Celtic Symbols and their Strange Meanings

You have probably seen many of them without even realizing or noticing. Some you would instantly recognize as Irish, the shamrock, the celtic knot, and the harp all have their roots in Irish Culture.

Some are not as easily identified but yet still have their place and deep seated roots in Irish History. Here we will examine common and strange symbols of Ireland and uncover their ancient meanings…

Where Did the Symbols come from?

celtic symbols

The country of Ireland has a far-reaching and intricate history spanning back over centuries. Over the decades it has been invaded and settled by various peoples including Vikings and other invaders.

It has evolved over thousands of years into the country that we know any love today. Over time, the stories of folklore, tradition, and myth have become intertwined with the country’s history leaving behind symbols and emblems that are instantly identifiable with the country of Ireland.

Some of the iconic marks and characters have tribal roots, some are attached to religion, some are simply emblems of the country.

We will take look at different ones and explain the meaning for each starting with commonly recognized symbols and working our way through to some of the lesser known or more oscure emblems.

Common Celtic Symbols

The Shamrock

picture of a shamrock

An image that has become completely synonymous with the Emerald Isle. This 3 leafed green plant has been adopted as the unofficial symbol of Ireland and its association with the country universally accepted.

The shamrock became famous during the time of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who arrived in 433AD and brought christianity to the nation. It is said that he used the 3 leaves of the shamrock to illustrate and explain the Holy Trinity to early Christian followers and as an example of The father, the son, and the Holy ghost.

But the shamrocks origins can be traced back to an even earlier time. The ancient Druids also regarded the shamrock as being a token of good fortune. Its leaves form a triad and the number 3 was sacred in the old Celtic religion.

The small green leafed plant also became symbolic of rebellion during the 19th century and the ‘wearing o’ the green’ was enough to result in the wearer being hanged if caught displaying the shamrock on their person.

The word shamrock was derived from the original word for the plant of ‘seamrog’ meaning summer plant. It is also a symbol that is associated with bringing good luck, and if a 4 leaf clover is ever found that it thought to be especially fortuitous. It can be seen all over Ireland in present times and is seen being worn and displayed in large numbers the world over on St Patrick’s Day celebrations that occur in March of each year.

The Harp

picture of an irish harp

Still played commonly in traditional Irish bands and used as a symbol of Ireland the roots of the Harp as a symbol are somewhat vague. The use of it can be dated back to before the 6th century and evidence of it is present in the written literature of the time. It is said that Irish King Brian Boru circa 1000 was an accomplished harp player. Every clan of any importance would have a resident harp player, and that person would enjoy high rank and special privileges.

When Henry VIII became the King of Ireland in 1534, a title that was self declared, the harp was chosen as a symbol of the country and was stamped on minted coins. Its image became associated with rebellion against England and the crown  over the years and the use of the harp became banned.

In the period following, the tradition of the harp and its music almost died out completely. It was saved when a troupe of traveling harpists arrived in Belfast in the late 1700’s and Edward Bunting, a folk musician and music collector, documented the harp music and other details.

The survival of harp music and the traditional Celtic tunes has been credited solely to Bunting as this was the first time that celtic harp music had ever been written down and preserved. From 1922 the harp been used by the government of Ireland as its state symbol. Now it appears on many logos of Irish based companies. Guinness, Ryannair, Irish Independent Newspaper and Harp lager to name a few.

There are only a few surviving harps from the pre 1700 era. The oldest on is on display in Trinity College, and is known as the Brian Boru or O’Neill harp, and it dates back to the 15th century, There are also two harps on display in the Museum of Scotland. One dates back to 15c and the others date is unknown.

The Shillelagh

picture of Shillelagh symbol

Pronounced ‘Shill-lay-lee’ and it is another emblem that has become uniquely associated with Ireland and its culture. It was a short, stout,  wooden club with a rounded end that was originally a fighting stick used to club enemies.

It resembles a walking stick and is typically made from oak or blackthorn wood. Wood that was procured from the roots of the tree was preferred as it was less likely to crack or split.

