Pictish symbol stones are found in Scotland, mainly north of the Forth and Clyde, and are generally dated to the period of the 6th to 9th centuries AD. They are usually interpreted as personal memorials although few remain in their original locations. They are characterised by striking 'Pictish' symbols, some of which are realistic representations of animals and/or objects and some of which appear to be purely abstract. The example shown here is a drawing of a stone in Aberlemno, and shows the very common arrangement of two symbols above a comb and mirror. The top symbol is recognisably a serpent, the one in the middle is an abstract design looking like a 'Z' combined with a pair of discs, and at the bottom is a round hand-mirror next to a small comb. Presumably the symbols carried a clear meaning to the people who erected the stones, but what might it have been?
There are about fifty different 'Pictish' symbols, of which some are far more common than others (Cummins 1995). The frequency distribution of the common symbols is a fair match for the frequency distribution for the Pictish names recorded in the king lists, which is consistent with the theory that the symbols may represent names. This is also consistent with the pattern observed on Welsh inscribed stones from the same period, where the most common elements in the inscriptions are names (Cummins 1995). Most Pictish symbols occur in pairs, which could plausibly be interpreted in several ways:
It is of course possible that different stones represent each of these, or indeed something else altogether. There is no reason why all the stones should carry identical information. The names in the Pictish king lists (Pictish Chronicle) do not look obviously like two-element names to me, and are mostly in the form "X son of Y", so I would tend to favour the patronymic or the "X raised this stone in memory of Y" interpretations. No doubt others are possible.
The comb and mirror symbol is an exception to this pattern of Pictish symbols. This is a clearly recognisable line drawing of a comb and a round hand-mirror, and can be seen at the bottom of the stone in the drawing. A similar symbol, in which the comb's teeth are shown as lines instead of as a few points, can be seen on the Dunnichen stone. (There are many more stones with the same symbol, but this was the clearest image I could find on the web). Occasionally the mirror appears without the comb, but they usually appear together and tend to be treated as a single symbol. The comb and mirror symbol occurs on about a third of Pictish symbol stones, almost always at the bottom of the stone beneath a pair of other symbols, as in the drawing and in the Dunnichen stone in the above link (Cummins 1995). This is consistent with the possibility that the comb and mirror does not represent a name and has some other function. What might this be?
The comb and particularly the mirror are symbols traditionally associated with females. Pope Boniface in the seventh century (contemporary with the Pictish symbol stones) considered an expensive comb and mirror appropriate diplomatic gifts to send to a Christian queen in northern England (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 11). In the Middle Ages a comb and mirror were the classic attributes of the mermaid or siren, and could be used to symbolise female vanity (Jones 2002), a connotation it presumably acquired after the seventh century unless Pope Boniface's gift was a back-handed compliment. A tombstone from Roman Chester shows a wealthy lady holding a mirror and comb (Mason 2001), and a third-century AD statue from Roman Asia Minor shows the goddess Venus also holding a hand-mirror and comb. In later astrology the symbol of Venus was a stylised mirror (still used to this day to indicate the female gender, see Wikipedia).
So if the comb and mirror symbol is associated with females, what might this signify on a Pictish symbol stone?
If the comb and mirror could symbolise a female, the presence of the comb and mirror symbol on a Pictish symbol stone could indicate the sex of the person commemorated by, or who commissioned, the stone.
If the pairs of symbols represent two-element names, such as those familiar from Old English records (e.g. Aethelstan = Aethel (noble) + stan (stone)), the mirror and comb symbol could indicate that the person commemorated on the stone was a woman, as suggested by Ross Sansom (1995). He suggests that this could indicate that women in Pictish society had unusually high status, given the high proportion of symbol stones carrying the comb and mirror symbol. In his sample, 20% of the stones have the comb and mirror symbol, whereas in early Ireland only about 200-300 female names are known compared with 10,000 male names, about 2%. So if he is correct that the comb and mirror symbol means the stone commemorates a woman, this would imply that women in Pictland were ten times more likely to be commemorated in this way than their counterparts in Ireland.
If the pairs of symbols represent patronymic names ("X son/daughter of Y"), or the person commemorated and the person who raised the stone, the comb and mirror could indicate that one or both of the individuals named was a woman. Norse rune stones were sometimes raised by women, for example, the Gripsholm rune stone (Sodermanland 179) reads:
Tóla had this stone raised in memory of her son Haraldr, Ingvarr's brother. They travelled valiantly far for gold, and in the east gave (food) to the eagle. (They) died in the south in Serkland.
