“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice” – Mark Twain
The main problem with being a British Iron Age (800 B.C. – 100 A.D.) superpower is that it was the Iron Age, and nobody was writing about it. They were busy making iron. Sure there were a few Roman historians speculating on the savages at the edge of the Empire, but they tended to exaggerate and rely on a lot of hearsay. And if you didn’t have the good sense, or frankly literacy, to leave a few notes behind, and then indecently decided to disappear, folks tended to talk and when the graduate students of classical antiquity needed a thesis topic, they loved the weird histories that got passed on. While archaeological evidence combined with folkloric traditions can give us a few clues, those tantalizing hints are open to interpretation in whatever idiom is currently en vogue. And I for one am anti-vogue on principle. For instance, the Picts (Iron Age inhabitants of modern day Scotland) are on the basis of fairly thin evidence understood to be descendants of the indigenous hillfort-building Celtic Caledonians (and nobody is all that sure who the Caledonians were). How do we know this? The Romans told us in the 1st Century A.D. There are two issues. The Romans insisted the Caledonians were large and red-haired and probably of Germanic origin. The Romans also tended to assume anyone who lived north of Italy and didn’t wear a toga was from one Germanic tribe or another. Locally, the Picts were traditionally said to be extremely short, and well, blue (and some scholars have suggested that the whole body of “faerie” folklore is likely based on memories of the Picts). Another oddity is the preponderance of vitrified Pictish hillforts in Scotland. “Vitirifed” means “turned to glass by incredible heat”. This has led me to speculate that a vicious and genocidal, “shock and awe” air war was waged against Pictish faeries in 1st Century B.C. Scotland by forces unknown, from which they never fully recovered.
Before you assume I’ve gotten into the liquor cabinet again, let me point out that I’m not the first to suggest (a) that the Picts are the inspiration of later faerie mythologies, and that (b) the current explanations for the large number of vitrified Iron Age hillforts in Scotland are somewhat lacking in credibility. My simple plea is for a brief suspension of disbelief to consider an alternate history, that is, the sad tale of the rise and fall of Pictland as an object lesson in the value of air superiority.
Before the Picts and Gaels (along with a smattering of Germanic Anglo-Saxons, Cumbrians, and Norse) hooked up and formed the Kingdom of Scotland, called “Alba” at the time, in the 9th Century A.D., eastern and northern Scotland were inhabited by a loose confederation of Pictish tribes, and the area was generally referred to as Pictland. Well, actually we have no idea what the Picts called it, since they also didn’t call themselves Picts and the Pictish language, thought to be vaguely related to Brittonic has been extinct for almost two millennia. It’s all very confusing, as the name “Pict” is believed to derive from the Goidelic (parent language of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, spoken in western Scotland and Ireland in the Iron Age), translated for Roman ethnographers in the more southern Brittonic as “Pritani”, since the Romans and the antagonists they identified as Picts were really more preoccupied with clubbing each other over the head. Pritani was thought to have been later translated into Latin as “Picti”, or “painted people”, as the Picts were fond of full body tattooing and painting themselves blue. Or maybe they were just blue. Opinions vary, and most of our written record of the Picts comes down to us from the Romans, who also thought it was prudent to build a great big, freaking wall (Hadrian’s Wall) between themselves and that puzzling bunch of blue barbarians that actually liked the climate in Scotland. While the Picts were thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic, that’s really just a guess. Mostly, Pictland seems to have been a heavy hitter on the International scene in the late British Iron Age (around 100 B.C.), vaguely noted as occasionally raiding the Roman Empire as late as the 3rd Century A.D., but essentially by the advent of the Roman conquest of Britain (43 A.D), the political geography north of the rivers Forth and Clyde was incomprehensible to outsiders, consisting of a whole lot of independent and ethnically varied kingdoms jockeying for supremacy. Of course, when the Vikings arrived in the 9th Century A.D. and commenced stomping everybody, the Picts merged with the Gaels and formed Scotland, and by the 11th Century A.D., nobody could find a Pict to clear things up for us.
If folklore tells us nothing else, we can be fairly confident of its emphasis on the fact that faeries can be really annoying. Sure, some of them can occasionally be helpful or amusing, or even socially conscious, but mostly they’re just a pain in the ass, flitting abound bending reality, replacing children with changelings, and warping our sense of time (at least among the “Seelie” set that don’t just want us dead like the rest of the “Unseelie” court). We look at them now as a quaint anachronism, but one can imagine that in the depths of history, they might have actually pissed the wrong people off. The wrong people of course, meaning someone with genocidal tendencies and the ability to project air power.
