Celtic Animals, Birds and Fish

Animals, birds and fish are carved mainly, but not exclusively, on what are known as Class 1 Pictish Stones. A complication in understanding what they might stand for comes from the relevance of some carved objects representing aspects of  Celtic beliefs or “personal attributes” and in Roman contexts – typically military. Reverence, as such, may be considered as tangible or practical when applied to people or intangible or religious if thought of as being spiritual i.e. “beliefs”.

Compiling the list of those Celtic animal, bird and fish carvings that appear on Pictish Symbol Stones resulted in a relatively narrow range of these 10 items – boar, bull, deer, dog, eagle, goose, horse, salmon, serpent, and wolf. Other revered items include – bear, beaver, hawk, hazelnut, owl, pig, raven, swan, butterfly, tree (e.g. ash, oak) – but they are not on any of the Stones. “Personal attributes” ascribed to the carved objects include physical aspects (e.g. strength, keen sight, stamina, endurance) and what nowadays might be called “softer skills” such as companionship, faithfulness, wisdom and intelligence. There are no objects that can be directly connected with Celtic Deities. Additionally there are other objects on the Stones that span the Celtic era such as flowers whose meaning has not yet been decoded and the triquetra shape which has been used in Germanic and Celtic art and has a Christian relevance from early times to the current day.

This table lists the 10 relevant Celtic Animal, Bird and Fish objects with their associated attributes. Alongside each Celtic Object is an initial analysis, by Stone, in way of a lead in to the Investigations into Belief Combinations. Each animal, bird and fish has more than one associated attribute variously with mixes of physical qualities, softer skills and religious/spiritual aspects. Of the 10 objects, 5 are mixed physical qualities and softer skills, 3 combine softer skills and religious/spiritual aspects, 1 has a mix of all three attributes and 1 has softer skills only.

In terms of the overall concept of Shared Space and what is “shared”, Celtic object carvings being of “attributes” rather than just a list of animals, birds and fish or of Celtic Gods suggests the Stone carvers had a deeper understanding of Celtic reverence than may generally be considered. Specific animals, birds and fish seemingly had qualities or characteristics allocated to them which in turn could be ascribed to people – basically as personal attributes. If these animals, birds and fish were revered in some context then that reverence or respect appears to have transferred to particular people – perhaps, individuals or groups or by position.

Salmon Kintore ChurchyardOf the 10 main animal, bird and fish carvings across the Class 1 and 2 Stones that reflect aspects of Celtic reverence 4 have prospective Roman contexts. In the Investigations into Belief Combinations  it is necessary to consider each individual example of these particular carvings Horses - Meigle 1and determine whether they have Celtic relevance, Roman context, neither or both. This first step in the evaluation, by Stone, then determines if any of the animal, bird or fish carvings has another possible interpretation; for example, a horse is unlikely to have anyEagle - Inveravon 1 other meaning than a mode of transport when in a battle scene; a bird (such as an eagle) can be part of a hunting scene.Boar - Clunes Farm

Click here to explore whether carvings of  animals, birds and fish might have been representing Celtic attributes or have had a Roman context.

What is often referred to as “Celtic Art” is of a stylistic form and period that is different from the carvings on the early Pictish Symbol Stones (Class 1). It is more ornate and intricate, is carved in relief and is seen on Class 2 Symbol Stones and also on Class 3 Stones.