Known in Irish as the ‘bata’ or stick, this implement is thought to have originated from the village of Shillelagh in County Wicklow. The Shillelagh was historically used for settling disputes, similar to the way of old duels.

Shillelagh fighting evolved over the years and employed various lengths of stick depending on the nature of the fight.

The Claddagh Ring

picture of claddagh rings

This ancient Irish symbol represents everlasting and timeless love. There are several myths and legends that have been attributed to the origins of the Claddagh ring, some involving Irish Kings and peasant girls, others telling of history that involved ancient Celtic gods and eagles.

The most prevailing story of the Claddagh is from the old Irish fishing village of Claddagh, situated in the Galway area. The elements that make up the symbol of the Claddagh are the hands which represent friendship, the crown which represents loyalty, and the heart that represents love.

The rings origins are said be from Richard Joyce a goldsmith and member of a Galway tribe that was captured by pirates on a trip to the West Indies in 1675. After he was captured he became a slave to a goldsmith in Algiers who taught him the trade.

In 1689 all slaves were released by royal decree and Richard Joyce returned to Galway where legend says he created the first Claddagh ring. The ring gained popularity worldwide after the mass immigration of Irish citizens during the potato famine. Ownership of the ring was prized and passed down from generation to generation, usually from mother to daughter, typically on the daughters wedding day.

It is used in present day as a gift to a friend or loved one, or on some occasions as a wedding ring. It was regarded in older times as a ‘fede’ ring, or a faith ring. These were common during Roman times and usually featured a clasped hands design. The Claddagh ring used these elements and added the heart and crown as symbols of love and loyalty.

Famous wearers of the Claddagh ring included Queen Victoria and Princess Grace of Monaco, in more modern times and in popular culture the ring was worn by teen icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although it was not as a wedding ring, the ring was given to her as a gift from Angel, her vampire lover as a symbol of their love for each other. There have been rumors even more recently that Kim Kardashian was bought a Claddagh ring by her husband Kanye West.

However the wearer receives the ring it should be noted that there are certain rules or protocol to be followed by the ring wearer depending on their current situation.

  • If the wearer is married the ring should be worn on the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist.
  • If the wearer is engaged it should be worn on the left hand with the point of the heart towards the fingers.
  • If the wearer is in a relationship then the ring should be displayed on the right hand with the point of the heart towards the wrist.
  • If the wearer is single and seeking a partner the ring should be worn on the right hand with the point of the heart facing the fingers.

The Celtic Cross

celtic cross irish symbol

The Celtic cross is a symbols that has reached much further than the country of Ireland over the decades. It can be seen in cemeteries and adorning buildings across England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Its a traditional cross with a circle around the intersection of the horizontal and vertical meeting point of the beams. It was thought to be introduced by St Patrick when he came to Ireland to convert the kings to Christianity.

Some alternate theories credit the introduction of the cross to St Declan or St Columba. Even though it is a Christian symbol the cross has Pagan roots. There is an ancient stone circle at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis that has a cross in it, and some ancient monuments of this cross date back to the 9th century.

There is evidence of a similarly styled cross that was used during Roman times which was a sun cross associated with the Roman god Invictus. Some say that the circle around the cross was to represent Jesus’ halo. Even if the cross was originally a sun symbol it is believed that St Patrick took the cross and altered it slightly creating the Celtic cross that we know today.

This style of cross regained popularity during the Celtic revival during the mid 1800s when the cross was used extensively for monuments and as a grave headstone. The image of this particular Irish symbol has prevailed strongly over the centuries and this image can be seen commonly used in Celtic tattoos, jewelry, or on clothing.

Tree of Life

Picture of Tree of Life

Trees were an important part of ancient Irish culture and the Tree of Life was known as Crann Bethadh in the ancient language. Druids were known to hold their important meetings under trees and trees were highly regarded for their ability to provide food, wood, and shelter.

