Celtic Symbols & Their Meanings
The symbols and history of Ireland and Scotland have been around for thousands of years, long before St.Patrick came to Ireland and the Celtic Islands. Celtic designs are very rich in history and folklore. Many design you see today have their roots from the Book of Kells. The Celts use knot work, animals, and nature to bring a mystery and art to their lives and their history, so that the Irish Culture would never be forgotten. We are asked every day what some of the meanings are behind the Celtic designs....some have very distinct meanings, and some do not... We have tried to list below the most popular designs and there meaning or history.
In the early 16th century an Irish man by the name of Richard Joyce was fishing off the coast of Galway a week before he was to be married when his currach (boat) capsized. Richard was captured by pirates, taken to West Africa and sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith. Years passed and Richard escaped captivity and returned home to Ireland to find that the girl he loved had never married. Richard shaped a unique ring for the girl he left behind. The ring was fashioned of three symbols; the hands signifying Friendship, holding a heart signifying love, topped with a crown for loyalty. Richard and his love married and settled in the village of Claddagh. The village no longer exists but since those early days the Claddagh ring has been worn as a sign of Love, Loyalty and Friendship. When wearing the ring the heart pointed toward you means your heart is taken: the heart pointed away from you means your heart is free. Worn on the left ring finger, heart pointed toward you represents a wedding band. Although traditionally used as a wedding band, the Claddagh ring has come to be worn as a friendship ring as well.
The Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross can be found throughout the countrysides of Ireland, Scotland, England and all the Celtic Islands today. Some of the cross date back to the period of the Druids when St. Patrick came to Ireland to bring Christianity to them. The Druids used large stone to mark territories and land masses. Each cross found in Ireland today will tell you a story or a part of history that is timeless to see. The Celtic cross is a Latin straight cross with a circle around the center of the cross. It was said that St. Patrick was told of a great stone that the Druid worshiped that was of circular shape. St. Patrick draw a Latin cross through the stone shape circle to bless it, trying to relate to their symbols of their belief to draw them to Christianity. This was the first recorded Celtic Cross. The circle today represents no beginning and no end (eternal life) and to other the circle represents the sun. The Celtic Cross has become a large representation of Irish culture and history. It is wear be many as a symbol of their culture and their faith. The Celtic high cross were probably the most important achievement in the entire history of Irish sculpture. Generally sculpted from sandstone and reaching a height of twenty feet.
Their is so much history behind the man, St. Patrick. Millions of people celebrate St. Patrick's Day on March 17th, the day St. Patrick died. St. Patrick was the first to go to the Celtic lands to preach the gospel to the Druids and Pagans of his day. He used symbols like the Shamrock and the Celtic Cross to relate to the heart and minds of the Druids and Pics. The shamrock represented the trinity and the Celtic Cross was used to relate honor to their beliefs. He brought many to believe in Christianity and an new Irish and Celtic culture was start because of his work and love for the Irish people. Their are many stories and legends of St. Patrick, but one fact remains.... their are more than 70 million people that claim to be from Irish ancestry throughout the world, most also claim to be Christians... that is more people than ever lived in Ireland. St. Patrick's message has not just stayed in Ireland but has reached around the world.
The interlacing lines of the Celtic Knot stands for "no beginning, no ending, the continuity of everlasting love and binding together or intertwining of two soul or spirits." Christianity has embraced much of the ancient Celtic symbolism and had adapted many Celtic Knots into high crosses and illuminated manuscripts. Celtic knots date back to the 5th century and were used extensively by ancient monks in illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and Book of Durrows. The Celts did not record the meanings behind the designs they recreated but scholarly speculation is that the symbols represented basic tenants of life, mankind and spirituality. The continual looping of the designs suggests themes of eternity and interconnectedness. Interwoven figures of people and animals may have represented the interdependent nature of life. Two of more knots laced together symbolized lovers, God and man, and so on. Some ancient Celtic symbols have changed in meaning over time, having been influenced by the introduction of Christianity and the influence of other cultures. Circle knot represent eternity or the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. Triangles represent the threefold dominion of earth, sea, and sky or God, Son, and Holy Spirit. Square knots are shield knots, symbols of protection. Interlaced animals and men represent relationship, or emphasize the interdependence of mankind and nature.
