Symbolism

Basic Symbolism

The reverence for these symbols is mostly based in ancient archaeological rock carvings and artifacts as well as more modern phenomena. It’s important to remember that some of these, such as the triple spiral, were carved by the indigenous Europeans, occurring before there was an identifiable Celtic culture. What we can recognize is that the Celts at least had a reverence for triplism and enjoyed patterns that seemed to make swirls, spirals or labyrinths. Therefore, the first four symbols particularly, connect us all, albeit, possibly meaning various things along the way, from the ancient indigenous folks all the way to the present. Is it possible there was an unbroken lineage of a belief system from the time of the ancient megaliths creation to the Druids? It’s not impossible but also not likely. What’s more likely is that they were simply using their ancestors as inspiration, much in the same way we do. We’ll never know if they understood the true meaning of the stones or their symbols that were passed down through the millennia. The patterns of the Celts and their indigenous forbears are naturally pleasing to the eye and lend to an overall interpretation of interconnectedness and symmetry within life.


Triskelion (triskele) or Triple Spiral

  The word triskelion means “three legged”. As previously discussed the number three was a revered number. This symbology could have represented any number of things only limited by imagination including but not limited too “earth, sea, sky”, “mind, body, spirit”, “mother, father, child”, “past, present, future”, “creator, destroyer, sustainer”, “new moon, half moon, full moon”, “beginning, middle and end” or ”other world, mortal world, celestial world”. It also could have simply represented their triple god or goddess aspect. It appears in ancient archaeology in Ireland, Portugal and in areas of modern day Turkey and Italy. Although the triquetra or “trinity knot” is often depicted in Celtic art, it is mostly thought to be a Norse symbol. The Isle of Mann coat of arms is the triskelion in the form of legs. Pythagoras said three was the “perfect number” because it allowed for a beginning, middle and end and was likely representative of deity.


Single spiral  or Archimedean spiral

The spiral is perhaps the most prolific of all symbols in one way or another in Celtic culture by itself or incorporated into other designs. It appears in various designs across the entire world from the Americas to Africa. It’s name is attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes. It’s a very ancient symbol with mysterious origins to say the least. The spiral is found on many objects in nature that were probably a source of inspiration such as the snail, plant buds, water waves and stars in the sky to name only a few. In terms of meaning, it could represent most simply, the sun or the path to inner wisdom, the continuity of life and the universe, the continuity of the soul from death to rebirth, balance, progression, expansion, connection or journeying to name a few possibilities.


Cup rings or Labyrinth

The cup rings and labyrinth or Cretan Labyrinth are two of the most mysterious and oldest symbols. They are often carved onto grave sites and many archaeologists believe they represent the soul’s journey to the afterlife or again, the continuity and infinite cycle of life and the universe. Others seem to think it may have more specifically been a symbol for the earth mother goddess and journey to rebirth, still nonetheless related to life after death. The patterns can appear quite random on stone structures. Similar labyrinths appear in other ancient cultures in places such as Crete, Russia, Egypt, India, and Peru. Today, labyrinths are used as a means of meditation and it’s quite a lovely experience walking through one.


Double spiral or Lover’s knot

This symbol could have specifically been a sign of balance between male and female, otherworld and living world, sun and moon, day and night, good and bad among many other things. It could also be taken as everything you give comes back to you, the interconnectedness and web of life or the eternal continuity of life and the universe. The double and triple spiral appear frequently at Newgrange in Ireland.


Torc

The torc was a very integral part of early Celtic attire and likely had a deep religious and social status significance. Many gods and goddesses are shown as wearing a torc so it’s thought that the torc may have given the wearer a sense of being protected by the gods. When Celts went into battle naked, they still continued to wear their torc. The famous portrayal of The Dying Gaul shows a man wearing a torc and various historical figures are described as wearing one, such as Boudicca.


Wheel

The wheel was seen to be representative of the sun, eternal energy, lighting the way to the afterlife or Otherworld. It may have represented a triad “wheel god” of the sky, sun and thunder which may have been further linked to gods like Taranis and Belenus. Wheel trinkets were often found as votive offerings in bodies of water and shrines. There are parallel symbols and meaning in Germanic and Vedic cultures. Today, sometimes a wheel with 8 spokes represents the pagan calendar and 8 seasonal celebrations.