The ancient celts believed that trees were the ancestors of man and the door to the spiritual world. When the Celtic people cleared an area to make a new settlement, they would always leave a single tree standing in the center of the area.

The most highly regarded tree of all was the oak, which was believed to be the most sacred of all the tree species. The Tree of Life can trace its origins back a long way and appears in many different counties, cultures, and religions.

It has been known as Assyrian Tree of Life in ancient Mesopotamia, and can be seen in the writings of the Baha’i faith. It’s the Tree of Knowledge in Ancient Iran, and Yggdrasil in ancient Norse history. It features in the Kabbalah, the story of Gilgamesh, and the Jewish Torah.

The Celtic version of the tree dates back to around 2000 BC. One of the lunar calendars used by the Celts was known as the Celtic Tree calendar and in the ancient Ogham language every letter corresponds to a different species of tree. In any case the importance of the tree and its connection to nature and the spirit world was in no doubt in ancient Irish culture. During battles, the biggest impediment to a rival settlement was to cut down their tree of life, thus crippling their enemies ability to function or survive.

The Tree of Life is most frequently depicted with the branches reaching up and the roots pointing down to represent the connection between heaven and earth. It is still seen in many forms today and used for jewelry and tattoos.

St Brigids Cross

Picture of St Brigids Cross

St Brigid was born simply as Brigit. She was the daughter of Brocca, who was a Christian woman believed to have been baptized by St Patrick himself. Her father was a Chieftain.

Legend has it that Brocca was a slave so Brigit herself was born into a life of slavery. During her childhood she became known for her many acts of charity, and there are many stories and legends associated with her. At some point she entered a life in the church and founded a monastary in Kildare known as ‘The Church of the Oak’ which was built on a pagan shrine to the goddess Brigid.

Over the years goddess Brigid and Saint Brigid became melded into the same person. The monks at the time took the name of the ancient goddess and grafted it on to her Christian counterpart. The name Brigid itself translates as ‘exhalted one’ and her image is often seen holding the circular cross that is associated with her name.

Typically woven from straw or rushes these crosses are believed to be a Christian symbol but their roots actually go back to much earlier times. They were used to celebrate the Imbolc, the coming of Spring which was also the festival of Brigid, the pagan goddess.

The cross was hung in Irish houses, usually in the kitchen, to ward off evil spirits and fires. St Brigid was a goddess that was a giver of life, associated with spring lambs and blooming spring plant life. When Christianity was introduced to Ireland Brigid became St Brigid and one of Ireland’s patron saints. St Brigid’s Feast replaced the Imbolc and the traditional cross became known as St Brigid’s cross.

The Green Man

Picture of The Green Man

Origins of the Green Man can be found in Roman history and many other cultures but most commonly is associated with Irish heritage. Images of the green man can be seen on French churches, and there is evidence of him in the ancient empires of Greece and Rome.

The Green Man is a man’s head surrounded by greenery and vegetation and it was used as a symbol of life and rebirth. He is known by many other names, Jack O’ the Green, The Man in the Tree and Derg Corra Viridios. He can be seen today on many buildings, particularly those that are religious in nature.

His associated with ancient Celtic or pagan culture can be traced back as far as 400 BC where an armlet found in a Celtic grave in Germany depicted an image similar to that of the Green Man. The head itself was important in Celtic culture, it was believed to be where a person’s soul resided.

Celts were known for often taking heads during battle as trophies. Although general belief is that the Green Man is celtic in origin there is some evidence that traces roots of the Green man to South East Asia. There are statues in India that bear the image of a mans disembodied head spouting vegetation from his mouth, and a similar design was found in a region of Borneo.

One explanation is that the image moved across trade routes between Europe and Asia. The image of the Green Man had a revival in the 20th century when the name of ‘The Green Man’ was coined by Lady Raglan in 1939. He was adopted by the hippy culture of the 1960’s.

In more recent years The Green Man has become an emblem that is used to represent the environment. His image can been seen used as a logo for many businesses concerned with the preservation of the planet and sustainable living.