--Translation from Wikipedia, Ingvar Runestones
As Norse women sometimes raised memorials and recorded the fact that they had done so, perhaps Pictish women did the same. It is interesting to note that of the 26 rune inscriptions listed in the Wikipedia article on the Ingvar Runestones, four more besides the Gripsholm stone mention women as commissioners:
Five stones out of 26 is 19%, so in almost one-fifth of this sample of Norse rune stones a woman was involved in the commissioning. The proportion may be higher, as the name of the commissioner of the Ostergotland 155 stone could be either male (Thorfredr) or female (Thorfridr), and many of the runic inscriptions are fragmentary and may have contained other names that have now been lost, some of which might have been female. However, even without trying to adjust for missing data, 19% (5/26) is not wildly different from the proportion of Pictish symbol stones with a comb and mirror symbol (one-third according to Cummins 1995, 20% according to Sansom 1996). (Caveat that the Ingvar rune stones may not be representative of Norse rune stones in general; I have not tried to do a systematic survey). This would be consistent with the possibility that the Pictish stones, like the Norse rune stones, credited the commissioner of the memorial as well as its subject, and that the comb and mirror symbol indicated that one of the people named on the stone (subject or commissioner) was female.
Interestingly, if a special comb and mirror symbol was needed to indicate the sex of a person named on a symbol stone, this implies that the symbols themselves did not convey this information. In other words, if the symbols represent names, either these names could be borne by either sex (i.e. there were not specifically 'male' and 'female' names), or male and female names were sufficiently similar that they could be represented by the same symbol, perhaps adding a male or female ending. This latter possibility could indicate a system a little like the Latin name forms such as Julius (male) / Julia (female), with the symbol indicating either the root (Juli-) or the male form of the name (Julius) and the comb and mirror indicating the feminine ending (-ia).
Another theory was put forward by WA Cummins in his book The Age of the Picts (Cummins 1995). He observes that the only two common elements on Welsh inscribed stones that are not names are "son/daughter of" and "Here lies", which occur on 40% and 30% of a sample of 170 Welsh inscribed stones, respectively. Analysing a sample of 66 complete Pictish symbol stones, he finds that the mirror and comb, or the mirror by itself, occurs on 36% of the sample. This could match either the occurrence of the patronymic indicator or "Here lies" on the Welsh sample. Cummins argues that the common occurrence of symbol pairs without the mirror and comb implies that the relationship between the symbol pairs could be understood without needing a special symbol, perhaps by reading the symbols from top to bottom. If this is correct, the mirror and comb could stand for something else, and by analogy with the Welsh sample he suggests that it might signify "Here lies". If the inhabitants of what is now Wales were in the habit of writing 'Here lies' on a third of stone markers, maybe the Picts were too, and just used a different style of writing.
Cummins doesn't mention the female association of the mirror and comb, and suggests that the mirror may represent the afterlife as a reflection of life on earth, or that it symbolised the afterlife as a time of peace when one would have leisure for grooming. I wonder if the traditionally female association of the mirror symbol might have some significance for the "Here lies" interpretation. Could the comb and mirror symbol represent a female deity, rather than a human woman? Perhaps the symbol suggests that the person commemorated on the stone, male or female, has gone to live with a goddess of the dead. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freyja took dead maidens and a share of the warriors killed in battle into her hall (Ellis Davidson 1964), and the goddess Hel received those who did not die in battle (see article on Hel). Possibly a belief in a female deity who ruled over the dead existed in Pictland at some stage in its history, and was either retained into the period when the symbol stones were being erected or survived as an abstract symbol for death and/or the afterlife. Some or all of the Picts in the north of what is now Scotland followed a non-Christian religion in the late sixth century when St Columba travelled from Iona to preach to them, and very little is known of this religion. Perhaps it included one or more important goddesses, and the comb and mirror symbol may represent a vestige of one of them.
As ever, numerous interpretations are possible.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Ellis Davidson HR. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-030670-1.
Jones M. The Secret Middle Ages. Sutton, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.
Mason DJP. Roman Chester: City of the Eagles. Tempus, 2001, ISBN 978-0-7524-1922-0.
Pictish Chronicle, available online.
Sansom R. Power to the Pictish ladies. British Archaeology 1995, Issue 3, available online.