it appears to incorporate marine elements it cannot be considered a strong piece of sea related symbolism in Pictish art.
I personally think the Pictish Beast illustrates a swimming Moose or Elk, ie, the Water Horse, and that the continuing usage of the symbol is a confirmation of the survival of the Elk in Scotland beyond the Roman age and lasting up into the Viking Age, at least. The Pictish Beast is a specific stylisation of a swimming quadruped animal, and the head shows antlers laid back along the spine and also perked up ears at the base of the antlers. From the apparent scale it is a large animal, 6 feet high at the shoulder (=the height of a human figure)
|This photo of a cow moose's profile shows how the moose can have |
a most elongated snout such as the "Pictish Beast" is shown with.
The eye prominently placed on the top of the head is also featured.
|This one is more obviously an Elk (Moose), probably from ca 700|
BTW, this appears to represent a Pictish Wudewasa or Wild Man (=Urisk?)