Celtic Knotwork

Picture of The Celtic Knotwork

We can’t talk about Celtic symbols and markings without noting the use of Celtic Knotwork in many of the commonly used symbols of the ancient Irish.

The knotwork images can be traced back as far as 450 AD and is still visible today. Commonly used in modern times as decor, tattoos, and for clothing design, the images of knotwork has prevailed through the centuries. The images fashioned from this recognizable Celtic style were used to illustrate the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow by ancient monks.

The origins of the symbols have faded over time but their use through Ireland was prolific and it can be surmised that the motifs were used for good luck, to bring health or prosperity, or to symbolize luck, fertility, and similar themes. Some knots were used to symbolize the interconnections of man and nature or to ward off evil spirits. Made primarily of entwined and looping knots or circles these emblems can be found worldwide. An indication of their longevity.

The Triskele

Picture of the Triskele

Among Irish symbols there are commonly spirals used in various compositions. The Triskele is derived from the Greek word ‘triskeles’ meaning 3 legs. It is sometimes referred to as Triskelion and is constructed from spirals in various forms. The spiral is an important spiritual marking dating back to ancient origins in Irish culture.

The triskele is made of 3 joining spirals – the ancient Irish believed that everything happened in batches of 3 – a belief that has become commonplace even in modern times. Many people believe that things happen in batches of threes or ‘the 3rd times the charm’ when trying to achieve a goal. The spirals represent the inner and outer worlds and the themes of birth, death, and rebirth. It also represents unity of mental, physical and spiritual self.

The triskele can be found carved into the ancient rock at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley. Dating back to the megalithic era the carvings that adorn the rock passage wall are from around 5000 BC, that’s older than the pyramids at Giza. Though often thought to by a symbol that is Celtic in origin the triskele is also a symbol of ancient Sicily and can be found on coins and pottery from the area.

The Trinity Knot

Picture of the Trinity Knot

Also known at the Triquetra, this knot is the symbol of infinity that is designed from 3 interlocking circles. The word Triquetra itself literally means 3 cornered or triangular. The form is possibly based on solar and lunar cycles but the symbol is so old that its original origins have been lost over time. It is prevalent in Irish history and can be seen depicted in many different areas today.

Even though most people believe that this image is Celtic in origin there are similar images found in Norse and Viking history that date back as far as 500 BC.  It has also been seen as far away as Japan and there is a Norwegian coin from the 11th century that uses the image of the Triquetra on one of its sides.

While it is not known exactly what the motif is supposed to mean, the 3 points of the symbol could have represented earth, fire, and air. It has also been theorized that it was made to represent mind, body and soul. What is known, however, is that it is one one of the earliest symbols of Christianity, pre-dating the cruciform by hundred of years.

When Christianity was introduced to Ireland the Triquetra became known as the Trinity Knot and used to symbolize the 3 in one of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. It’s form can be seen in Celtic metalwork and is present in the Book of Kells.

There has also been speculation over the years that the Triquetra may have been formed to represent elements of the Goddess Brigid, who later became St Brigid. She represented fire, smithing, and healing. The outer circle that surrounds the 3 interlinked interior circles is to show protection and infinity.

The symbol has been used and adopted more recently in modern times by Wiccans or New Age believers as a protective symbol or to represent the Triple Goddess.

The Dara Knot

Picture of The Dara Knot

The Dara Knot is a Celtic symbol that has several different forms and can be seen in several different variations. This symbol can trace its roots back to the mighty Oak tree and all depictions of this style of knot is based on the roots of trees. Trees were of large importance in ancient Celtic culture.

The word ‘dara’ has its origins in ‘doire’, meaning oak tree in gaelic and the knot is fashioned to represent the intricate root system of the tree. Druid and Celts considered the oak tree to be scared in their cultures. It signified, wisdom, strength, leadership, destiny and power.

