What do Celtic Symbols & Designs mean?
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………….