Fishers of men

This is a post that began in a drunk conversation with one of my oldest academic friends (whom I will not shame by naming, but whom you could potentially help out quite a lot by adding your name to this petition). That conversation was also four years ago, and I’m choosing to claim that that, not the beer, is why I can’t quite remember how we got onto this—my guess would be that this was during a few days I spent staying with them while using a local academic library to finish the paper which became my article ‘Nuns’ Signatures’, and that I was just pulling interesting-looking books off my friend’s shelves—but somehow we came upon a picture of this sculpture.

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, image from Canmore

What this is is one face of the Pictish symbol stone from Papil, Shetland.1 It’s not in Shetland any more, where only a replica remains, because it was carted off to the National Museum of Scotland, but I suppose more of my readership may therefore have a chance of seeing it some day. Anyway, the other face has a cross and interlace on it, but it’s this one that drew my altered attention, partly of course because of the odd cowled figures and the lion, but mainly because of these guys.

The birdman figures on the replica of the Papil Stone, Shetland

The birdmen on the lowest register of the modern replica of the Papil Stone, on site in Shetland, photo by J. Dimitrescu, copyright not stated so hopefully this is OK linked through to their excellent site

Now, it will not surprise you to know that scholarship is a little divided on just what might be depicted here. Early (modern) plague doctors seem to be ruled out by the bird feet, the axes and maybe also the human head of which they appear to be sharing custody. Especially since these guys are in the lower register of a three-panel picture, with the upper one being plausibly things of Heaven (a cross, cowled figures with crooks), the middle one being, well, a lion, not sure what to do with that but definitely a thing of Earth (or of Zion, I admit), the easiest answer might seem to be demons of some kind, playing with a member of the doomed dead. But if so, it’s quite a local kind of demon, you’d have to admit; this is not your standard beast with forked-tail and horns iconography.2

[Edit: revisions from here on have attempted to do something about the tone, which unfortunately managed, while trying to make my theory sound as silly as it deserves, to make the work on which it rested sound silly as well. That was not my intention at all; that work got an award from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and is online for you to peruse if you want a serious study of the stone. My actual argument, such as it is, remains the same.]

Well, I got no further with this thought that night, but the next day something suddenly struck me. You see, some scholars of early medieval, and especially, Germanic art, have some very artful interpretations of it in which, though an image seem to us weird as hell (perhaps literally), it may actually be a really cunning Christian reference.3 (I suppose a demon would, kinda sorta, be a Christian reference, but I mean more directly Biblical than that.)

As it turns out, I am not the first person to wonder if this can be done with this stone. There is other stonework from this site which seems to show monks, and this has led various people to theorise (not unreasonably) that there was a monastic settlement here and (less reasonably maybe) that this is therefore a scene from the Life of St Anthony, arguably the proto-monk and certainly regarded as such by many a medieval community. In this episode from the Life the saint-in-training was, and I quote a recent article about this stone, “tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear.”4 I’m not going to wonder right now what the heck was going on in Anthony’s personal desert (or relate this to the fact that birds are also supposed to have brought him food), I’m just going to note that, as I learn from the same article where several instances are pictured, this episode turns up on Irish sculpture quite a lot, so it’s not an unreasonable thing to suppose in this case. Except for the bird feet.

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

West face of the Castledermot South Cross, at Castle Dermot, County Kildare, Ireland, showing the Temptation of St Anthony one panel up from the base; photograph by Liam Murphy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

For reasons of those feet, therefore, and also quite a number of other reasons (such as that Anthony is pretty much always shown as a whole human being, and not an isolated head between two figures carrying axes), the author of that article, Dr Kelly Kilpatrick, wisely rejects the Antonian hypothesis. Instead, she argues that the stone shows, “a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons”, and instances at least four more of these characters, or at least beak-headed humanoids carrying weapons, on stones scattered across the old Pictish territories.5 (I say at least because I’m not sure whether or not I think Rhynie Man really belongs in the set, being more human though definitely scary, a kind of beweaponed Pictish bogeyman. There are English parallels to him I’ll blog about separately that have much more benign interpretations.) So case closed? Well, perhaps. In fact, if we’re being serious, then yes, I think so, really; the parallels seem fairly clear (as you can see for yourselves), are based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus of stones and it fits with a wider theory Dr Kilpatrick is offering about Pictish beliefs which I need to hear more of. But you didn’t come here to be serious, surely!

