What Do Celtic Symbols & Designs Mean? TREE OF LIFE
In this series of articles and observations regarding Celtic designs and symbols, I would now like to talk about a few specific designs. The “Tree of Life” is one of my favourites, and although it can be represented in many ways, depending on the artist who created it, it will still have the basic design principles and meanings which define this symbol.
The Tree of Life is common to many cultures. It is particularly important to the Celts. At the height of the Celtic expansion ( which as I said in the first article in this series, was about 3rd to 5th centuries BC ), Northern Europe was covered with forests so thick, it was said that a squirrel could hop from branch to branch from one end to the other without ever touching the ground. Italy was covered from coast to coast with dense woods of Oak, Elm & Chestnut; the great Hercynian forest rendered Germany impenetrable in Caesar’s time. Scotland was covered with the Caledonian Forest, mainly its unique Pines; Ireland with Oak woods; and the whole of Southern England with the ancient trees of Anderida.
So, it’s no wonder that the forest was the core of a tribe’s sustenance, culture and spirituality. To early Celtic peoples, trees bore the bounty of food, medicines, wood for shelter and fire. When a tribe cleared land for settlement, they always left a great tree in the middle, known in Ireland as “Crann Bethadh” ( pronounced Krawn Ba-huh ) or “Tree of Life”. It represented the security and integrity of the people. The greatest insult one tribe could make to another, was to cut down their mother tree.The tree is seen as a bridge between the underworld, middle world, and upper world; all that is Dead, all that is Life, and all that is Spirit. Trees were considered the ancestors of mankind. They were considered magical, sacred, and a door to the otherworld. It was considered a symbol of balance and harmony – as above, so below; which is why the tree is always drawn showing the roots as well as the branches.
Druids worshipped and studied within sacred groves. Celtic people attribute the Tree of Life to qualities like strength, wisdom, and longevity. Various rituals were performed to mark the changes the Tree of Life undergoes, as with the Seasons. Again we come back to the universal Celtic themes of birth, death and re-birth – the endless cycles of life.
The ancient Celts understood the importance of trees in ecology, and their relationship to water management.Hundreds of holy wells bordered by guardian trees still dot the countryside today – living temples where people have gone for centuries to drink or bathe in the water, and leave a votive torn from their clothing on over-hanging branches. Even today, the number of ragged pieces of fabric hanging from the trees is testimony that pilgrims still follow the old tracks that lead to the magical waters, in the hope of healing, foretelling the future of granting a wish.
On a physical level, it serves to remind us to pay attention to the interconnectedness of the living world. Perhaps this is why is has again become a popular symbol for many in the broader community, as it serves as a symbol of re-connection with the the earth & life, which is something from which we as modern humans living largely in built environments, have become distanced.
Long after the Druids vanished, the lore of trees continues as a vital part of Celtic myth, tradition and folklore.
These are a couple of my “Tree of Life” designs.
So…continuing on in this series of info, and bits & pieces regarding Celtic designs & symbols, let’s have a little look at Knotwork. Knotwork is incorporated into most of Celtic designs, in some form or another. As I have previously mentioned, there is a common belief that each knot, spiral & interlacing animal has an individual specific meaning; and indeed, the question “what does it mean” is often put to me.
Because there is no definitive historical guide to Celtic designs (unlike the ancient Egyptian Rosetta Stone), and the history & stories were only begun to be recorded some 2000 years down the track makes it difficult to interpret symbology. However, from discovered artefacts and ruins and sites, we can see patterns (no pun intended) forming as to positioning of types and styles of designs. So we do rely on scholars and archaeologists who study the symbols in context.
The various styles of knotwork can be generally thought of as representing the crossings of the spiritual and physical paths in our lives. So, with no visible end and beginning, and the continual looping of the designs suggests themes of eternity and interconnectedness.
Generally speaking, the shape of the knotwork can suggest its meaning. Circle knots represent eternity or the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Triangles represent the three-fold dominion of earth, sea and sky.
Square knots are shield knots; symbols of protection.
Interlaced animals and men represent relationship, or emphasise the interdependence of humankind and nature.
Of course, a great deal of knotwork is purely decorative, particularly that which we see appearing in the exquisite illuminated manuscripts of the 7th to 9th centuries.
