Celtic Revival : Symbolism Page
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The Celts, Symbolism and The Wheel of Time.
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. The Celts
Celts, a people who dominated much of western and central Europe in the 1st millennium BC, giving their language, customs, and religion to the other peoples of that area. The earliest archaeological evidence associated with the Celts places them in what is now France and western Germany in the late Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. In the early Iron Age, they are associated with the Hallstatt culture (8th century to 6th century BC, named for an archaeological site in what is now Ober,sterreich (Upper Austria). They probably began to settle in the British Isles during this period. Between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, their influence extended from what is now Spain to the
shores of the Black Sea. This later Iron Age phase is called La T'ne, after a site in Switzerland. The word Celt is derived from Keltoi, the name given to these people by Herodotus and other Greek writers. To the Romans, the Continental Celts were known as Galli, or Gauls; those in the British Isles were called Britanni. In the
4th century BC , the Celts invaded the Greco-Roman world, conquering northern Italy,
Macedonia, and Thessaly. They plundered Rome in 390, sacked Delphi in 279, and
penetrated Asia Minor, where they were known as Galatians. The Cisalpine Gauls of northern Italy were conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century BC; Transalpine Gaul (modern France and the Rhineland) was subdued by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, and most of Britain came under Roman rule in the 1st century AD. In the same period, the Celts of central Europe were dominated by the Germanic peoples. In medieval and modern times the Celtic tradition and languages survived in Brittany (in western France), Wales, the Scottish Highlands, and Ireland.
Way of Life
The various Celtic tribes were bound together by common speech, customs, and religion, rather than by any well-defined central governments. The absence of political unity contributed substantially to the extinction of their way of life, making them vulnerable to their enemies. Their economy was pastoral and agricultural, and they had no real urban life. Each tribe was headed by a king and was divided by class into Druids (priests), warrior nobles, and commoners. The nobles fought on foot with swords and spears and were fond of feasting and drinking. Celtic mythology, which included earth gods, various woodland spirits, and sun deities, was particularly rich in elfin demons and tutelaries, beings that still pervade the lore of peoples of Celtic ancestry.
The Christian faith was well established in Celtic Britain by the 4th century AD, but in the 5th century the Saxons and other Germanic peoples invaded the country, driving most of the Celtic Christians into Wales and Cornwall. At the same time, Saint Patrick and other British missionaries founded a new church in Ireland, which then became the center of Celtic Christianity. The Irish church developed a distinctive organization in which bishops were subordinate to the abbots of monasteries . The Irish monks, devoted to learning as well as religion, did much to preserve a knowledge of
ancient Roman literature in early medieval Europe. Between the late 6th and the early 8th centuries, Irish missionaries were active in Christianizing the Germanic peoples that had conquered the Western Roman Empire, and they founded numerous monasteries in present-day France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Celtic Christianity in Ireland was weakened by the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries, and by the 12th century its characteristic institutions, which were incompatible with those of the dominant Roman church, had largely disappeared from Europe.
Celtic Art is considered the first great contribution to European art made by non-Mediterranean peoples. Its roots go back to the artisans of the Urnfield culture and the
Hallstatt culture (8th-6th century BC at the beginning of the Iron Age. It flowered in the period of the La T'ne culture. Although Celtic art was influenced by ancient Persian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art and by that of the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, it developed distinctive characteristics. These are evident in its major
artifacts, weapons, vessels, and jewelry in bronze, gold, and occasionally silver. Many of these objects were made for chieftains in southern Germany and France and were recovered from their tombs. The Celtic style is marked by a preference for stylized plant motifs, usually of Greek origin, and fantastic animals, derived from the Scythians and other steppe peoples; the human figure plays a secondary role. Other favorite motifs are elliptical curves and opposing curves, spirals, and chevrons, also derived from steppe art. These elements were combined in dynamic yet balanced, intricate geometrical patterns carried out in relief, engraving, or red, yellow, blue, and green champlev, enamel on shields, swords, sheaths, helmets, bowls, and jewelry. They also appeared on painted pottery cinerary urns, food vessels, incense bowls, and drinking cups. Examples of Celtic art include torcs, or neck rings, with the two open ends ornamented with animal heads; the silver repouss, Gundestorp cauldron (circa 100 BC, a bronze lozenge-shaped shield with circular medallions and small enamel circles (1st century BC); and a bronze mirror with enameled decoration (1st century BC). Also surviving are roughly carved stone monuments and wooden objects. During the period of Roman domination of Western Europe in and after the 1st century BC, the art of Celtic peoples on the Continent gradually lost its distinctive style. The Celts of Ireland continued to work with traditional motifs, but, as Christianity took hold, they combined them with Christian motifs and employed their skills in the service
of the church. Their carved stone crosses; intricate metal chalices, bells, and
reliquaries; and magnificently illuminated liturgical books may more properly be considered Irish art.
