Celtic symbols are easy to recognize. Almost many Celtic symbols are based on similar design principles, for example the harmonious and balanced patterns of the Celtic knot.
When you think of Celtic artwork and jewelry, the first symbols to spring to mind will be intricate knotwork, crosses and spirals. But there are other symbols which where important to the Celts such as animals, torcs or other symbols.
It is believed that these symbols were far more meaningful to this ancient civilization than just a simple expression of creativity or to demonstrate their art of making jewelry and decorating materials such as precious metals and stone. Which, of course, is also true. It's clear they understood their crafts since many artifacts including the jewelry has survived in near perfect condition. Thousands of years later!
Many believe that the unique spirals and animals used weren't merely decorative. Instead, they believe that each design element had very specific significance for the Celts. Here we take a closer look at the meaning of some of the most common Celtic knots, spirals and other Celtic symbols.
Religion and spirituality was important in Celtic society. It is likely that these symbols and designs were used to represent their religious and spiritual beliefs. Unfortunately, without written records interpretation is left to logical assumptions. The meaning of a Celtic knot or symbol can only be based on factors such as where they have been consistently found and how the objects they decorated were used.
Handcrafted Men's Celtic Cross from our workshop
It is believed the Celts were not the first to use this style of knotwork. The Celts are believed to have borrowed these knots from groups. Earlier designs in a similar style have been found throughout Scandinavia and mainland Europe. This may have happened during the various fractions and wars where these societies conquered one another, where one's traditions and customs were passed on to another.
Celtic Knots are most commonly understood to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life. Celtic knots typically have closed ends representing unity and eternity. Whereas a knot with an open end, represents a specific life journey.
Some have speculated that the certain types of knots may have been used to represent different clans or tribes, in the same way that the pattern and colors of a Scottish kilt does.
Triquetras are associated with ancient Christian symbolism and were introduced relatively late into Celtic society. 'Triquetra' comes from Latin meaning 'three-cornered'. These are sometimes also referred to as the Celtic trinity knot.
It has various meanings. Often interpreted as a symbol of the Holy Trinity or the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It has also been interpreted in other ways. For example as the connection between mind, body and spirit; the past, present and future; or a more stylized version of the fish symbol for Jesus (a loop crossed over at one end).
2. Square Knot
Square knot tend to be much more elaborate and complex. Some of the commonly held meanings include the four seasons, the four directions, the four elements of nature (earth, wind, fire, water), the four Celtic festivals of Samhain, Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Imbolc, or St. Brigid's four branches of wisdom; hand, hearth, head and heart. In any case, they were most likely used as a form of protection and good fortune.
3. Shield Knot
The Celtic shield knot is a powerful symbol of protection, featuring a circle divided into four quadrants, with interwoven lines connecting each of the four distinct corners. The knot's unbreakable bond symbolizes strength, unity, and resilience in the face of adversity.
Historically, the Celtic shield knot was used by warriors in battle to protect themselves from harm. However, it also has spiritual significance, and is often given to sick people to ward off evil spirits and promote healing.
According to some sources, the four quadrants of the Celtic shield knot represent the four elements of nature - earth, air, fire, and water - while the interwoven lines signify the interconnectedness of all things. Additionally, the knot's circular shape represents the continuity of life, death, and rebirth - a powerful reminder of the cyclical nature of existence.
In summary, the Celtic shield knot is a potent symbol of protection, strength, and interconnectedness. It has been used by warriors in battle and by those seeking spiritual healing for centuries, and its significance continues to resonate today.
4. Circular Knot
Circular knots also come in a variety of forms. They are usually interpreted, for obvious reasons, as representing wholeness and purity. One especially popular circular knot in modern times is the five fold symbol. This is five circles, four overlapping with one in the center. This is said to represent the same four elements that square knots do, connected by a fifth unseen element. This is a perfect example of the importance the Celts placed on religion. As you might expect, there a huge number of more complex and intricate knots that include everything from animals and trees to hearts and various other imagery. The Dara Knot is an intricate type of knot that resembles a tree. The Irish word 'doire' means 'oak tree', and the knot shows both the tree and the root system. Trees were very significant in Celtic life and oaks were considered especially sacred. It represents wisdom, strength, power, and leadership.
5. SpiralsBefore knots were around to further complicate things, simple spiral symbols were the main emblems that adorned all Celtic settlements. These mostly came in the form of stone carvings on special sites rather than in jewelry and artwork. While knots were around from 450 AD, spirals go back a lot further to 3000 BC, when society would not have been as developed and people would not have had such refined skills when it came to using tools.
Spirals are a frequent occurrence in nature; from snails right up to galaxies, so it seems like a natural motif for the Celts to pick up on. They were nearly always drawn in a clockwise manner, which some experts say is in keeping with the direction of the sun. Therefore, the spiral is symbol of being in harmony with the earth and sun. There are of course exceptions, so the same experts say that anti-clockwise spirals were associated with spells and non-natural elements. The two used together create balance, and it is true that there are often equal numbers of both in ancient Celtic carvings, so who knows, they could be right.