Celtic knotwork variations are as endless as the artists who created them thousands of years ago and continue to create them now. Here’s some of my simplified & dynamic designs and a bit of the Book of Kells! The motivation for the design determines the meaning……….. I’m constantly agog at the endless variations & meanings to me……
What does it mean for you? I’m interested……………
Symbols since the 5th century B.C., hounds appeared as companions of both male and female divinities, and have many layers of symbols. The basis for its many layers is the dog’s senses of hearing, smelling and orientation, which is shared in humans.
The female side stands for fertility, healing ( licking wounds ), and love. The male side stands for hunting, fighting and death. They symbolise the strong bond between human and animal, and are protective watchers, and traditional guardian animals of roads & crossways, both in this world and the Otherworld, where they are believed to protect and guide lost souls.
Gallic (around Turkey) Gods of healing springs had sacred dogs, and votive offerings to these Gods often portrayed dogs and their owners.
Hounds, invariably magical, were the constant companions of many Celtic heroes. To be called a “Hound” was an honourable name for a courageous warrior.
Embroidered Celtic Hounds as Page 29r Book of Kells Page 29r Book of Kells showing
appears on my T-shirts detail of Hounds (bottom right)
This representation of the hounds, which I embroider onto my range of T-Shirts, cushions, bags & scarves, is from the “Book of Kells”, which is one of the finest and most famous hand-illustrated manuscripts of its kind. It is currently on display at the Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. It is a gospel manuscript, made probably around 800 A.D.. The Book of Kells is pone of the best examples of what is known as the Insular style. This style of art was produced in post-Roman history in Britain & Ireland, when Christianity had become widespread. It employs extremely intricate decoration & knotwork, spirals, illuminated manuscripts & many motifs. It is quite unique in Britain & Ireland, and quite recognisable as different to the European style.
This Hounds design also incorporates knotwork, which we will discuss in more detail next time. As you can see, there is no visible end & beginning, symbolising the endless cycle of life. It also incorporates the all-important “3”, and all it represents, as previously discussed.
Humankind has had a close relationship with animals, particularly those seen as companion animals, such as dogs & cats. I know in my own life, they play an important role, giving me much pleasure, laughter, and mutual love and loyalty. This design is a bit of a favourite for me.
As I’ve said previously, the most frequently asked questions about the Celtic designs I use for my cushions, bags, velvet scarves & T-Shirts relate to the meaning or symbolism behind these designs.
So now that we’ve discussed a brief history of the Celts , their origins and just who they are, we have a context for a discussion about the meaning of Celtic Symbols & Designs. We know that pre-Christianisation of the Celtic people, their history was an oral one. Apart from being decorative, the designs & symbols served to convey meaning & language; not in the direct sense of the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians, but perhaps more in the broad sense of the Australian Aboriginals. So given that the meanings of the symbols were not actually written down, scholars have been very cautious about assigning meaning to a specific knot or spiral. There really are only a few “official” Celtic symbols with widely accepted meanings, however, this is not to say that any modern interpretation of these symbols is not valid, as the Celtic traditions adapt to new times & new visions. Also, it must be said that Celtic designs & symbols have been used in every century from discovery to present.
The magnificent Celtic art of the Pagan & early Christian times underwent a revival in the 19th & 20th centuries, & continues today. There is general consensus regarding the meanings of these symbols, which can probably be traced to the rediscovery of Ireland’s cultural history in Victorian times, as well as the emerging sense of national identity in Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall & Brittany as these cultures struggled to maintain their unique traditions & characteristics.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of Celtic design meaning & symbolism within this broad context. I think it would be prudent to firstly talk about some of the major & recurring themes, one of the most frequent being “three”. Much of Celtic artwork & symbolism manifests in imagery of “three”, and is often represented as a triplex, such as a triad or as three inseperabley entwined interlocking views. “Three” has particular profoundness in Celtic symbolism & occurs in many guises in many designs.
“TRIAD” “TRIPLE WHEEL OF LIFE” “TRISCALL” or “TRISKELE”
Above are some examples, and indeed are my interpretations of traditional & ancient designs.
Broadly speaking, three denotes the three sides of life; birth-life-death. It’s a basic number to which all being can be categorised in 3-fold; past-present-future; above-centre-below; earth-fire-water; cycles of life, eg. maid-mother-crone (Triple Goddess), and the endless cycles of life, life-death-life again.