When creating a new settlement Celts would clear the area of trees but always leave one single tree remaining in the center. This became the heart of the settlement and was the place where meetings or classes were held. The knot serves as a reminder of inner strength, similar to the intricate root system of the oak trees that are hidden below the surface of the ground.

Like many ancient Celtic symbols the Dara knot has regained popularity in recent years and is used in modern culture in jewelry, clothing and as tattoos.

The Motherhood Knot

Picture of the Motherhood Knot

A lesser known symbol of ancient Irish culture and knotwork. The Celtic Motherhood Knot is a variation on the more commonly known Trinity Knot and is supposed to resemble a parent and child intertwined. It is also a symbol that represents the Madonna and child. The motherhood knot reflects a mother and child’s bond and their connection to the Celtic faith.

The motherhood symbol of Celtic culture resembles two knot work hearts that are linked with one heart being higher than the other. Children are reflected in the motherhood symbol by adding dots, one per each child. The dots may be added anywhere inside or outside the motherhood symbol. It has been used by mother in recent years as a basis for tattoos to honor their children.

The Motherhood Knot tattoo displays two continuous hearts that have no end signifying the relationship between a mother and child in the Celtic culture. .

The Ailm

Picture of The Ailm

A less commonly seen celtic symbol is the Ailm – quite simply a cross with beams of equal length that represented good health, purification, endurance, strength, fertility and integrity. It is sometimes depicted with a circle that represents wholesomeness, goodness, and a pure soul.

The symbol derives from the Celtic Ogham alphabet.  Ogham was a simple form of communication in ancient Celtic culture.

The Ailm is quite literally the representation of the letter ‘A’ in this primeval alphabet. Ogham itself was a realm of trees that were believed to bestow wisdom and knowledge on anyone that sought them. In the ancient lore of trees the word ‘Ailm’ is believed to be associated with conifers or silver firs.

In this folklore these species of trees were associated with health and healing of the soul. These trees are evergreen and thrive in all conditions, therefore Ailm can be used to represent an individual’s progress on a spiritual journey.

The Awen

Picture of The Awen

The Awen is an image depicting 3 rays of light. Awen, pronounced ‘ah-when’ means inspiration or essence. It is a neo druid symbol arising around the mid 18th century and has been attributed to the Welsh poet IoIo Morganwg. It is simply 3 lines leading up to 3 dots. The number 3 is highly symbolic in ancient Druid and Celtic culture as it is also in Christianity.

The Awen represents balance and harmony and its a symbol used by poets and artists. It has been adopted by more modern Druid groups that have more recently translated its meaning as ‘flowing spirit’.

The word Awen itself was first recorded in the 9th century in Historia Brittonum thought to be written by Welsh monk Nennius although there is some dispute about the accuracy of that statement. The Awen can be seen carved on to buildings in and around the country of Ireland.

The Apple

Picture of the Apple

You may be surprised to learn that the common apple has its place in ancient Irish folklore. Just as the apple is important in Christianity and was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the common apple also has significance in ancient Celtic Culture.

Apples were regarded by the Celts as fruit of the ‘Otherworld’ a realm or spirit world not accessible to humans. In Celtic lore apples were sometimes used as symbols of immortality and the Druids wands were commonly fashioned from the wood of the apple tree.

In Arthurian legend Avalon literally translates as ‘The Isle of the Apples’ and similar concepts appear in various other cultures.

Celtic folklore included tales of apples that contained the soul of a King that lay in the stomach of a Salmon that appeared once every seven years and was a part of the Ulster cycle, a branch of Irish mythology.

In the tale of Echtra Condla a man is fed an apple by his fairy lover that sustains him for a month. There is also a story of a man sent on a quest to retrieve apples as a quest or a task in the  Apples of the Hesperides.

The Boar

Picture of the Boar

The Celtic people strongly admired the Boar or the Pig for its aggression and fierce temperament. As warrior people these were traits that were held in high regard and the Boar was the embodiment and reflection of these ideals.

