Picts in fantasy

Picts in fantasy

Many writers have been drawn to the idea of the Picts and created fictional stories and mythology about them in the absence of much real data. This romanticised view tends to portray them as noble savages, much as the view of Europeans on Native Americans in the 18th century.

The Usage of the word Pict

Popular etymology has long interpreted the name Pict as if it derived from the Latin the word Picti meaning "painted folk" or possibly "tattooed ones"; and this may relate to the Welsh word Pryd meaning "to mark" or "to draw". Julius Caesar, who never went near Pictland, mentions the British Celtic custom of body painting in Book V of his Gallic Wars, stating

"Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu"
("In fact all Britanni stain themselves with vitrum, which produces a dark blue colour, and by this means they are more terrifying to face in battle.")

Robert E. Howard

The Picts were an especial favourite race of Robert E. Howard and are mentioned frequently in his tales, having a continuity from the Thurian Age tales of King Kull of Valusia, where they are his allies to the Hyborian Age of Conan the Barbarian where they are the mortal enemies of the Cimmerians, who are actually descended from the old Atlanteans though they do not remember their ancestry or old alliance. Howard also wrote tales about the last King of the Picts Bran Mak Morn set in real historical time, and they figure commonly as enemies of Cormac mac Art. Of all the races and civilizations in Howard's writings, the Picts are the race or civilization with the longest history; Picts appear even in the story Valley of the Worm, set long even before Kull, where Picts help the protagonist Niord battle a giant snake and a creature that resembles a shoggoth, and in stories set in the early Middle Ages. Howard gave the Picts a sense of continuity between different ages by making Bran Mak Morn a descendant of Kull's ally Brule the Spear Slayer, and then describing how the king's soul had been affixed to a black stone statue worshiped by the medieval Picts. The status of the Picts and their civilization generally declined over time; the Picts of the Thurian Age were far more sophisticated than their primitive, brutish descendants.

Howard's Picts are said to have originated on "islands far out on the Western ocean" [Howard, Robert E. and De Camp, L. Sprague: "The Hyborian Age, Pt.1", "Conan", page 22. Ace Books, 1967(original publication date)] , and gradually migrated into the Mediterranean area. At one time they spread across large areas of the world, but gradually vanished except for several splinter groups. Although some of these groups lived in remote jungles and southern continents, the most prominent body of Picts settled in the British isles, where they displaced a supposedly mongoloid race that had been the initial residents of the isles (though their origins were elsewhere). This previous race sought refuge underground, and over long millennia they evolved into stunted and hideous creatures, who were the initial subjects of tales concerning elves and dwarves, as described in the Bran Mak Morn short story Worms of the Earth.

The Picts were in turn displaced some thousands of years later by the invading Celts, and driven northward into Scotland where they interbred with a tribe of 'red haired barbarians,' resulting in a genetic shift toward diminished height. Following subsequent Roman, Breton, and Saxon invasions, the Picts too sought refuge underground, just like the natives they had displaced before.

An interesting point is that, in the Hyborian age stories such as Beyond the Black River [Howard, Robert E., edited by De Camp, L. Sprague: "Beyond the Black River", "Conan The Warrior", page 157. Ace Books, 1982(original publication date)] , when they populated the Western edge of Europe and share a border with Aquilonia, which tries to push them further west to colonize new provinces, the Picts show clear native American influence, in their appearance, dress, armament, manner of conducting wars, and even the place names of the new Aquilonian provinces. It is hard to tell whether this is a case of inconsistency on the part of Howard, or a throwback to their earliest origins and savagery, as the Picts who Conan battled during the Hyborian Age are definitely more primitive and savage than those Kull knew eight millennia earlier. The story Kings of the Night, in which Kull is summoned forward in time to help battle a Roman army, references a decline of the Picts after the age of Kull, specifically noting the Picts lost the skills of metalworking. The Picts described in stories such as the Dark Man, set in the early Middle Ages, portray the Picts as more primitive yet, with a Neolithic level of technology such as flint arrowheads. These Picts are clearly a people at the last stages of decline, and are living as a hidden tribe of savages of whom their neighboring Norse, Scottish, and Irish peoples are not aware.

Howard's descriptions of the later Picts portray them as very small in height, squat and muscular, adept at silent movement, and most of all brutish and uncivilized, quite unlike the Picts of Kull's day [Howard, Robert E. and De Camp, L. Sprague: "The Treasure of Tranicos", "Conan The Usurper", page 13. Ace Books, 1967(original publication date)] . They painted themselves with woad, much like the historical Picts, and lived in very large caverns, some natural and some artificially expanded. They had a custom of burning enemy prisoners alive, a ceremony usually presided over by their druid-like 'wizards' or priests, whom Howard portrayed as having a twisted philosophy and mindset produced by many years of hatred, in direct opposition to the Pictish warrior-king Bran Mak Morn, who attempted to restore the Picts to their honourable place in the world and drive out the Roman invaders.

Bran Mak Morn's mindset was very unusual for his time and location, because he favored an alliance of the 'native' British populations, including the Picts, Bretons, and Celts, against the Romans, in a setting when each of these tribes fostered an intense hatred and mistrust for all the others. Robert E. Howard also mentions that some warriors among the Picts could assume the forms of wolves, in the manner of werewolves, on their own free will. These Picts were a 'race' with whom Howard felt the most affinity, and for this reason they were one of his favourite subjects, despite being almost wholly fictitious and deviating from historical fact.

Other References

In the roleplaying game "Pendragon", a supplemental book entitled "Beyond the Wall: Pictland and the North" depicts a Pictish kingdom called Caledonia during the legendary era of King Arthur.

Picts appear as characters in the Nancy Farmer's Norse-Medieval fantasy novels, The Sea of Trolls, and The Land of the Silver Apples.

In Rudyard Kipling's book "Puck of Pook's Hill", a Roman soldier stationed in Britain describes the Picts as wily adversaries.


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