The Triad (Triqueta, Triquetra, Trinity Knot) is the simplest of the Celtic knots, & epitomises the importance of “three” as just discussed. (My version above includes a circle, however, it is more commonly seen without the circle). And of course, with the conversion to Christianity, it came to represent the Holy Trinity, Father-Son-Holy Ghost. The circle added to the Triad & Triple Wheel of Life represents unity & eternity.
The Triscall (Triskele, Triple Spiral, Triskelion) is closely related to the Triad. The spiral is probably the oldest known symbol of human spirituality. It has been seen in rock carvings thousands of years old, on every continent in the world. The significance of the symbol can really only be guessed at, but it seems to have a connection with the sun, which traces a spiral shape every 3 months in its travels. It is widely thought to also represent the after-life and re-incarnation, and again, as drawn in one continuous line, represents the continuous cycle of life, death & birth.
Probably the most famous example of the Triple Spiral marks the entrance rock to an ancient burial mount at Newgrove in Ireland. This distinctive symbol is carved in stone and pre-dates the time of the Druids. Objects taken from the tomb have been carbon-dated between 2675 & 2485 B.C., making Newgrove older than the Egyptian pyramids.
“NEWGROVE BURIAL TOMB” “ENTRANCE TO TOMB” “TRIPLE SPIRAL CARVED IN STONE”
So there are many variations of symbols & designs using the “three” principle. Some include knotwork within these shapes as well, and are recognised in the simplest & most elaborate of designs. Whilst we can recognise the underlying symbology, the degree of detail & ornateness is really just artistic licence on a general theme.
I am looking forward to exploring & sharing the meanings of more Celtic Designs & Symbols………….
The questions I’m asked most frequently about the Celtic designs I use for my cushions, bags, velvet scarves and T-Shirts relate to the meaning or symbolism behind these Celtic designs. So, I thought I would write a little series about just this.
I guess to understand their art and design, it’s helpful to know just who are the Celtic people. So sit back for a whirlwind history of the Celts!
The Celts were a European cultural group that were first evident in the 7th or 8th century B.C. This is the beginning of the first Celtic phase, known as the Hallstatt period, after an Austrian town near which many spectacular Celtic artefacts have been discovered. Their maximum expansion was in the 3rd to 5th century B.C. when they occupied most of Europe This was compounded when the Celts arrived in Britain by the 4th or 5th century B.C., and Ireland by the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., or possibly earlier. To put it politely, they displaced the earlier people already living on the islands. So, the Celts were extremely powerful people, and ruled most of the western world at the time.
So why today, do we mainly associate the Celts with Ireland, Wales, Scotland & Britain?
Basically, because Celtic culture survived longer in these areas than in continental Europe; and still survives today.
The expanding Roman Empire defeated various Celtic groups and subsumed their culture. Julius Caesar conducted a successful campaign against the Gauls (modern France, Belgium, Luxemburg, parts of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany & Italy) in 52 – 58 B.C., and as part of that campaign, invaded Britain in 54 B.C., but was unsuccessful in conquering them at that time. Ninety-seven years later, in 43 A.D., the Romans invaded Britain again, pushing the Britons into the west (Wales & Cornwall), and north (Scotland).
Hadrian’s Wall was built in 120 A.D. (taking 6 years!) to protect the then settled Romans from the Northern Celtic tribes (modern Scotland), who were considered to be particularly fierce (remember “Braveheart”?). The wall spans 80 Roman miles (117.5 km) & separates the north of the island. It still exists today, & is a World Heritage site.
The Romans never occupied Ireland, nor did the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain after the Romans withdrew in the 5th century, so Celtic culture survived more strongly in Ireland than elsewhere (partly because they had hill forts). Christianity ‘came’ to Ireland in the 4th century, St. Patrick in 432 (although he had to wait to die for is sainthood). The invasion of the Christians meant that the spiritual aspect of Celtic culture, Druid practice, diminished, & more commonly thought, the Druids were systematically suppressed and killed.
In order to encourage the Celts to adopt Christianity, many of the Celtic Festivals were ‘Christianised’, so the traditional celebrations could still take place, but with a less ‘Pagan’ flavour, and a more palatable ‘Christian’ flavour, which pretty much exists to this day.
Given that the Druidic practice & the Celtic way was an oral tradition, their stories, history, myths & legends were only recorded in writing after the Romans landed; recording in their native latin. Of course, much of this oral history is recorded to the advantage & mind-set of the Christian Romans & the monks who did most of the recording.