First, let’s examine the possibility that the Picts were the prototype for faeries. One of the most vocal proponents of what has come to be called “The Pygmy-Pict Theory” was Scottish folklorist and antiquarian David MacRitchie (1851-1925 A.D.) who suggested that the whole faerie oeuvre was a folk memory of the long forgotten race of Picts who after the Stone Age ended, were increasingly pushed out to the periphery of the inhabited world. The Picts had a few telltale signs of being faeries in that they were thought to be quite diminutive, lived in semi-subterranean homes and had a lot of similarities with the Lapp-dwarf characterizations of the aboriginal Scandinavians (which might account for the commonalities between Teutonic and Celtic folklore concerning faeries and faerie-like creatures). MacRitchie wasn’t just a nut. Okay, well maybe he was a nut, but he did do his research, and his conclusions were based on serious inquiry into folkloric and archaeological evidence, and the essence of his thesis was pretty clear.
The conclusion, therefore, to be drawn from what has been said upon this subject is that, although the term Pict or Pecht has been chosen by History as that by which a certain race of people, once found in Scotland, ought to be remembered, yet that term indicates nothing more than Trow or Dwarf, either of which names might as reasonably have been chosen as their synonym Pecht. And that when one speaks of Pechts, Trows, or Dwarfs, one is speaking of the same kind of people—the mound-dwellers, or “underground” races of the past. Further, that the people traditionally remembered in Shetland as Finns belonged to that group; as also those whom Gaelic folk-lore styles the Feinne. And that, along with many other popular terms not here enumerated, one of the names by which such people have been widely known is that of “the Fairies” (MacRitchie, 1890, p100).
There is a substantial body of literature that tends to agree with MacRitchie, including the writings of folklore mega-star Joseph Campbell, who noted, “”I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies…the fairy was probably a Pict.” Suffice it to say, there is at least the circumstantial implication that that the Picts came to be remembered, and perhaps encountered, as faeries long after the Roman designated “Pictland” had vanished from the social scene. Were they supernatural creatures? I wouldn’t commit, but I like to play the odds. Assume the worst, that is. If I find myself faced with a little blue guy who may or may not be some preternatural trickster, I find its best to proceed from the assumption that he’s loaded for bear and deserves a modicum of respect, or at minimum a wide berth. Now, you can argue with me (and those much more learned) about whether Picts were Faeries, but keep in mind that it is on the order of debating whether unicorns were actually jerks or that my conception of time travel is inadequate as I haven’t internalized the testimony of John Titor (I only mention these because I’ve truly received commentary to that effect). Let’s go with the possibility that there was some relationship between being Pictish and being Fey, because what the heck, if carpenters can get resurrected and remnant neanderthals posing as Bigfoot can wander around the woods, anything can happen. This tellingly leads to the question of what happened to the Picts and a whole body of puzzling archaeological evidence that has yet to be adequately explained, that is, the question of Scottish vitrified forts.
Scotland, but curiously not England and Wales, is literally littered with the ruins of Iron Age hillforts that have been vitrified (“rock turned to glass under extreme heat”, usually at temperatures somewhere around 1100 degrees Celsius). If you can smelt iron, which was essential to your Iron Age street cred, you can figure out how to sustain a fire at somewhere around 1300 degrees Celsius without too much trouble. The question is why you would do this to a perfectly good rock wall, since it actually weakens, rather than strengthens it. This is of course one of the skeptic explanations frequently trotted out under the assumption that our ancestors were morons. At the other end of the loopy spectrum, the ancient astronaut fanboys maintain this no doubt resulted from an ancient atomic blast, which while making for good television ratings, is really a sufficient, but unnecessary explanation. I mean, why go nuclear when conventional weapons will do the job? Building of these forts seemed to commence in the Bronze Age and continued into the Iron Age, closely associated with the Picts, and were mostly abandoned after the Roman occupation of Britain got underway. This coincides with the disappearance of the Picts as a distinct culture. Some scholars, for no other reason than to be contrary have maintained that these forts were deliberately burned before abandonment by their occupants for ritual reasons (note: social scientists who can’t explain behavior any other way will generally attribute it to “religious ritual”), or were sacked and burned by unidentified enemies. You would have to be a ridiculously angry Iron Age barbarian to take a fort and then go to all the trouble of finding enough combustibles and spending the time to stoke a fire hot enough to turn rock to glass. Your time would obviously be better spent making more iron. Unless the Picts insulted your sister. Maybe that would merit a little arsonistic attention. Still, it seems like an awful lot of effort and a terrible waste of precious resources, particularly when the far more parsimonious explanation would be that someone tired of being pranked by Faeries opted to demonstrate their air supremacy through a concerted campaign of incendiary bombing faerie strongholds. The logic is simple. The Picts built hillforts. The hillforts were vitrified. After which nobody heard much about Picts. Anomalist Charles Fort picked up on this idea, and since nobody knew who the Faeries had atagonized into a homicidal rage, he decided to wax poetical, mostly in the interest of pointing out that “scientific” explanations were no more fanciful than his own, and labelled the hypothetical aggressors “Azuria”. Given, he was suggesting the tongue-in-cheek possibility that blue aliens from the planet Azuria were frustrated with missionary efforts on earth, and decided to pound the hell out of Pictland.
