The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif
Pictish, Early 9th Century
The axe-carrying bird-men and the remaining iconography of the cross-slab from Papil, West Burra, Shetland, are described and analysed. Special emphasis is placed on examining the Pail bird-men first with Irish and Pictish examples of the Temptation of St Antony and second with detailed descriptions of weapon-carrying bird-men and axe-carrying human figures in Pictish sculpture, concluding that the Papil bird-men belong with the latter. This motif is compared with descriptions of battlefield demons in early Irish literature, namely, Morrigan, Bodb and Macha. The Papil cross-slab is suggested to date to the early 9th century, based on technique and comparative iconographic evidence, and is thus contemporary with related Pictish examples. This motif is shown to represent a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons, thus suggesting shared perceptions of similar mythological figures in the Insular world. A further connection between Ireland, Irish ecclesiastical foundations in the Hebrides, Shetland and southern Pictland is also discussed.