Feature Articles – A Scottish Loki stone
A little known Pictish stone in a small museum in the Scottish village of Meigle is a most rare Loki Stone. If confirmed, the history of the Picts might have to be radically rewritten.
by Philip Coppens
One of the largest collections of Pictish Carved Stones in Scotland is on display in the Museum in the old schoolhouse in the village of Meigle. Inside is a stone that is identical to the so-called Loki Stone of Kirkby Stephen. An identified Loki Stone exists in the parish church of Kirkby Stephen, in northwest England. Inside sits a stone that was deemed to be unique in Britain – and of which only two remain in Europe: the Loki Stone.
The 8th century Loki Stone is small and is decorated by a carved figure, chained, with horns. It is one of the few physical survivals from the time when the Vikings had settled in this area. A largely forgotten god, Loki was raised from oblivion for the movie The Mask (1994), in which the “mask” was made into an artefact of ancient Scandinavian culture, rather the African origin it was given in the comics.
Loki is largely the Norse equivalent of the Christian devil. He was a joker and a mischief-maker, who eventually went too far: he caused the death of the god Odin’s son by trickery and was punished by being imprisoned below ground in chains. This is how he is depicted on the Loki Stone: a horned being, with arms and feet wrapped in ropes, so that he cannot move. A similar stone is located in the Sculptured Stone Museum at Meigle, which displays 26 Pictish carved stones dating from the late 8th to the late 10th centuries, and which is therefore contemporary with the 8th century Loki Stone of Kirkby Stephen.
The collection makes up one of the most important collections of early medieval sculpture in Western Europe. They are all that survives of a centre of Pictish wealth and patronage. The Picts were a confederation of tribes who lived in eastern Scotland until around 850. They were converted to Christianity in the 6th and 7th century. Meigle was an important centre of power in early medieval Scotland. The villa, or royal estate, at Migdele (Meigle) is mentioned in the time of King Pherath (839–42), shortly before the Picts were united with the Scots under Kenneth mac Alpin.
We know remarkably little about the Picts, and most of what we know of their beliefs comes from the iconography of carved stones, such as those housed in the museum. There is a local tradition that one of these stones also marked the grave of Vanora. She is better known as Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, who was abducted by King Mordred and held captive on Berry Hill, near Meigle. When she returned to her husband, he sentenced her to death by being torn apart by wild beasts. The scene showing Daniel and the lions was believed to depict this tragic event. A far less well-known stone in the collection, however, does bear striking similarities with the Loki Stone: a horned being, whose arms and legs are held by ropes. Little is known about the Picts, but their very location, in eastern Scotland, near the sea, makes them primary candidates for having been exposed to Viking influence. The timeframe of when the stone was carved, coincides with the time of Viking invasions into Britain. That they therefore carved a stone depicting the chained god Loki, should not come as a total surprise. The Loki Stone of Kirkby Stephen (left) and the Loki depiction from Meigle (right)