Sunday, January 24, 2016

Grooving With the Picts

Strangers to clothing, the Britons wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with colored designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a  narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes.
- Herodian (Greek Historian, ca. 170 - ca. 240) from History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius

Way back...or should I say way, way, way high school, my friend Robert shared his favorite track from a new Pink Floyd album.  It was an avant-garde composition with the title Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.  For whatever reason I didn't give much thought to the meaning of the word "Pict" nor would I give the word any thought in the intervening 40+ years.

Until now.

Recently, I was getting reacquainted with the work of English painter John White (1540-1593) whose drawings I had appreciated from the time I was a little kid. As far back as I can remember we had a copy of John Lawson's book, "A New Voyage to Carolina" and it featured illustrations by John White.  With that association in my memory I would have recollected that Lawson and White were contemporaries, perhaps colleagues, during Lawson's under-appreciated "Voyage of Discovery" through the Carolina backcountry in 1700-1701. In fact, White preceded Lawson (1674-1711) by a century, and had been hired by Sir Walter Raleigh to illustrate and make maps during Richard Grenville's 1586 expedition to the New World.  For his pains, White was named governor of the colonization attempt on Roanoke Island in 1587.

Roanoke Indians, John White

White gave us our "first look" at what those colonists encountered in Carolina, quite memorable images. But during his career he also painted Old World subjects, and that is how I once again bumped into a Pict, not that I would recommend bumping into a Pict.  As it turned out, White's Old World Picts found a place next his New World Algonquians, for reasons to be explained later.

A Pictish Woman, watercolour over black lead, John White

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is now Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, and who raided the Roman Empire. They were mentioned (by name) by Roman writers as early as AD 297, with the Latin word "Picti" referring to their practice of painting and tattooing their bodies, something alluded to by Julius Caeser in The Gallic Wars: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad,  which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”

A Pictish Warrior Holding a Human Head, John White

In general, their lifestyle was similar to that of the neighboring Gaels and Anglo-Saxons.  Early Pictish religion resembled Celtic polytheism, though they later converted to Christianity. The Picts had their own language, now extinct.  And today scholars believe that reports of elaborate Pictish tattoos were exaggerated.

Pictish Warrior, John White

Pictish Warrior, Theodor de Bry engraving based on John White painting, in A Brief and True Report

Nevertheless, White and other artists of his time perpetuated the popular image of the heavily-illustrated Picts. The question arises, though, why did Theodor de Bry's engravings based on John White's series of Pict portraits appear in the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia?

Harriot (1560-1621) had travelled with John White on their first voyage to Carolina (1586).  Harriot was hired for that expedition due to his expertise as a navigator, astronomer and scientist.  He learned the Algonquin language and brought specimens of New World flora, fauna and minerals back to England. Walter Raleigh was a businessman who anticipated vast profits from successful colonization of the New World, and Harriot's book was in no way intended to discourage potential colonists. 

The Conjurer, Theodor de Bry engraving, based on John White painting,  in A Brief and True Report

On the contrary, Harriot emphasized the abundant fecundity of the New World and downplayed the hazards.  In this respect, it made sense to include portraits of the fierce Picts of the British isles alongside pictures of the comparatively docile Indians of the Roanoke region. 

Theodor de Bry, engraver of the Pict images, explained that they were included to show how the inhabitants of Great Britain in times past were wildly tattooed savages, contrasting dramatically with the more modest and demure Algonquians of Carolina.  Here's the account of the Picts, published in Harriot's book:

IN tymes past the Pictes, habitans of one part of great Bretainne, which is nowe nammed England, wear sauuages, and did paint all their bodye after the maner followinge. the did lett their haire gro we as fare as their Shoulders, sauinge those which hange vppon their forehead, the which the did cutt. They shaue all their berde except the mustaches, vppon their breast wear painted the head of som birde, ant about the pappes as yt waere beames of the sune, vppon the bellye sum feere full and monstreus face, spreedinge the beames verye fare vppon the thighes. Vppon the two knees som faces of lion, and vppon their leggs as yt hath been shelles of fish. Vppon their Shoulders griffones heades, and then they hath serpents abowt their armes: They caried abowt their necks one ayerne ringe, and another abowt the midds of their bodye, abowt the bellye, and the saids hange on a chaine, a cimeterre or turkie soorde, the did carye in one arme a target made of wode, and in the other hande a picke, of which the ayerne was after the manner of a Lick, whith tassels on, and the other ende with a Rounde boule. And when they hath ouercomme some of their ennemis, they did neuerfelle to carye a we their heads with them.

To the dismay of some who were seduced by Harriot's promotional tract and actually tried to find a new life in the New World, the Algonquins were no less benign than the Picts of old.  Those intrepid Englishmen are remembered today as members of the Lost Colony. 

Frankly, because she looks so much like she would fit in at any hipster brewpub ca. 2016, I have to include one other image, a watercolour attributed to Jacques Le Moyne rather than John White.

A Young Daughter of the Picts, painting ca. 1580s

In the British Museum publication, European Visions: American Voices, Sam Smiles' essay John White and British Antiquity: Savage Origins in the Context of Tudor Historiography addresses the Le Moyne painting:

The use of flowers to cover the body has been repeatedly commented on, given that it bears no direct relation to the classical accounts of the Picts originated in Scythia, and so turned to Xenophon who, in the Anabasis, records that the warlike peoples on the Black Sea coast included the fair-skinned Mossynoicoi, whose chestnut-fattened children were "tender and very white...with backs and breasts variegated and tattoed all over in flower patterns."

Rockin' that floral body art the way she does, I'll bet the Young Daughter of the Picts would dig a little Floyd:

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See also  - The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth, by Richard Dibon-Smith

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