Pictish Symbols: Z-Rods and V-Rods – of Celestial / Astronomical Importance?

The Z-Rods and V-Rods: Part 1.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Pictish symbols are that they are often accompanied by the so-called z-rods or v-rods. This apparent embellishment lends another layer of complexity in attempts to understand the meaning being conveyed by the symbols.  These have been seen in the past as being reminiscent of forks of lightning, or perhaps as broken arrows or spears. It has been suggested that these therefore might be symbols representing the death of a warrior. However, if we are starting to try to view Pictish symbols in terms of astronomical, calendrical, or astrological events, could the z-rod’s form and function also be explained in these terms?

There is variation in the form that the rods take, but these fall within a quite narrow range of possibilities. For example, the rods are usually not entirely symmetrical, but typically have a ‘tipped’ end and a ‘trailing’ end. Sometimes the tip of the rod takes on a spear or arrow-head appearance, or sometimes the tip appears to be more organic in form, perhaps reminiscent of parts of a plant. The trailing edge of the rods often appear to be plant like, or end in a bulb like structure, or can appear to be resemble a fish tail or perhaps even arrow flights. Simple embellishments often decorate the shafts of the rods, and these again have an organic quality to them, perhaps even reminiscent of tongues of fire. The z-rods, when they appear with the double disc, tend to start below the left hand disc, run parallel with the axis of the symbol, cross backwards over the axis, and then continue above the right hand disc, again in parallel with the axis, therefore taking a form similar to a letter ‘z’ when seen in a mirror (see figure below, 2nd row from top right hand side).  However, in a handful of cases, the rods appear to be in the opposite orientation therefore actually resembling a ‘z’. This phenomenon occurs with other symbols and we will explore its significance later.

Examples of Pictish Symbols

Examples of Pictish Symbols

The z-rods found bisecting the double discs tend to show relatively small terminal decorations in relation to their length. This is in contrast to the other type of rods found associated with Pictish symbols; the ‘v-rods’.  (See crescent and V-rod illustration above, top left). Typically v-rods, which usually are found only with the crescent Moon symbol (there is one example of a ‘v’ rod with an arch), have terminals that are relatively large and have shorter rods. With this difference between the two types of rod in mind, it is probably worth considering the possibility that the v-rod may represent an arrow, and in the context of the night sky, perhaps we should view this not as any common arrow but rather a ‘celestial’ arrow, with further information embedded in the image to convey additional information. Similarly, the z-rod of the double disc symbol may represent not an arrow, but a spear with its longer rod and smaller terminals, and if they too are associated with possible astrological symbolism then again we may want to consider the possibility that these spears have a celestial or supernatural aspect.

There are however problems with the identification of the z-rod with a spear, not least the ‘z’ shape of the rod, but also the fact that a spear usually has only one obvious ‘terminal’; the spearhead. However in the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, there are spears from the Pictish period that have a metal addition to the ‘trailing’ edge. This addition was well described by the Roman writer, Dio Cassius (prior to AD 229) who made the following observations on the tribes in northern Scotland, ‘For arms they have a shield and a short spear, with a bronze apple attached to the end of the spear-shaft, so that when it is shaken it may clash and terrify the enemy.’ This type of spear is also depicted on a Pictish stone from Collessie in Fife.

You can find an image here: http://www.mathstat.strath.ac.uk/outreach/pictish/database.php?image=184

The so-called ‘Collessie man’ is a naked warrior carrying a spear, at the trailing end of the spear can clearly be seen the sort of ‘apple’ described by Dio Cassius. The apple may have other functions other than generating an intimidatory din. One suggestion, in the book Celtic Warriors (Tim Newark , Blandford Press, 1986),  is that the apple was to aid the balance of the spear in flight. Is it also possible that this type of spear was suitable for use with a sling, therefore increasing its penetrative ability and range. Could the trailing terminal shown on many of the z-rods actually represent these apples?