Long age, when Ireland was a land of the Druids, a Christian bishop known to us now as St. Patrick, came to teach the word of God. Although the origins of the shamrock are lost in antiquity, legend suggest that St. Patrick plucked a shamrock from Irish soil to demonstrate the meaning of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The plant was reputed to have mystic powers in that its petals will stand upright to warn of a approaching storm. The shamrock remains Ireland's most famous symbol. The shamrock is also commonly associated with the symbol of luck. In studying Celtic history, scholars have discovered that the shamrock was a charm to ward away evil.
The simplest of Celtic Knots symbolizing a triune God. The Celts were very familiar with the idea of the trinity, everything came in threes; the three stages of womanhood:maid, mother, crone, and the three elements: earth, fire, water and Christianity embraced this knot to symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in many of the early Christian illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. The combination of the trinity knot into rings, linens, jewelry, and other bridal designs is associated with eternity and eternal love. The trinity predates the crucifix by hundreds of years.
The national emblem of Scotland, one thistle is said to have saved an entire Scottish army. A thousand years ago, during the Vikings invasion of Scotland, an advancing enemy warrior stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain inadvertently waking the sleeping Scotsmen. Scottish King Kenneth III was so grateful that he adopted the thistle as his nation's emblem.
The Luckenbooth brooch was so called because it was sold from the "locked booths" on the Royal Mile adjacent to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland,in the early 1700s. Traditionally, it was exchanged between lovers on betrothal. The intertwining hearts of the brooch and the sometimes inscribed phases such as "of earthly joys thou art my chioce" are evidence of its purpose, and a surmounting crown is symbolic of Mary Queen of Scots. The luckenbooth is probably the most romantic and lovely type of brooch in Scotland's history. The Luckenbooth was then given to the first born on their birth.
Based on the ancient lyre, the Irish harp is one of the world's oldest instruments. The ancient Irish kings employed harpist to entertain them. At one sad point in Irish history conquering invaders made it illegal to posses an Irish harp and set out to burn every harp in Ireland in an attempt to kill the "Irish spirit". Greatly honored, the harp is the national emblem of Ireland.
Welsh Love Spoon
The centuries old Welsh custom of giving love spoons meant a would-be suitor gave a spoon to a girl he wished to court. Begun in the 15th century, the suitor often carved the spoon himself or commissioned a spoon. Spoons became very ornate with symbols of love and promise.
Long ago a bride would be veiled to hide her away from evil spirits and from fairies who would steal her for her fine dress. A veil was also thought to represent purity and chastity.
Irish Old Shoe
It was considered bad luck to get married in a pair of new shoes for they would entice the Irish fairies to steal the bridal couple and take them to the magical land of Tir na n'Og.
The Scottish Scramble
The bride tossed a decorated wedding ball "waddin' ba" filled with wrapped candies and coins to the children gathered outside her home or at the reception for good luck.
Irish Five Pence
The Irish Five Pence was given to the bridal on her wedding day to wear in her shoe as a symbol of good luck and many blessings. Today many brides will do the same by placing a five pence in the brides flowers.
Animals in Celtic Designs
Animals have characteristics and abilities that were once considered strange, yet at the same time, desired by people : movement, such as flying, diving, swimming long distances, jumping far and high, and running fast, as well as the qualities of fine hearing, and sharp vision, great strength, and the ability to metamorphose. When humans and animals are seen interlaced in a knot, this can represent the dependence of man on nature. List below are a few anaimals and their possible meanings.
Bird: The flight of birds is considered a bridge between the worlds- this world, earth and water. Birds are also viewed as symbols of bearer of messages.
Bull: The bull is symbol of strong will.
Butterfly: The butterfly spans many cultures as a symbol of transformation, inspiration and rebirth.
Cat: The cat represents the guardian of the otherworld.
Dog: The dog symbolizes loyalty and the strong bond of companionship felt between human and animal. Considered to be good luck, the symbol of the dog was commonly found in Celtic art and decor.