If we had to answer what does the Celtic Knot mean, I would say that it's origins are to
do to the observation of the cycle of time. For the ancient people saw time as an
endless wheel that has no beginning and no end. I give credit to the Neolithic stone
builders of all those years ago that studied the stars in the sky. The wheel was based on
a solar/lunar wheel and it had two half's, a light and a dark. At May I st, Bealtine, we
cross into the light half, Is a time when the work began in the fields and a time for
outer action. At Samhain, Oct. 31st. the other side of the wheel we cross into the dark
half, a state of inner contemplation or All Souls Day in the Christian calendar, They
saw this a being like a marriage of day and night, life and death, the seen and unseen
worlds and believed that when we cross to the other side we will continue and return
again in search of the sacred. like time itself, we belong to this endless cycle.
The Wheel of the year is broken up into four corners and four cross quarters. These
representing the equinoxes and solstices and the four Celtic fire festivals, Imbolc,
Bealtine, Lugnasagh and Samhain, . The Celtic people lived in harmony with the
natural cycle of the wheel of the year. They saw this as being an endless cycle towards
the spiritual journey.
1. Celtic Knotwork
These knots were used in all forms of decorative skills influencing the artwork and
spirituality of the Celtic people. The interlacing knotwork symbolizes the spiritual
evolution of humanity on the journey to the divine center. The endless riddle of life
through successive rebirths, no beginnings and no end. The early Celts left behind an
enduring legacy of almost hypnotic knots, fierce beasts, and spirals, some of them
drawn so finely that people called them "the work of angels". We know that the Celts
believed strongly in the interconnectedness of all life, and that their interlaced patterns
reflected this belief. We can glean a bit more information about their symbols and
beliefs from the old Celtic myths and legends.
These entwined knots shows
how our lives are woven together creating a fabric of love and friendship. The Knots
have been inspired by the by the work from the early Christian monasteries from
between the 7th and 9th century. The monks excelled at illustrating their religious
manuscripts and books with intricate decoration and elaborated interlacing knotwork.
The most well known manuscripts are the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and
Simple beauty the unbroken line
That weaves and curves in style
perfect in its symmetry
What meets the human eye.
The work of humble craftsmen
With steady hand and quill
Devoted to creation with
Masterpieces from their will.
This offers a sense of unity
And offers a sense of style
That all things are connected
In this life and when we die.
These knots they tell a story
Two knots run side by side
Four corners to the universe
To the journey, yours and I.
Triple Spiral (Triscele)
The Triple Spiral dates back to the many many years but the one we will begin with
is the carving at the 5000 year old structure at Newgrange Co. Meath, Ireland. It has
many said to have many meanings and all began at the study of the moon. The
waning, waxing and new moon representing the life. the death and the rebirth cycle of
life. This is also seen as the matriarchal forms of the great Goddess. The Maiden being
inspiration, the Mother is life giving and the Crone is age wise and has the gift of
healing. At the Celtic festival of Imbolc, Feb. 2nd. the crone goes to drink from the
sacred well and in doing so she rejuvenates to become a young maiden. This
represented the coming of spring. Also the earth, sea and sky or the life, death and
rebirth cycle of the natural world.
From there it seems that everything in the Irish lore had three forms whether they be
blessings, curses, Goddesses, music, stories and of course the Shamrock. St. Patrick
continues this tradition when he picked the shamrock and explained that out of the
three experiences that there is one stem or God. From there is became the Trinity. We
also know it collectively as the Spirit of Ireland reflecting on the three great Tuatha de
Danann queens known collectively as the spirit of Ireland were Bamba, Eiru and Folda.
