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Exploring Celtic Motifs

September 15, 2009

Submitted by Kat Behling

An image of Celtic knotwork engraved in stone at ClonmacnoisThousands of years before the dawn of Christianity, geometric motifs played a prominent role in both the ancient Celts’ religion and artwork. The religious union of mankind and the universal cosmos, essential to the ancient Celts’ spiritual beliefs, was represented by powerful symbols integrating the two worlds. Some of these motifs can still be seen today on stone carvings in many parts of Ireland. Newgrange, one of the oldest burial mounds in Europe, is highly-decorated with carvings depicting spirals, crosses and other ancient icons. The cross, now the universal symbol of Christianity, was considered to be a sacred sign representing the bridge between heaven (the universe) and earth (man). The pages within the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow and other illuminated manuscripts are adorned by various spirals, patterns, ornamental letters and intricate knotwork. Other symbols can be found on stone crosses, magnificent cloths and jewelry, highly-decorated weapons and religious monuments.

An image of Celtic knotwork engraved in stone at Clonmacnois

Here are other symbols and their ancient interpretations:

  • Circle – The sun; the moon; the infinity of time; birth, death and rebirth; the human eye
  • The Wheel of Being – four circles (the four elements) are unified by a fifth (balance)
  • The Celtic Cross – The circle defines God’s love as unending, the vertical axis the spiritual world, the horizontal axis the earthly world
  • The Single Spiral – One of the oldest motifs; represents growth; flowing of energy; sometimes used to represent the sun
  • The Double Spiral – The Equinox: when day and night are of equal length; also a sign of balance
  • Triple Spiral (aka the “triskele”) – most recurring element in Celtic art; 3 spirals radiating from a common center; often found in illuminated manuscripts; represents unity of the heart, mind and soul; later represented the Christian Trinity
  • The Clockwise Spiral – The sun; cosmic energy; growth
  • The Triquetra (Latin for “three cornered”) -  the number 3 was an extremely powerful number; later the sign was adapted as the sign for the Holy Trinity in the Christian church
  • Knotwork – Longevity and continuity
  • Chevrons – Resembling arrowheads, often occurs as a repeat pattern; represents power
  • Waves – Life force flowing from the Tree of Life
  • The Tree of Life – Eternal life; seasonal cycles
  • Hands – Friendship; affection; love of work
  • Heart – Faithfulness; charity; compassion (Note: The symbolic meaning of the heart and hands relates to the Cladagh Ring)
  • Dragon – Represents the four elements: earth, water, fire, air; luck and power; fertility
  • Snake – Death and rebirth represented through shedding of skin
  • Birds – Voyagers to the Otherworld; associated with gods and goddesses
  • Dove – Peace
  • Peacock – Immortality; later used to represent Christ
  • Lion – Wisdom; dignity
  • Fish – Cosmic; later represented Christian persecutions
  • Cat – Guardians of the Otherworld
  • Dog – Healer of body and soul; loyalty
  • The Symbols of the Four Gospels:
    • Matthew – Angel
    • Mark – Lion
    • Luke – Ox
    • John – Eagle
3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2009 12:24 PM

    What a fun article! We put together a page that expands on these and some other Celtic motifs. Have a look: http://bit.ly/Lw7Zs

  2. September 15, 2009 12:27 PM

    Great info! I love this kind of info about Celtic knotwork.

  3. September 20, 2009 4:40 AM

    wow that was really interesting. thanks for the info.

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