Dolphin: The dolphin became a symbol of friendship, good luck, and intelligence. The appearance of the dolphins off the coast of Ireland urged the Celts to contemplate the sea, which was an unknown universe.
Dragon: The dragon is the guardian of treasures. The Celtic dragon is also traditionally associated with military matters. It stands for armed forces and sometimes even a becomes a hero.
Goose: The Celtic symbolism of the goose deals with our own migratory and transitory nature. The goose is also a strong symbol of hearth and home, returning to the same place each spring, so the symbol was displaced to encourage the safe return of the Celtic warrior.
Griffin: Griffins (part eagle and part lion) are the guardian and protectors of life and remain loyal to their protection in the afterlife.
Salmon: The salmon are associated with wisdom and prophecy.
Snake: Snakes are seen in Celtic symbolism as a multifaceted symbol that represents fertility. creation and healing.
Tree of Life
The tree of Life is common to many cultures. Often regarded as an all-nourishing, and all giving. Britain was once covered by mighty oak forest, and the tree reverence is a major feature within Celtic religion. The tree reflects a link between heaven and earth. Roots reach down to earth and its branches reach up to the heavens. The interlacing branch symbolizes continuity of life, never ending life. The tree were regarded as the Celts source of food, protection from elements, provider of material to build shelter, and a source of warmth when making fire with its wood.
Marking the entrance rock to the ancient burial mound in Ireland, you will find three distinctive spirals- the Spirals of Newgrange. The archeological treasure has become world famous as one of the greatest remaining signs of primeval civilization. Predating the time of Druids, some fo the objects taken from the tomb have been carbon dated between 2675 and 2485 B.C., making Newgrange older than the Egyptian Pyramids. The 5000 year-old passage at the entrance of the tomb at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley is one of the great achievements. The cryptic symbols of these beautiful decorated stones, in connection with various artistic patterns, are a source of wonder and fascination. The Newgrange spirals are often used in Celtic jewelry and art to denote harmony.
St. Brigid's Cross
St. Brigid, " Mary of the Gael", abbess and patroness of Ireland, and founder of the first Irish monastery in Kildare, was born near Dundalk in 450 A.D. Traditionally tells is that her unbounded charity drew multitudes of the poor to her door and much enraged her father Dubhtach, a Leinster pagan Chieftain and a stubborn disbeliever. as he lay on his deathbed, she sat by him and whiled away the time weaving a cross from the rushed at her feet. Her father asked her to explain its meaning and was so overwhelmed that he became a Christian before his death. It is piously believed that this rush cross, which became her emblem, keep evil and hunger from the homes in which it is displayed. For centuries, it has been customary on the eve of her feast-day for the Irish to fasion a St. Brigid's Cross of straw or rushes and place it inside the house, over the door. St. Brigid's feast day falls on the first of February, the day on which she died in 524 A.D. Her body lies at Downpatrick beside the graves of St. Patrick and St. Columba.
A shillelagh is a cudgel or club, usually made of blackthorn wood with a leather wrist strap affixed to the handle. The name Shillelagh may have originated from the village of Shillelagh, County Wicklow, which at one time was surrounded by extensive oak forests. The shillelagh was the weapon used in Bataireacht, traditional Irish stick fighting. prevalent in the 19th century. Shillelaghs are commonly confussed with the traditional blackthorn walking sticks as they are produced from the same wood. The blackthorn tree is dencse with dark brown to black bark, stiff branches covered with spiny thorns,and gtows to ten feet in height. Blackthorn wood is lightweight, but very sturdy. Irish folklore says that blackthorn hedges are a favorite home to fairy-folk.
The Irish tradition of metalworking dates back to 3000 years to the Bronze Age; the Tara Brooch is considered to be one of the finest examples of ancient Irish metalworking craftmanship. It is a "ring brooch" dating back to the late 7th or early 8th century. Despite the name, it does not have any historical attachment to Tara. Rather, it was found in 1850 in Bettystown, County Meath and later acquired by a jeweler who named it the "Tara brooch". The brooch is now on permanent display in the National Museum, Dublin.