If the tip of the rod represented a spearhead, then we would also have to come up with an explanation for the almost organic feel to the shape. However, it turns out that there were a myriad of designs for both arrow and spear heads. These variations may have reflected cultural differences or differences in the favoured material, or perhaps more importantly they may have reflected differences in the use each type of spear or arrow head was put. Spearheads may have been designed to penetrate different types of protective clothing, or armour, to be easily removed, or to be difficult to remove, and a host of other reasons. Spearheads that have been found in the British Isles, could be from spears but also from javelins, thrusting spears, lances or pikes. Two main types of spearhead seem to be common in Britain and Ireland in the first millennium AD. The first type is the ‘shouldered’ spearhead, which was apparently typically Germanic, although it seems to have also been quite common in Ireland. The most common type in Britain was the ‘leaf-shaped’ spear head. Could the leaf shaped spearhead explain the almost organic feel to the leading edge of so many rods?  The ‘Collessie man’s’ spear sports a small leaf shaped spearhead, very reminiscent of the rod.

In the book I suggest for a variety of reasons, why the double disc symbol might represent the constellation Leo, the Sun’s ‘house’ or at least part of that constellation (probably the alpha star Regulus).

In the time period we’re interested in, the first millennium, the Irish festival of Lughnasa, named after Lugh, a god of light or the Sun and the Irish equivalent of the Welsh ‘Lleu’, occurred when the Sun rose with Leo’s alpha star, Regulus, with both star and constellation having very strong associations with the Sun. In the context of this Celtic god, the appearance of the z-rodded spear associated with some of the double discs throws up a fascinating possibility. If we further examine the mythology surrounding this god of light, and in particular the Irish version, Lugh, we find that the object most closely associated with this character is in fact a spear. His is no ordinary spear. This weapon almost has a life of its own, seeking out its intended target, rather like a modern homing missile; even Lugh has trouble calming its blood thirsty tendencies. The weapon comes to the fore when Lugh slays the monstrous Fomorian king, Balor, by throwing the spear at his single malevolent eye. This spear has another aspect; it is alive with flame, as would befit a weapon associated with the Sun god. To keep the spear from doing harm when it is not being used, Lugh keeps the weapon in a bucket of water, only removing it when he intends to use it. Such a fiery spear should remind us of a Sun beam or the Sun’s rays, and we should therefore see the spear in itself as a solar motif. Does the z-rod also encompass this idea? Is the z-rod , and in the context of the Pictish symbols, perhaps enhancing the meaning of the individual symbols it is associated with? But what of the fire aspect of Lugh’s weapon? If the z-rod is to be viewed as a solar symbol then is it possible that it is in some way related to Lugh’s spear or at least a Pictish equivalent? In order to answer this, we need to turn to the many of the depictions of the rod. Emanating from the shaft of many of the rods are small curly decorations or florials. Is it possible that these decorations actually represent flames, perhaps mirroring the Irish mythological notion of Lugh’s fiery ‘Sun’ spear? It is certainly a tantalising possibility and would fit with solar symbolism.

If some of the symbolism hints at parallels between the Pictish rods and the Irish Sun god’s weapon, this still doesn’t explain the reason why the rod is bent into a ‘z’ shape nor does it tell us if the rod is conveying some further information. Let us for a moment consider the relationship between the double disc and the z- rod.  In the majority of cases the apple-shaped termination of our potential spear is found below and to the left of the double disc, we can then follow the shaft as it travels from left to right until it doubles back, crossing the axis between the two solar discs, before once again continuing on its original left to right path. It therefore describes a ‘backward’ ‘z’. The left to right orientation of these rods fits well with the notion of solar symbolism, in that the Sun’s daily path from east to west is in effect (to an observer) a movement from left to right. This however does not explain why the rod crosses diagonally backwards across the axis of the double disc. However, as well as a suggestion of the Sun’s daily course from east to west, the z-rod could also be explained in terms of the path of other bodies in the solar system. If we turn back to the ancient science of astronomy, one of the first phenomena that the earliest astronomers must have noticed concerned the behaviour of a small collection of celestial bodies that followed the Sun’s path through the sky. To early observers, these bodies generally stayed close to the ecliptic, but had the curious habit of occasionally coming to a halt and wandering away from their original path. This behaviour, which was in contrast to the ‘fixed’ stars, partly gave rise to their Greek name ‘planetese’ and originally meant wanderer. This word of course gave rise to our own word ‘planet’.

