Looking for Designs

The objective was to see the extent to which the carvings on the Stones that are identified as Symbols could be decoded in the context of a form of Mithraism. The task was challenging as some of the coding could be multiple encryption (more than one layer of coding) and some of the Symbols could convey more than one meaning.

Structured research, recording and analysis was used to see if an approach based on history, geography and some lateral thinking could conclude with a well-reasoned case for the purpose of the Pictish Symbols Stones and a decode for each Symbol. As well as physical objects a coded Mithraic representation of a belief, such as the travel of the soul on birth and death, were expected to be found. Gaining a wide knowledge and understanding of Roman Mithraism was necessary.

The more numerous objects have been drawn ( Drawn Designs ). Whilst their high level of occurrences and generally widespread distribution gives them prominence as Symbols in the Mysteries of Mithras, those objects with lower occurrence that have not been drawn have not been excluded for reasons of avoidance of explanation. Although some can be decoded several cannot and others are considered not to be directly related to Mithraism. For completeness all these latter objects are identified and commented upon in “Non-Mithraic Objects – Identified & Recorded” except for those that are so indistinct they are not recognisable.

To avoid creating a new and potentially confusing terminology, the names of objects used here are those popularly found in Pictish Symbol Stone books and other relevant texts and web-sites. Also, the “Class” categorisation formulated by Allen and Anderson is used but with the addition of functionality so that Class 1 are the initial, or early, Stones with Pictish-Mithraism Symbols, later Class 2 are in the “transition” between Pictish-Mithraism and Christianity and Class 3 are not “Symbol Stones” as such having clearly Christian carvings only.

The Stones contain carved objects which are either Symbols without immediately clear meaning or items which on the surface may require no interpretation. In reality if there are “secrets” which obscure or protect “mysteries” then every Symbol and other item will have a meaning, possibly several, and so require interpretation. Some of the shapes might be thought of as Symbols but could be embellishments added, perhaps, at the discretion of the carver or, simply, errors. Some bear resemblance to tamgas (Central Asian markings used to identify property or cattle and also with wider use to represent birds and other meanings) but none so far researched has fitted. Looking at Scandinavian symbols some similarities with Pictish carvings can be found but not with a strong correlation. Often the Stones are described as “unique” bearing no resemblance to symbols or marks or depictions seen anywhere else but this can be a way of dismissing further investigation. Overall they surely must “evoke” something.

A few examples of the “crescent” shape seen on Pictish Stones can be seen on Roman carvings – some taken from around Hadrian’s Wall now in the Great North Museum, Newcastle, also at the Corbridge Museum and from Cappuck, Roxburghshire now in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Cappuck Stone

The Cappuck Roman carving also has a Boar – not dissimilar to the Knocknagael Stone (in the foyer of the Highland Council, Inverness) – which is the symbol of the Roman Twentieth Legion further prompting a Roman connection.

Cappuck stone with “crescent” – courtesy of NMS, Edinburgh (X.FR567)

The inscription on this stone at Corbridge, Hadrian’s Wall, translates as “To the Unconquered Sun God a detachment of the 6th Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis set this up under the charge of Sextus Calpurnius Agricola the emperor’s propraetorian legate”. Note: the “Unconquered Sun God” is Mithras.

The reason for mentioning these stones is that they have crescent shaped objects which, apart from a few examples of mirror-like objects on Roman altars, are the only items the author has seen where there is a shape with resemblance to any on Pictish Stones, notably in the so-called V-Rod & Crescent and Mirror and Comb. This further reinforces the “uniqueness” of the objects on the Pictish Stones and the lack of picking up styling cues from anywhere.

In decoding the Symbols on the Stones there is always a need to consider context. The greatest over-riding difference between Pictish and other Mithraic symbolism is that, almost exclusively, the Pictish Symbols are outdoors. Hence it might be deduced that the seeming lack of Tauroctony symbolism is due to the fact that the “bull killing” does not need to be represented. However, considering the skyward part of the “Open-Air” Mithraeum it can be seen in the night sky (Perseus representing Mithras over Taurus the bull). Alternatively, maybe the evolved version of Roman Mithraism either did not include the Tauroctony or hid it in some highly coded objects.

Research into the Stones has built up a picture of standard designs, export and sharing of designs from location to location etc. This will be apparent later in “Mithraic Symbols – Identified and Decoded”.

A focus is retained on Standing Stones specifically. Carvings not on Stones have not been included i.e. Trusty’s Hill rock, East Wemyss (Dysart) & Covesea caves and Clashach cove. Some of the shapes seen in these caves can be seen on the Stones, often very stylised, and are mixed with other carvings. Carvings that appear to be later copies have also been excluded e.g. the Dunnicaer crescent on triangle and two circles with dots. In keeping to the theme of the website, it has been necessary to make a clear distinction between Symbols that can be demonstrated to be Mithraic and others such as certain animals, hunting scenes, Ogham inscriptions etc.

In seeking Mithraic elements in Symbols on Pictish Stones it would be reasonable to expect to find, obscured or otherwise, shapes that relate to Roman Mithraism, perhaps the Mithraea themselves, such as these:-

Statues of Cautes and Cautopates (companions of Mithras) – from Housesteads Mithraeum.

Birth of Mithras from a Rock – from Housesteads Mithraeum.

Photographs – author. Courtesy Great North Museum.