In Celtic feasts and celebrations there was commonly a roasted boar or pig on the table and the best quality cuts of meat from the animal was known as the ‘champions portion’ or the ‘hero’s portion’ and was typically served to the bravest and strongest warrior of the tribe.

This could create some jealousy among rival warriors that believed themselves to be the best of the tribe and stories of these rivalries can be seen in ancient Irish mythology tales like Fledd Bricrenn.

Images of the boar have been found on ancient Celtic armor recovered from excavated sites, its image carved onto helmets and other items. Standing stone and monuments have also been discovered that contain depictions of the boar.

The Oak Tree

Picture of the Oak Tree

The mighty Oak tree has been mentioned throughout this article and it is apparent that it was of high importance in Celtic and ancient Irish culture. But why? The tree was the heart of Celtic life and community. It would be the central area in any Celtic settlement, the place were Druids would meet or hold assembly and it was also believed to be a gateway to the spirit world.

The Oak tree is a symbol of strength and longevity and has appeared as an important emblem not just in Celtic culture but in many other cultures around the world. In Roman mythology it is said that Hercules’ famous club was made from the wood of the oak tree.

Oak trees are rather large and are known for attracting lightning strikes as a result of their height. Probably due to this reason the trees have become associated with Thunder Gods. The Greek, Zeus.

The Nordic, Thor and the Celtic Donar. It was associated with the forest goddess Artemis and outside of Europe was important in places as far away as Japan. People would leave offerings to the gods at the base of the tree. The word for Oak in Celtic culture is derived from the word ‘duir’ which is also associated with the word Druid.

The Raven

Picture of the Raven

In many cultures across Europe the Raven is associated with negative symbolism. It was referred to in the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and has additionally featured in Norse mythology.  

In Irish folklore the Raven is associated with warfare and the figures of Babd, a goddess that can take on the form of a crow, and Morrigan an ancient phantom queen. Old Irish legend claims that Morrigan transformed in to a raven and landed on  Cú Chulainn‘s body after his death.

The raven due to its nature of being a carrion bird, is closely associated with death and decomposition, and Irish culture continues these themes and they also thought that Ravens contained the powers of the Gods.

The Stag

Picture of the Stag

Among other animals of importance, the deer or stag was highly regarded in Celtic culture, not least because it was a vital food source to the ancient Celts. The stag features strongly in Celtic culture throughout the ages.

Over the years neolithic artwork has been uncovered dating back centuries that depicts images of shape-shifting gods and shamans that appear in the form of deer. In Celtic culture, Cernunnos was a horned god of fertility, life, animals, and the underworld.

His roots can be traced back to ancient Roman times and he is often shown sitting cross legged with a purse full of money. The stag in Celtic culture represented strength, hunting, and was a symbol of male fertility and nature.

There are also tales in Celtic culture than refer to deer as ‘fairy cattle’ and the animals are associated with the supernatural with many spiritual figures of deities being able to assume the form of the animal.

The Old Woman of Beare was said to have lived in on an island near County Cork and the legend has it that she assumed the form of a deer to avoid being captured by her enemies. It is also said that she attended her own herd of deer on the island.

There are further stories in Irish mythology of connections between deer and other Celtic mythological people such as Oisin and Sadhbh. The Irish goddess Flidais was believed to be a goddess of fertility and cattle. She was a woodland goddess that had some similarities with the Greek goddess Artemis and the Roman goddess Diana. It was believed that Flidais could shift her form and turn in to a red or white deer at will.

Summary

No matter what religion is prevalent in the modern day, the history of ancient Ireland still lingers and these symbols and emblems speak to the beliefs and culture that the country of Ireland was founded upon.

Each symbol has its own meaning and importance. Whether it’s to protect the wearer or guard a home from evil spirits every symbol had its use and meaning.

From ancient druids to Celtic tribes these recognizable symbols were so important that evidence of them still remains today in large quantities. We can see many of them still being used on buildings, monuments and ancient texts not just in Ireland, but also in many other parts of the world.




























 
 
Summary

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