Celtic Symbols from Ancient Times
The following symbols are included in this section. The triquetra, The
Sheela-na-gig, The Celtic Cross, The
Green Man, The Celtic Knot, Continuing looping symbol.
are very few written records of
Celtic mythology. The little that can be surmised about the Celts and
their religious beliefs and practices must be pieced together from the
surviving mythology and from the abundance of icons and symbols they so
generously left behind for us to decipher. Celtic iconography abounds
with symbols of spirit, emblems of gods and goddesses, and images from
are some of the more popular celtic
meaning was simply "triangle" and it has been used to refer to various
three-cornered shapes. Nowadays, it has come to refer exclusively to a
certain more complicated shape formed of three vesicae piscis,
sometimes with an added circle in or around it. Its original meaning
was simply "triangle" and it has been used to refer to various
three-cornered shapes. Nowadays, it has come to refer exclusively to a
certain more complicated shape formed of three vesicae piscis,
sometimes with an added circle in or around it. The triquetra is often
found in Insular art, most notably metal work and in illuminated
manuscripts like the Book of Kells. The fact that the triquetra very
rarely stood alone in medieval Celtic has cast a reasonable doubt on
its use as a symbol in context where it was used primarily as a space
filler or ornament in much more complex compositions. But Celtic art
lives on as both a living folk art tradition and through several
are some other versions of the
composed exactly of three overlapping Vesica piscis symbols.
|Triquetra in blue as part of an
interlaced Christian Trinitarian decorative symbol.
|Triquetra interlaced with circle as
symbol (a "Trinity knot").
|The cross of
triquetras or Carolingian
Sheela na Gig - The name
published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840-44, as a
local name for a carving once present on a church gable wall in
Rochestown, County Tipperary, Ireland; the name was also recorded in
1840 by John O'Donovan, an official of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland,
referring to a figure on a church in Kiltinane, County Tipperary. There
is controversy regarding the origin and meaning of the name, as the
name is not directly translatable into Irish. Alternative spellings of
"Sheela" may sometimes be encountered; they include Sheila,
and Síla. The name "Seán-na-Gig" was coined by
Roberts for the ithyphallic male counterpart of the Sheela which is
fairly rare in Ireland but is much more common on the continent. The
Sheela na Gig is a fertility figure.
|A Celtic cross is a symbol that
combines a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection. The symbol
is associated with Celtic Christianity, although it has older,
pre-Christian origins. Such crosses form a major part of Celtic art. A
standing Celtic cross, made of stone and often richly ornamented, is
called a high cross or Irish Cross. Celtic crosses may have had origins
in the early Coptic church.
In Ireland, it is a popular myth that the Celtic cross was introduced
by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan during his time converting
the pagan Irish.
triple spiral or
triskele is a Celtic and pre-Celtic symbol found on a number of Irish
Megalithic and Neolithic sites, most notably inside the Newgrange
passage tomb, on the entrance stone, and on some of the curbstones
surrounding the mound.
Believed by many to be an ancient symbol of pre-Celtic and Celtic
beliefs, the triple spiral appears in various forms in pre-Celtic and
Celtic art, with the earliest examples having been carved on pre-Celtic
stone monuments, and later examples found in the Celtic Christian
illuminated manuscripts of Insular art. The triple spiral was possibly
the precursor to the later triskele design found in the manuscripts.
|The Green Man is often perceived as an
symbol. In Celtic mythology, he is a god of spring and summer. He
disappears and returns year after year, century after century, enacting
themes of death and resurrection, the ebb and flow of life and
creativity. The Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain, The Green Knight, is a
notable image of the Green Man from the Middle Ages. Gawain had a green
helmet, green armor, green shield... even a green horse. When he was
decapitated, he continued to live.
|The Celtic Knot - Celtic knots are a
variety of (mostly
endless) knots and stylized graphical representations of knots used for
decoration, adopted by the ancient Celts. These knots are most known
for their adaptation for use in the ornamentation of Christian
monuments and manuscripts like the 8th century Book of Kells and the
There is no evidence to indicate that a knot had any specific
philosophical or religious significance beyond perhaps the most
obvious, that being the intricacy capable in the work of humans, itself
reflective of the intricacy of Natural forms.
Celtic Knot -
meaning of the word, 'Dara' can be traced to an Irish word, doire which
means 'oak tree'. The Dara Celtic knot is associated with the root
system of oak trees. The Celtics and especially, Druids considered the
oak tree as sacred. They used to derive meaningful messages applicable
in day-to-day life through the language of trees. Oak tree is the
symbol of destiny, power, strength, wisdom, leadership and endurance.
All these attributes therefore, got associated with the Dara Celtic
knot. Roots of the oak tree represented in the form of Dara Celtic knot
are symbolic of the great source of inner strength or divine resources
Celtic Knot - The task of tracking down the exact meaning of Celtic
symbols is difficult due to the lack of concrete proofs or writings. In
many cases, one has to rely on the artist's interpretation of a
particular symbol. The quaternary knot symbol could thus, depict or
indicate four directions (East, West, North and South). The symbol
could also mean four elements of nature i.e. Earth, Fire, Water and
Air. The fire festivals of Celts i.e. Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc and
Lughnasadh could also be an interpretation of the quaternary symbol.
The quaternary symbol could also be an indication of the treasures of
Eternity Knot - could be any
of the celtic knot design patterns that has a closed path. It means
that such Celtic knots neither have a beginning, nor an end. George
Bain, a Celtic art teacher from Scotland attributed this meaning to the
Fold Symbol - Like the arwen, the five fold symbol also represented a
balance of the human nature. Many experts who have studied Celtic
symbols and meanings, claim that this symbol represents the five basic
elements of the universe, fire, water, sun, earth and air. Some experts
however, believe that the middle fold is the universe, which is
surrounded by fire, water, earth and air.