Of course, we can still piece together a great picture of the ancient Celts from artefacts recovered from various lands. We can determine from location, position & Archeologists & Scholars who study the symbols in context to determine what may have been their meanings. Because of their oral tradition, some of the symbols can be determined as place-markers or guides & instructions for travellers & others. A great deal of the elaborate knotwork & illuminated manuscript we associate with Celtic art was hand drawn by the monks.
So, this has just been a tiny introduction to the Celts & their origins. It helps to see things in context regarding what the designs & symbols mean.
I use extremely fine yarn for my handwoven scarves, so I tend to purchase commercially spun yarn, as handspun is not fine enough for my liking. As more spinning mills in Australia are closing, it has become more difficult to purchase small quantities of various yarns. Not so long ago I purchased some beautiful super-fine Geelong Merino, which had been spun into a lovely fine yarn in Italy, which I then purchased from a mob in England, who then sent the said yarn to me more-or-less from whence it originated! Maybe I should try to find the sheep it came from & offer one of the handwoven scarves made from her lovely wool to her as compensation for her loss! Less than six degrees of separation I’d say!
Here’s another “Celebration Bag”. So, instead of having a giant card or register or giant keys in the case of 21st birthdays, for guests to sign & write their good wishes for the guest of honour, I have created these “Celebration Bags”. Guests use provided note paper to pen their thoughts, & the individual notes are placed in the bag, to be retrieved whenever desired by the person whose event is being celebrated. This one was for a 21st Birthday which had a black & white theme. Guests were also asked to wear black & white. The bag is made of black cotton velvet & white cotton velvet for the outer shell, which has been embroidered in black on the white panel, & in white on the black panel. The embroidery is all the way around the circumference of the bag. The lining is made from 2 different pieces of satin. The top is plain white, and is embroidered in black with the personalised congratulatory message. The rest of the lining is satin which is black with a white concentric circle pattern. It is finished with black cord & beads. I also provided the white note paper, which I printed in black across the top & bottom, with the same design as the embroidery on the outside of the bag. Of course, if you want to, you can always use the bag as a bag! That’s why I usually embroider the message on the upper lining, but, of course, you can have it on the outside if you wish. That’s the beauty & uniqueness of custom-made things!
Recently my brother and I were organising the celebrations for our parents’ Golden (50th) Wedding Anniversary. I wanted to do something a bit different from the traditional large card or register for guests to sign and write their good wishes. So, the Celebration Bag was born. These bags are individually made and embroidered with a design of your choice, your wishes and the name/s of the Bride & Groom in the case of Weddings; the couple in the case of Engagements & Anniversaries; the person whose Birthday you are celebrating; or even the person who has passed away and whose life you are celebrating. You just provide pieces of notepaper (in the case of my parent’s anniversary, I printed the paper with the same design as the invitations), the guests write their message and put it in the bag. The guest/s of honour then keep a bag of good wishes! Of course, the bag can be used for other things as well. As this bag was for a Golden Anniversary, it is made from gold coloured cotton velvet, lined with pale gold satin. It is embroidered on the upper lining with a congratulatory message for the couple, and on the lining base with “50yrs”. The outside is embroidered front & back with a Claddagh in 3 shades of gold. The Claddagh is a traditional Irish symbol often used for wedding or engagement or love rings. It depicts 2 hands clasping a heart surmounted by a crown. It symbolises the qualities of love (heart), friendship (hands) and loyalty (crown). The Claddaghs are joined around the circumference with embroidered knotwork. It is finished with gold cord & gold metal beads. The dimensions are 22cm (8.7″) high & 20cm (7.8″) around the circumference. As these bags are bespoke, you choose colours, designs, size, wording; everything that is appropriate for your Wedding, Engagement, Anniversary, Birthday, or whatever the celebration occasion.
Kim Doherty is pleased to announce the release of the “Venus Collection” hand screen printed and embroidered cushions on her website. Originally a collection of cushions made from co-ordinating hand screen printed fabrics designed and printed by Kim Doherty, the collection now extends to embroidered cushions, as stand-alone designs or to compliment the printed range. The collection continues to grow. See website for full details.
Great Queen’s Birthday long weekend at the National Celtic Festival in Portarlington. Caught up with lots of customers and met some great new people. Always a good time for lovers of all things Celtic (and those with just a passing interest). Always a huge buzz to see people wearing “Kim Doherty” scarves, bags, tees.