Azuria, which was tutelary to the early Britons: Azuria, whence came the blue Britons, whose descendants gradually diluting, like blueing in a wash-tub, where a faucet’s turned on, have been most emphasized of sub-tutelarians, or assimilators ever since. Worlds that were once tutelarian worlds—before this earth became sole property of one of them—their attempts to convert or assimilate—but then the state that comes to all things in their missionary-frustrations—unacceptance by all stomachs of some things; rejection by all societies of some units; glaciers that sort over and cast out stones. Repulsion. Wrath of the baffled missionary. There is no other wrath. All repulsion is reaction to the unassimilable. So then the wrath of Azuria Because surrounding peoples of this earth would not assimilate with her own colonists in the part of the earth that we now call England. I don’t know that there has ever been more nearly just, reasonable, or logical wrath, in this earth’s history—if there is no other wrath. The wrath of Azuria, because the other peoples of this earth would not turn blue to suit her. History is a department of human delusion that interests us. We are able to give a little advancement to history. In the vitrified forts of a few parts of Europe, we find data that the Humes and Gibbons have disregarded. The vitrified forts surrounding England, but not in England. The vitrified forts of Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, and Bohemia. Or that, once upon a time, with electric blasts, Azuria tried to swipe this earth clear of the peoples who resisted her. The vast blue bulk of Azuria appeared in the sky. Clouds turned green. The sun was formless and purple in the vibrations of wrath that were emanating from Azuria. The whitish, or yellowish, or brownish peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, and Bohemia fled to hill tops and built forts. In a real existence, hill tops, or easiest accessibility to an aerial enemy, would be the last choice in refuges. But here, in quasi-existence, if we’re accustomed to run to hill tops, in times of danger, we run to them just the same, even with danger closest to hill tops. Very common in .quasi-existence: attempt to escape by running closer to the pursuing. They built forts, or already had forts, on hill tops. Something poured electricity upon them. The stones of these forts exist to this day, vitrified, or melted and turned to glass. The archaeologists have jumped from one conclusion to another, like the “rapid chamois” we read of a while ago, to account for vitrified forts, always restricted by the commandment that unless their conclusions conformed to such tenets as Exclusionism, of the System, they would be excommunicated. So archaeologists, in their medieval dread of excommunication, have tried to explain vitrified forts in terms of terrestrial experience. We find in their insufficiencies the same old assimilating of all that could be assimilated, and disregard for the unassimilable, conventionalizing into the explanation that vitrified forts were made by prehistoric peoples who built vast fires—often remote from wood-supply—to melt externally, and to cement together, the stones of their constructions. But negativeness always: so within itself a science can never be homogeneous or unified or harmonious (Fort, 1919, p164-166).
In essence, our pre-formulated notions of what exists and what doesn’t exist heavily color our interpretations of the facts on the ground, particularly when our facts are pretty thin. When it comes to people that existed long before there were decent written records, we have to rely on the scraps that historians who were as far removed from their subjects as we are from the luminaries of classical antiquity offer us. Perhaps we get lucky and have a few ruins or burial mounds to paw through. Thus when a Roman scholar rhapsodizes on the prehistory of Britain 300 years after conquest, and we then wax eloquent about the alignment of Roman historiography with the shreds of archaeological evidence (often obtained and classified a century in our past), we often speak with a confidence that ignores the shakiness of the limb we happen to be out on. Picts and vitrified hillforts existed. Faeries and 1st Century B.C. air power did not. Hence, Picts weren’t faeries and crazy Iron Age Britons went around starting massive and extraordinarily hot fires to burn the walls of forts for no particular good reason. As 5th Century B.C. Athenian historian Thucydides said, “History is philosophy teaching by examples”. And given the long tradition of Faerie antics and their apparent obliteration with extreme prejudice, the philosophical lesson here is that it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. The Book of the Damned: by Charles Fort. New York: H. Liveright, 1919.
MacRitchie, David, 1851-1925. The Testimony of Tradition. London: K. Paul. Trench, Trübner, 1890.
MacRitchie, David, 1851-1925. Fians, Fairies and Picts. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & co., ltd, 1893.