- The arwen, also known as
the symbol of three rays, was a symbol of the balance between male and
female energy. The arwen, with three rays that were parallel to each
other, was often used in jewelery. The first and last rays signified
the powers of the 'male' and 'female' respectively. The middle ray
signified the balance and equality of the other rays. Most of the
experts of Celtic symbols and meanings, have interpreted that the arwen
is a symbol that implies balance, between two opposing powers in the
single spiral is one of the most common symbols of the Celtic culture.
The spiral was actually the figure that had the spiral folds of the
same line. This symbol stood for the radiation of ethereal energy.
There are however many different meanings of the single spiral. Some of
the most prominent ones are, birth, growth and death, or expansion of
the consciousness, its perseverance and knowledge.
- The triskelion, was a prominent Celtic symbol that represented the
the concept of completion and progress. The symbol looked like a three
legged wheel. According to the first derivation of the meaning, the
triskelion, represents actions, cycles, progress, revolution and
competition. In all, the triskelion was a representation of a sense of
Knots - As the name suggests, these knots are in circular shape
emphasizing the continuity of life or eternity. Some interpret it as
standing for infinite quality of some object or attribute, whereas
others consider it as emphasizing the 'endless' quality. It is for this
reason that this Celtic knot is very commonly seen in wedding rings or
other gifts exchanged between lovers that emphasizes the endless nature
of their emotions for each other.
Cross - A Celtic cross is a symbol that combines a cross with a ring
surrounding the intersection. In the Celtic Christian world it was
combined with the Christian cross and this design was often used for
high crosses - a free-standing cross made of stone and often richly
decorated. With the Celtic Revival the shape, usually decorated with
interlace and other motifs from Insular art, became popular for
funerary monuments and other uses, and has remained so, spreading well
beyond the British Isles.
Ireland, it is a popular legend that the Celtic Catholic cross was
introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan during his time
converting the pagan Irish, though no examples survive from this early
period. It has often been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of
Christianity with the sun cross, to give pagan followers an idea of the
importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving
properties of the sun. However this theory is now thought unlikely by
most art historians, who think an origin from crosses carrying a
victor's wreath around their intersection is more likely. Such a cross
is found on the reverse of the Liudhard medalet from Canterbury in
England in the 590s.
figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva.
They are found on churches, castles and other buildings, particularly
in Ireland and Britain, sometimes together with male figures. The
Sheelas were used as protective devices and were considered lucky. One
of the best examples may be found in the Round Tower at Rattoo, in
County Kerry, Ireland. A replica is located in the County Museum in
Tralee town. Another well-known example can be seen at Kilpeck in
is controversy regarding the source of the figures. One perspective, by
James Jerman and Anthony Weir, is that the Sheelas were first carved in
France and Spain in the 11th century; the motif eventually reached
Britain and then Ireland in the 12th century.
The idea that
Sheela na Gigs represent a pagan goddess is a most
popular theory with the public; it is, however, not generally accepted
by academics. The goddess in question is usually identified as Celtic,
the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology.
Green Man is a sculpture, drawing, or other representation of a face
surrounded by or made from leaves. Branches or vines may sprout from
the nose, mouth, nostrils or other parts of the face and these shoots
may bear flowers or fruit. Commonly used as a decorative architectural
ornament, Green Men are frequently found on carvings in churches and
other buildings (both secular and ecclesiastical). "The Green Man" is
also a popular name for English public houses and various
interpretations of the name appear on inn signs, which sometimes show a
full figure rather than just the head.
Green Man motif has many variations. Found in many cultures around the
world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities
springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is
interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or "renaissance," representing the
cycle of growth each spring. Some speculate that the mythology of the
Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient
cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout
Ailm is the Celtic symbol of purity that is found in the Ogham. A primeval form of communication in the Celtic culture, the Ogham is a realm of trees that were believed to lend knowledge and wisdom to the seeker. Ailm symbolizes pure energy, integrity, objectivity, clarity, strength and good health.
Its symbol represents the branches of the fir tree which is one of the 9 sacred woods used for sabbat fire. This evergreen tree that grows tall & straight and survives through challenging conditions is representative of strength, resilience, endurance, longevity, friendship, honesty, truth and perceptiveness.
The circle in the Ailm symbol is a Celtic sign that denotes the wholeness, intactness and purity of the soul.
Shamrock - Found growing abundantly throughout the hillsides of Ireland, the Shamrock or
Clover is arguably the most famous symbol of the country. It is closely associated with St.
Patrick who used it to teach people the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the
Son and the Holy Ghost. So, the Shamrock came to be highly revered by the ancient Celtics as a
symbol of Christianity, faith, hope, love and spiritual development. Due to its prolific growth, it
is considered to be representative of abundance, nurturing, fertility, productivity and stability.
The Shamrock is credited with mystic powers as its petals stand up when a storm is
approaching, warning people of the impending danger. Therefore, it is also used as a charm for
bringing good luck and warding off evil.
Celtic Bull - The Bull had a critical role in Druid sacrificial rituals, particularly the prophetic ones. The symbol of God Esus, this revered animal has held diverse significance in the Celtic world. It was considered the symbol of uncompromising, stubborn and strong will. The Celts have also long associated the bull with sovereignty, wealth, status, abundance, virility and fertility. Additionally, it represented kinship, ancestry and close ties with the land. In the ancient Ireland, a new High King's crowning was always preceded by a ritualistic feast of bull. For a Celtic clan or village, a good bull represented its prosperity and high prestige.