Bamba was all beneath the Earth, Eiru was the 7 forms of life that lived on the earth
and Folda was the spiritual essence. When the celts arrived they made a deal with Eiru
and called the land Eire for ever more.
from our own experience and learning's the truth is that in if we are to find oneness
we will only find it in the three experiences of being. Connection with earth, with self
and with the divine. They knew that one could not fine oneness in self but only in the
three. The sooner we return to this age old wise knowledge, the better chance that we
can continue the traditions of living through youth, adult and elder.
The Sacred Tree
The tree is the bridge between the under world, the middle world and the upper world.
All that is dead, all that is Life and all that is Spirit. In the Irish tradition the sacred
tree grew from the center of the land (Uisneach) and sheltered seven forms of life.
Insect, fish, mammal, animal, plant, man and bird. The tree grew 26 miles high and fed
the four corners of the world, it's branches reached out and touched every star in the
heavens. The ancient people used this as an axis Mundi to align the sun in the sky with
entrances and alignments when building stone circles. This became the center of the
spirituality. where we are connected to the earth and growing into the heavens. In the
center is where the golden child resides. This is the place where we are worth more that
This older sense of Spirituality for the Irish race had an understanding that we are the
trees. To find this place you first of all have to recognize the four directions and then
you will find yourself in the center. There you become the tree, connecting yourself
with the Earth and reaching towards the Spirit.
In Christianity you can see this tradition has been handed down when blessing ones
self. All above (north), all below (South), all to the left (West) all to the right (East)
Then one brings their hands to the center. This is where the spirit sores.
The CELTIC CROSS
There are a few meanings behind the Celtic Cross. It many ways it was a union
between the oldand the new, the cross meets the wheel. The earlier pagan culture had a great sense of spirituality and in the old traditions we always stand in the center of the wheel. This is
where the ancient tree grew from deep beneath the earth and reached out into the
heavens. Where the heavenly axis meets the earthly axis. The circle representing the
solar wheel of the Celtic year. In the center is where the spirit sores. Up to the 10th
century, the figure of Christ was never crucified but stood with hands open to the world
or else the hands are placed over the solar plexus. some of these great crosses we know
as scripture crosses and have panels of the gospels carved on the front, back and sides.
They stand up to 14' high and are really quite amazing. So say that they carved these
relics so big so when the Vikings raided the monasteries, they were not able to take the
Traditionally, claddaghs are expressions of love and friendship. Like most traditional symbols, the origin of the claddaugh has been obscured by the passage of time. It is almost certainly from the Irish fishing village of Claddaugh, near Galway. Some stories say that "back in the 16th Century a young love torn jeweller from Galway in Ireland named Richard Joyce was kidnapped by pirates. Thinking of the girl he left behind, he designed a ring to express how he felt. It consisted of a heart to express his love, a crown for his loyalty and hands for their friendship. On returning after 5 years he was delighted to learn she had not married, he then presented the ring to her. The Claddagh has been worn as a wedding ring ever since." Others say the design was brought back from the Crusades by a young man captured by the Saracens. Whatever its history, the claddaugh has become an enduring symbol of affection. The heart in the center of the design represents love, the hands that surround it represent friendship, and the crown at the top (if present) is symbolic of fidelity.
Claddaghs are worn on the left hand, facing inward, if your heart is spoken for. If you are unattached, wear the ring on your right hand, facing outward. Click on the following link to visit our
Pentacles are composed of a five-point star enclosed within a circle. Pentacles can be variously interpreted as representing the five elements (earth, air, fire, water, and spirit), or the five stages of Life (birth, youth, adulthood, old age, and death). In both cases, the path used to trace the star shape symbolizes the continuity and connection between the extremes. The pentacle is often used as a symbol of faith by Pagans, and particularly by Wiccans. Click on the following link to visit our Custom Celtic Jewelry Collection. Top=
Associated with death transitions in Celtic mythology.
The boar is a symbol of masculine power. The meat of the boar was served at Otherworld feasts for the deities. The sow is associated with some Crone/Mother Goddesses, such as Cerridwen, and with Otherworldly feasts. The pig is theimages/ archetypal symbol of plenty, healing, and shape shifting.
