Celtic jewelry is easy to recognize. Almost all pieces are based on similar harmonious designs and symbols. When you think of Celtic jewelry, the first symbols to spring to mind are probably knots, crosses, spirals. If you know your stuff you may also have included animals, torcs or other symbols.
There is more to these Celtic symbols than simply the creativity and skillful art of making jewelry, metal and stonework of an ancient civilization. Which, of course, is also true. It’s clear they understood their crafts since many artifacts including the jewelry they would have worn still exists, in near perfect condition, thousands of years later. Many believe that the unique spirals and animals used weren’t simply decorative. In fact, they believe that each of these design elements had very specific significance for the Celts.
Here we take a closer look at the meaning of the knots, spirals and other Celtic symbols.
Religion and spirituality were very important in Celtic society, so it’s very probable that they used these symbols and designs to represent their religious and spiritual concepts. While it’s unfortunate that they didn’t leave behind a manual for future generations to figure out the true meanings of all of these, we can make logical assumptions based on where they were found and how they were used.
It is worth noting that without written records, the meaning of a Celtic symbol can only be based on the interpretation of information available to us. For example, an interpretation of a symbol may be taken from where it was used, items found with it etc.
1. Celtic Knots
There are some that suggest that the Celts did not create these knots or at least, use these knots by themselves. Rather, they believe that the Celts adapted these knots from outside influences. It’s certainly true that similar designs have been found throughout Scandinavia and mainland Europe. This may have been as the various fractions and wars where these societies conquered one another. This may have exposed to one’s traditions and customs to another’s.
Celtic Knots are most commonly understood to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life. These knots have closed ends representing unity and eternity. Whereas a knot with an open end, represents a specific life journey. Another theory is that the different types of knots were used to represent different clans or tribes, in the same way that the pattern and colors of a Scottish kilt does. Due to the historic nature of these ancient patterns, there is no way of knowing for sure.
Triquetras are associated with ancient Christian symbolism and were introduced relatively late into Celtic society. ‘Triquetra’ comes from Latin meaning ‘three cornered’. It is a symbol of the Holy Trinity or the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It has been interpreted a number of 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).
You may also like to read our The Meaning of the Celtic Knot
Square or shield knots 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.
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 centre. 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.
Before 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 symbolises 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 centre 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.
3. 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 jewellery 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 Christianty 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. You will know from our Claddagh Design Online Store that we love to include Ogham in our designs.
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 behaviour. 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 knowledgable 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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