Who are the Celts & what do Celtic Symbols mean?
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.