Figures heavily in what little Celtic creation mythology surviving from Ireland, though this may not be Irish at all, but rather a myth derived from a Middle Eastern source. In the Celtic world, the bull was a symbol of virility, sovereignty, and wealth. The famous Irish
legend, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, surrounds the taking of a famous bull. In Ancient Ireland, a tabhfheis, or a highly ritualized "feast of the bull", always preceded the crowning of a new High King.
Unlike many other Indo-European cultures, the Celts did not revere cats, though there are many references to them in Celtic mythology. Archtypally they serve the same guardian function as demons/angels in the Judeo-Christian myths. Three mythic references
to cats which are prominent are; one, a cat which helps to guard the gates of the Otherworld; two, one who is able to shapeshift into a ball of fire; and three, one called Irusan of Knowth who stole humans like the faery. Cat-like monsters were also believed to dwell in dark caves.
Numerous Celtic myths tell us of a heroic figure or deity who was changed into a crane such as Aife, the Lady of the Lake, or Munanna. Archetypally this bird means an apparent, rather than substantive, change A sign of, or punishment for, deception. Top=
Deer / Stag:
The deer was the principal animal hunted by the Celts for food. The doe was associated with most woodland Goddesses, such as Saba and Flidais, and is their totem animal. The stag was often seen as the incarnate form of woodland Gods such as Cernunnos. White stags were considered to be from the Otherworld and, in myth, their appearance always heralded some profound change in the lives of those in the story. Considered in Celtic mythology to be among the oldest creatures in existence.
Sacred to the faeries of Ireland and Scotland probably because they were held in high regard by the Tuatha de Danann. Many Celtic myths involve dogs or dog familiars, which belonged to heroic figures or deities, and wars were often fought for and over them such as the one between Fionn MacCumhal and King Arthur. Examples of the importance of Celtic dogs are found in the myths of Gwyn Ap Nuada, Cuchulain, Amaethaon, and Taliesin. Dogs are also the archetypal symbols of shapeshifters.
The dragon is another mighty magical animal that appears in British and Welsh stories. It is, of course, a creature of fire but is also related to the Power of the Land. Another word for Ley Lines is Dragon Lines. Another name for raising power is to invoke the "Eye of the Dragon". The whole Earth was viewed by the Druids as the body of the Dragon. Menhirs and stone Circles were located at great Power nodes. The Celts also called Dragons 'Fire Drakes
Eagles were the feared scavengers of Europe and were usually linked to death Gods, such as Beli, in the same way as the crow was linked to death Goddesses. In Welsh mythology, Llew was turned into an eagle at the moment of his murder.
Horses were sacred to many Indo-European Goddesses, and often filled the archetypal place given to cats in other cultures. They were linked to the night, the moon, mystery, and magick. Nightmares, a name which is derived from that of the female horse, were thought by the Celts to be brought by a visiting horse Goddess such as Epona or Mare. In most Celtic myths the horses are black or white.
Usually spelled Ouzel in the United States. This water bird is known for its tenacious and deceptive personality. While it looks
harmless enough, it is revered for its ability to staunchly defend itself and its flock. In myth, the Ouzel of Cilgwri once picked a smith's hammer down to the size of a small nut.
The Crow is deeply linked to Crone Goddesses such as Badb, and to Goddess of war or death like the Morrigan. The Raven is similar to the crow in that it is deeply associated with death deities. But, while the crow is usually reserved as a spirit form for feminine deities, the raven has been the Otherworldly body for both Gods and Goddesses. Like the crow, it flew over Celtic battlefields as the deity
incarnate. The raven is most closely associated with the Irish/Welsh God Bran.
While the airborne creatures archetypally linked the Celts to the Underworld, sea creatures linked them to great knowledge, sacred mysteries, and deep emotion, (typically, only deities of great wisdom and temperament ruled the Celtic seas). Most prominent among these wise sea creatures was the Salmon of Knowledge. The myths of Nudons and Fionn are among the many dealing with this fish. It is said to have acquired its great knowledge from eating the Nine Hazels of Wisdom that fell from the Tree of Knowledge. This fish is was said to be among the oldest of living creatures.
Represents the cyclic nature of life due to the annual shedding of its skin. It is a phallic symbol, a symbol of the Triple Goddess, and of the earth mysteries. It is important to the Druids, and is found on much old Celtic jewelry. Contrary to popular myth, there are snakes in Ireland, though they are pretty much confined to the rugged western region of the Island.