Cross, Quaternary knot (knotwork crosses) or Fivefold

One of the most popular of Celtic symbols is the cross or quaternary knot that comes in 4’s. This was also created in some versions to be a five fold where there was a fifth section represented in the middle where the four quadrants interconnected. We can assume these could have meant a number of things such as the four elements fire, earth, air, water, or the directions north, south, east, west, the seasons summer, winter, spring, fall or a number of human attributes such as wisdom, truth, peace and love. There is speculation Druids also used a different symbol altogether and used the Tau (Greek letter T which represented the god/goddess triad) to worship verses the cross and the cross was an assimilated version based on the entrance of Christianity. The oak tree naturally made a sort of Tau with it’s large extended branches and is what they worshipped or gathered for celebration under. As mentioned already, Ireland itself was divided into four almost equal sections with a fifth, smaller one in the center, county Meath reminiscent of the fivefold.


Harp

It is thought the harp was introduced to ancient Celts via the Phoenicians who brought it over from Egypt as one of their trading goods. The harp is currently the national symbol of Ireland and for good reason. It is deeply steeped in Celtic folklore, legend and mythology. The most famous Irish harp was called Uaithne and belonged to the Dagda who was an important deity to the Celts. Harp music was often played by bards as they recited poetry which was considered magical as this could sway the moods of men to evoke sleep, laughter or dance. Harpists in general have been historically held in high regard across the British Isles, as it takes many years of training to become a good player. It’s a symbol of love, hope, poetry and of course, music. One of the most famous bard harpers was Roderick Morrison of Scotland, born in 1646. He was called the Blind Harper after he lost his eyesight to small pox when studying in Inverness. He became the official harper for chief John Breac MacLeod of Harris. Any clan or family of any prominence likely would have had a designated harper or other musician that heralded the family pedigree at important events or created satire to agitate their foes. This group of bards was known as the “fili” in Ireland and lasted through the 17th century in Ireland and the 18th century in Scotland.


Awen

This symbol specifically is thought to be representative of when Cerridwen was mixing her famous brew and three drops accidentally spilled onto a boy’s thumb, giving him “infinite knowledge”. He would later become Taliesin, the most famous bard in Britain. It’s also said to be linked to triplism reverence which could have had multiple meanings similarly to the triskelion. Awen derives from the same Welsh root word “awel” which means “breeze”. The word was first recorded in the 7th century book, “Historia Brittonum” written by a Welsh monk named Nennius. In it, he was describing Druid poets. Nennius is also famed for his contribution to the development of Arthurian legend. Later “awen” appeared in an early Welsh poetry book in the 9th century. It was used in this text when a character said “I know my Awen.” indicating it as a source of instinctive knowledge. In a later interpretation written by Henry Vaughn in the 1600’s, he described a story about a boy who fell asleep while he was tending his sheep. He dreamt of a beautiful young man with a garland of green leaves upon his head with a hawk resting on his fist and he had a quiver full of arrows on his back. He was walking towards him whistling several measures and tunes. At last, when he was close enough the hawk flew at the boy and into his mouth. He swallowed it and it mixed with his organs. He awoke in fear out of his dream but with a renewed sense of inspiration. He set about making poems and songs for all occasions and became the most famous bard in the country for his time. In this story, Awen was described as a divine or sudden burst of gifted inspiration. It’s unclear whether this story was based on a real person or folklore. Overall, it’s thought to mean the flowing spirit or the essence of life and creation and even more specifically, the essence of the Druid life. Its thought to have similar meaning to the Vedic, ‘Om’ and Irish “imbas”.


Shamrock

The shamrock was nature’s literal representation of the threefold, triple spiral and even trinity among Catholics started by St. Patrick. Along with its triple symbolic meaning, they also held meaning in fours as seen in their crosses, so shamrocks with four leaves were seen as lucky because of their rarity and special meaning. On a more basic level, clover was seen as a substantial food source for livestock which lends to it’s attributes for abundance and provision.

Thou shamrock of foliage, Thou shamrock of power, Thou shamrock of foliage, Which Mary had under the bank, Thou shamrock of my love. Of most beauteous hue, I would choose thee in death. To grow on my grave. -Carmina Gadelica


Claddagh

Although this is a modern Irish symbol, it is nonetheless representative of the spirit of artisanship within the Celtic culture. Claddagh is an ancient village just outside Galway City in Ireland. As legend has it, the claddagh originated with a man named Richard Joyce who lived from 1660 – 1737. In 1675, he left Galway for the West Indies as an indentured servant but en route was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. His owner was said to be a goldsmith and made him his apprentice. In 1689, William III of England enforced all of his subjects to release their slaves. Richard was such an incredible craftsman that his master offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage and half his business if he stayed but he refused and returned to Ireland. There, he started up his own business, married and lived happily and is given credit for creating the first claddagh design to represent the love and loyalty for his country.

For more information check out Pagan Symbols of the Picts by Stuarty McHardy or Celtic Beasts: Animal Motifs and Zoomorphic Design in Celtic Art by Courtney Davis!


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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

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