This peculiar ‘wandering’ behaviour is technically called retrograde motion, and is a function of our observing planets orbiting the Sun from a planet (Earth) that is also moving around the Sun. This combination of the two orbits gives us the illusion every now and again that the planets slow in their path in the night sky, appear to standstill, and then for short time move backwards, before once again returning to their original direction. This retrograde motion, which is most obvious in the motion of Mercury, Venus, and Mars, when traced out appears to take the form of either a loop or can actually approximate to a ‘z’ shape or to a mirrored ‘z’. It is therefore possible that the z- rod as well as conveying solar imagery linked to the mythology of a Sun god, conveys the notion of the ecliptic or even relates to information on the motion of a particular celestial body. The two mirror image versions of the z-rod, could therefore be attributed simply to artistic variation but also might relate to the artist depicting two different circumstances. So for example, the ‘z’ version of the z-rod and its mirrored counterpart may simply reflect two possible forms of retrograde motion, which can trace out z shape or a mirrored version of this. The planets Jupiter and Saturn also display apparent retrograde motion, with considerable backwards movement, but with little vertical motion away from their path. This apparent backwards motion of all the planets is not a rare occurrence, nor viewed as unimportant, but is used sometimes in both western and eastern astrological predictions, where it is regarded as having a profound influence. The two visible giant outer planets spend about a third of their time in apparent retrograde, Mars about twenty percent of its time, Mercury about ten percent and Venus about seven percent. The Picts would have certainly known, if they were observing the nightly motion of the planets, about the existence of this phenomenon.

In the case of the ‘notched rectangle’ z-rods (see image above, bootom row, left hand side), seven show the rod traversing the symbol from the bottom left hand corner to the top right hand side of the symbols, in other words it diagonally ‘ascends” from left to right (forming a mirrored ‘N’). In the other two other rodded examples, the rods are drawn in the opposite orientation, in effect a mirror image of the other seven, with the rod traversing the symbol from the top left to the bottom right (a descending rod). Rotating the symbol through ninety degrees reveals that these z-rods take the same two forms as the those found with the double disc – the mirrored ‘N’ is simply a ‘z’ rotated, and likewise the more common mirrored ‘N’ is a mirrored ‘z’ rotated.  If we also take cognisance of the leading tip of these rods, and the direction they point, the mirrored ‘z’ or ‘N’ rods of the double disc and notched rectangle may actually be indicating rotational direction, rather like a Catherine wheel. The vast majority of the mirrored z- rods of the double discs point to the right indicating perhaps clockwise rotation, likewise the mirrored ‘N’ of the notched rectangles points perhaps also indicating clockwise movement. Even if the tip of the rod pointed to the left it would still indicate a clockwise direction. The less common rodded double discs have rods that describe a true ‘z’ shape. These rods tend to have their tip on the lower arm of the ‘z’, pointing to the right, suggesting anti-clockwise movement, likewise the two ‘N’ shaped rods of the notched rectangle.

This potential mirroring of the symbol is given further credence if one examines the internal circles or notches on the vertical sides of the notched rectangles that frequently occur. Seven of the rodded symbols, plus the unrodded symbol, have circles or notches. In the case of the mirrored ‘N’ or z-rods (clockwise), the left hand notch or circle appears above the rod, and the right hand notch or circle appears below the rod. In the example from Arndilly,

(image can be found here:  http://www.mathstat.strath.ac.uk/outreach/pictish/database.php?image=15

with its rod presenting as an ‘N’ (anticlockwise), its left hand circle is below the rod and the right hand circle above the rod – in other words the circles could support the notion that the Arndilly rectangular notched symbol is a deliberate mirror image. This would also parallel the situation with the double discs, where there also appear to be mirrored symbols. The mirroring of not only the rod but key internal features would seem to suggest that the mirroring may well be deliberate and constitute a further level of complexity in terms of the symbols message. This would also apply to the rodded double disc.