Single, Double & Triple Spirals
Single spirals are the most commonly found type, found not only all across Ireland but all over France and stretching further into mainland Europe too. A small, widely drawn spiral is usually found at the entrance to various sites. There is a theory that tightly drawn spirals represent the summer sun and loosely drawn spirals denote the weaker winter sun. They could also be representations of star constellations. Double spirals were almost as common. This design consists of two interconnected spirals which would have been much more difficult to draw. For this reason it probably had higher significance, and is said to mean universal balance in the same way as the yin and yang symbol. It is usually found on artefacts as well as carved in stone, on vases and various other things. Because of this many people think it symbolizes water or the sea. There is yet another theory that they represent night and day too.
The triple spiral, or 'triskele', is the rarest spiral used in Celtic society so it is the most important and the most significant. It is drawn in one single continuous line, flowing to and from the center point. It is known as the 'spiral of life' and probably means various different things; the cycle of life, death and rebirth, the threefold druidic goddess of Fotla, Eiru and Banba, the three world spheres of land, sea and sky, and more besides. Each spiral is eternally flowing outward and returning to its starting point. It was likely only used for highly significant people and places. The Triskele is admired for is balance and harmonious pattern.
6. Dara Knot
The Celtic Dara knot is a symbol of strength and endurance, representing the roots of the oak tree, which were considered sacred by the Celts. The knot's complex interweaving patterns symbolize the interconnectedness of all things, emphasizing the importance of community and unity. The knot's enduring nature speaks to the importance of perseverance and determination in the face of challenges, making it a powerful symbol of resilience and fortitude. Overall, the Dara knot is a meaningful symbol that serves as a reminder of the power of nature and the strength that can be found in unity and perseverance.
7. Other Symbols
There are many other ancient symbols besides knots and spirals from the Celtic world. Thankfully, their meaning is a little more clear and more detail is known about them. These symbols were usually found as decorations on various pieces of jewelry and artefacts that the Celts would have considered important, probably used for ceremonies and rituals.
Cernunnos is a god figure worshipped by the Celts until the end of the first century. He appears on carvings, chalices, and various other bits and pieces. Cernunnos is always pictured with a pair of long antlers on his head, holding a torc and usually sitting in a meditation position. He is sometimes seen with wild animals alongside him too.
As for what he is the god of, the jury is still out. He has been associated with hunting, war, and once Christianity came along, the devil! The Green Man is another ancient symbol. Although it is more commonly found in mainland Europe there are a few Irish examples as well, and they are the oldest in existence. The title is somewhat misleading as the Green Man is really just a head, although it is made from leaves and vines or if not made from them, surrounded by them.
The meaning of the Green Man is life energy, nature and masculine forces. The Ogham alphabet was used by the Celts from the fourth century. It is very simplistic, simply made up of strokes of different lengths and directions crossing a central line. It was carved on standing stones and most likely wood as well, although the latter has not lasted throughout the centuries. The ogham alphabet had twenty letters, each named after a sacred tree.
Historians think that it may have originated as hand signals between the Bard classes before being written.
Explore our handcrafted contemporary Celtic designs on the Claddagh Design Celtic Jewelry Collection
Animals and Trees
The natural world was very significant for the Celts, and they placed high importance on native animals and trees. Different animals and trees were thought to have different characteristics that correlated to human behavior. The two became so interconnected in Celtic society that they developed a series of zodiac signs, each one with a correlating animal and tree. The sacred animals and trees then became very important symbols of the Celtic world.
13 'important' trees and their corresponding animals were;
1. Birch and Stag. People born under the sign of the Birch are leaders and high achievers.
2. Rowan and Cat. This tree was associated with philosophical people with a calm demeanor.
3. Ash and Snake. This was 'the Enchanter' sign, for free thinkers inspired by nature.
4. Alder and Fox. Alder tree people were passionate and intelligent. The 'trailblazer' sign.
5. Willow and Cow. Creative and patient people who stay in the background and observe.
6. Hawthorn and Seahorse. An interesting combination! They were insightful and adaptable people.
7. Oak and Wren. For strong and knowledgeable people, leaders of society.
8. Holly and Horse. Holly had regal status and those born under it were noble and confident.
9. Hazel and Salmon. These people were gifted visionaries who excelled in academia.
10. Vine and Swan. The Vine sign was associated with beauty, refinement and empathy.
11. Ivy and Butterfly. Those born under the Ivy sign were personable, graceful and intellectual.
12. Reed and Wolf. Fearless and insightful 'secret-keepers' who seek the truth from people.
13. Elder and Falcon. Honest, freedom loving people who value honesty and are deep thinkers. Knots, spirals, animals and the other symbols listed above can be seen in all Celtic artistry, from jewelry and practical objects to carvings on stones and drawings in manuscripts. All of these designs are still used today, in the form of jewelry, art, body art amongst other things. Regardless of the accuracy of our understanding these designs have undeniably lasted the test of time.
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