So, instead, let’s try and replicate my 2017 leap of hangover logic. Dr Kilpatrick has certainly seen more of these figures on the stones than I have, even after a lockdown tour of symbol stones I did last summer, but still I wonder if she is right when she says of these figures, “Apart from the beaks, they have human hair, and human-like facial features, including incised eyebrows.”6 Let’s have a close look at one of those heads…

Head of a grey heron

Head of a grey heron sighted at Waterfield Meadow in 2014, image by C. Butterfield from NatureSpot

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

What if they’re not eyebrows but eyestripes, it’s not hair but a crest? I think that whatever these creatures are, they have heron heads. Now, for those of you whose native lands may not be blessed with the noble heron (though that’s not many), they are fishing birds, which spend most of their lives looking hunched and uncomfortable ankle-deep in lakes, but every now and then unfold in a lightning quick spearing action which brings up a fish almost every time. And it was when I decided that the sculptor here was thinking herons that inspiration suddenly struck, in the form of a verse of Scripture (a thing which really very rarely happens to me):

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)

Need I even say more? What are these beings if not fishers of men? Look, they’ve been caught right in the act by our carver. In which case, not demons but apostles! Apostles with bird feet. There may be some iconographic details still to be worked out in this theory, I admit. Until then Dr Kilpatrick may be your best guide…7


1. I don’t have any of the standard catalogues to reference here (though see n. 4 below) but the stone is briefly described, analysed and illustrated in George Henderson and Isabel Henderson, The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland (London 2004), pp. 156-157 & fig. 228.

2. I don’t actually know how old the horns, pitchfork and forked-tail iconography of devils and demons is, but I suspect it’s later than medieval as I can’t think of any medieval examples. No time to check now though, sorry!

3. The winner in this particular contest, not just in quantity of suggestions but their ingenuity, is definitely Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

4. Kelly A. Kilpatrick, “The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 141 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 159–205, online here (p. 167).

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7. Though it will take a lot to convince me that these demons do not have heron heads! And from there we could spin all kinds of theories about landscape and cosmology… I would not be the first person to pitch such theories, either, there being Martin Carver, “Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 332–351, but for that very reason I might for now leave it to him…

12 responses to “Fishers of men

  1. Herons also perch on our garage roof. But less so now that nearby gardens sport netting over their fishponds. So I suggest that these carved guys – aren’t graven images forbidden? – are the guardians of fish ponds. If there were no fishponds in Shetland then my hypothesis fails.

  2. Pamela O'Neill

    Was it really necessary to show yourself up as a condescending, entitled jerk in putting forward your (not particularly credible) theory? Dr Kilpatrick is an outstanding academic whose thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed work deserves a great deal of respect, particularly in a field in which she, unlike you, is an expert. You could have propounded your theory without the gratuitous nastiness.

    • It certainly wasn’t necessary, and I hope I haven’t. I can’t see that I’ve said anything negative about Dr Kilpatrick’s work, let alone ‘gratuitous nastiness’, and my theory, such as it is, is not meant to be taken seriously except in so far as I do think the heads are modelled on herons, whatever that might mean. I’m certainly sorry to have given offence to one so much more expert in the field as yourself, but I don’t see how I managed it!

  3. dearieme

    All you can do about vulgar abuse, JJ, is develop a thick skin. Remind yourself that there are people who are simply incapable of recognising good-humour, or light heartedness, when they meet it. It’s an intellectual limitation they have, doubtless not their fault.

    • Well, I thank you for the support, but this is my critic, so whatever has gone wrong between my writing and her reaction I don’t think it’s intellectual limitation on her part. To be honest I’d rather have no-one casting aspersions on anyone in the blog’s comments that go further than, “what you say is probably wrong, because…”.

  4. As per footnote 7: “my real suspicion here is that Dr Kilpatrick has it right and what we have here are locally-inspired demons”. Never have I read such nastiness. Sleep easy Jonathan.

  5. “I don’t think it’s intellectual limitation on her part.” Intellect has many dimensions: on one of those she is assuredly limited.

  6. “the Australian School of Celtic Learning”

    No doubt the Gauls learnt lots from the Greeks of Massalia but I guess that’s not what’s meant.

    • It is indeed a bit more serious than that. I’ve used some of Dr O’Neill’s work, and actually have a bookseller’s search stored for other bits of it one can’t easily get. Ah well. I don’t plan on taking offence, and again, though it is kind of you to step in, I also don’t really want there to be any insults in my comments. If there must be some, they are best aimed at me, who have the ability to remove the ones that go truly over a line, not other commenters however egregious.

  7. Robert Ruda

    Sometimes I think images we can’t easily identify become a sort of Rorschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see in it and the theories spin off from there.

  8. Folks, it turns out that this post may indeed have caused some offence where none was intended. It seems best, therefore, to close it to further comments and try and sort things out. Thanks to all who have commented.