Within the main group of snake symbols (above image, top row, right hand side), whether rodded or non-rodded, there appear also to be left facing and right facing forms. Within these two groups the rods themselves, as in the case of the other z-rodded symbols, can be ‘clockwise’ or ‘anti-clockwise’. The largest group is the left hand facing snake, with the majority of examples of these being rodded clockwise. The left handed snakes also make up the majority of non-rodded examples. Meigle 1 and the St Vigeans 2 stones show examples of left hand anti-clockwise rodded snakes. The Aberlemno 1 stone  has an example of a non-rodded right handed snake, whilst the right facing snake on the Newton House stone has an anti-clockwise rod. It is possible that these variations in handedness and rod orientation convey some particular information; vital to the interpretation of the pairing.

Within the context of religion and in particular eastern religion (notably Vedic), motion to the right or clockwise motion is seen as auspicious and male, representing the daily motion of the Sun, stars and planets. Left handed or anti-clockwise motion is seen as inauspicious and female. It could therefore be the case that the two forms of the z-rods are communicating information as to whether the timing of the event commemorated by the stone is auspicious or inauspicious. Interestingly, the number of clockwise rods far outnumbers the anti-clockwise rods. It is even possible that the clockwise form is linked to males in some way and the anti-clockwise to females.

Part 2, next week


About iainforbespict

Author of book on the Picts

Posted on April 3, 2013, in Pictish History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Ian; all of your prior work is acknowledged in that the idea of celestial origins for the DDZ is correct. The key is understanding is that ancients used drawings to convey messages and then described the drawings in the mythology. When you think about it, it is obvious.

    Imagine, if you will, how one shall describe the Zodiac? Does it run in a horizontal fashion? Is it up and down or side to side?

    Does it “bend” around a point like the pole star?

    Does “bend” mean tribulation or pain?

    Did he suffer to cause that which is seen?

    Is it a combination of language and emotion; translation and devotion?

    At least that is what I think after spending four years studying mythology.

  2. Very interesting article. Do you think there is any relation of the Z shape to the sæwelō rune in Younger Futhark, meaning “sun”?

  3. I am not involved in any expertise on Pictish culture other than in the 1960s I travelled out from Belfast (Northern Ireland) in pop bands to do dancehall gigs sometimes in the old Pictland area of Scotland, and Strathpeffer in particular. And for some reason also I always remained mindful of this event.

    Recently on the internet, I came across an example of a Pictish “horseshoe” or “arch” design found on a stone monument in fact in Strathpeffer.

    Because of my travelling minstrel pop-rock muso Zeitgeist so to speak I acquired odd bits and pieces of information that seemed to fit together in general recollections of the old days travelling out from Belfast; and especially in view of the fact that in a 1999 publication Saint Patrick–The Man and his Works by Thomas O’ Loughlin where in St P’s Epistola at E2 and referring to Coroticus and raiders that they are “allies of the Irish and the apostate Picts”, this coud only but indicate a direct link between the Irish and the Picts in Scotland via the old province of Ulster.

    Of course I did not know this as such in Strathpeffer doing the dancehall gig but when I came across the Strathpeffer Pictish puzzling “horseshoe” figure I recognized it as like an Irish gold collar of 8th century BCE which also were found in Spain which seems involved in the Strathpeffer argument.

    Were the Picts influenced by the Irish or were the Irish influenced by the Picts in the 8th
    century BCE going by this Strathpeffer experience so to speak in 1969?

    Along with the Strathpeffer “Irish-like” collar design “horseshoe” carving, actual bronze age crescent moon lunulas seem to follow on as of the same symbolism as the Pictish v-rod crescent moon carving.

    I hope this might be of interest to you.

    Colum “Colm” Connolly

    • Hi Colm,

      Sorry for the delay in answering. Yes, there are many links between these ancient cultures. I think some of the scenes on Pictish stones may even be pictorial versions of Irish / Celtic myths of the sky. There are also references in Irish writings to the ‘Picts of Antrim’. The three sided harp may also have originated among the Picts, with 8 of the 9 oldest depictions of the Harp or Clarsach appearing on Pictish stones. The old Irish word for a harp was ‘cruit’ possibly derived from the Irish word for Pict (Cruithneach). Similar words were used to describe the ancient people of Dalriada. The arch might represent the milky way, or perhaps the constellation of Libra (some versions look like a flattened version of the scales).



  1. Pingback: Pictish Symbols: Z-Rods and V-Rods – of Celestial / Astronomical Importance? | The Last of the Druids

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