VI. Geometric Motifs
Geometric motifs have always prominent in Celtic artwork Some
of the motifs or symbols date back to 3000 BC and can still be seen
today on stone carvings. Newgrange in Ireland, is one of the oldest
burial mounds in Europe and is highly decorated with stone (see picture
on the right) carvings depicting spirals, lozenges, chevrons and key
Chevrons resemble arrowheads used by hunters and warriors alike and were a symbol of power among the Celts. The motif is nearly heart shaped and occurs as repeat band patterns in ornamentation.
Flowing scroll patterns were used for decoration rather than symbolic purposes. the Book of Durrow, an illuminated manuscript contains many fine examples of such patterns.
Celtic knotwork designs vary from the elegant single knot and double knot patterns to the very sophisticated interlaced patterns.
The Ulbster Cross depicted here is a fine example of interlaced knotwork. A single thread is used, symbolizing eternity.
The key patterns of Celtic art are really spirals composed of straight lines. It is another universal pattern attributed largely to the Greeks, but in fact originated in the Ukraine some 15,000 years earlier.
The borders of the illuminated manuscripts, the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, and the Book of Lindisfarne are adorned by various patterns - spiral patterns, key patterns, interlacing, plaiting and ropework.
. The Wheel of Time
Winter Solstice (Rebirth)
Geerah, the festival of Rebirth at midwinter, celebrates the winter solstice (21nd Dec.)
when the sun has been appearing lower in the skies each day since mid Summer, stops
it's apparent decent and pauses for three days before beginning to rise higher in the
skies again as each day then proceeds the next mid summer. The three days of the
winter solstice are the darkness days of the year. But as soon as the solstice has ended.
the sun, the source of light and life, appears to experience a rebirth. This is of course
Dec. 25th Christmas Day. Christianity celebrates this day as the birth of Jesus. We
have a beautiful pre christian monument to this festival at Newgrange (3500 b.c). At
sunrise on the winter solstice the sun shines into a passage way and illuminates the
inner chamber. The light shines in the dark and we begin the journey back to the light
which symbolizes illumination or understanding and beyond that to Peace. This has
happened for over 5000 years in this chamber.
Imbolic ( Dedication)
Imbolic is the festival of Dedication and of the washing of the Earth's face is associated
with Brigid"s Day, Feb 2nd . Bridgid rules over the movement of life onwards from the
heart in which Winter transforms into Spring. On the eve of Imbolic, the Cailleach. the
old woman goddess of winter drinks the water from the sacred well and is transforms
into the young maiden of the Spring. This is the time when the young sprouting seeds
pushes it's shoots above the ground, drinking the rain and becoming green in sunlight,
visible now to the world. The bareness of Winter becomes becomes adorned with new
green life- the Cailleach becomes the maid. In the Christian calendar, St Bridgid's Day
is followed by Candlemas, the festival of purification and the festival of Lights 2nd
Feb. In the legend of St. Bridgid, there was a perpetual flame on Bridgid's shrine at
Kildare. This was tended by two nuns for nineteen days at a time, but on the 20th day it
was allowed to burn on it's own. check out our links for the rekindled site of Bridgid's flame.
Spring Equinox (Promise)
The festival of Promise celebrates the Spring Equinox, which occurs on March 21st.
The Festival marks the middle of Spring when nature is vibrant with reawakened life.
On the equinox, light and dark are equal in duration's so it marks a balance point during
the year. The symbol of this time is the sun rising in the East, the dawn of a new day.
In the Christian calendar, it is marked by the feast of the archangel Gabriel 25th March.
It is also closely connected with Easter, for Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday
after the first full moon after the Equinox.
Beltaine celebrates the end of Spring and the beginning of summer. because Beltaine is
a quarter-day festival (ie it is one of the four solar festivals which divides the year into
four seasons or quarters). it is not so easy to fix an exact date on the calendar. Where as
the solstices and equinoxes are precisely fixes by the position of the rising and setting
sun on the horizon. The ancient celts and other societies solved this problem by
choosing the time of the nearest full moon to celebrate the quarter day festivals. Thus
they brought together the solar and lunar cycles.
At Beltaine May 1st is the time when we cross from the dark half of the wheel into the
light.. It was the time when the old celtic god Cernunnos came forth from beneath the
Oak tree and married the queen of May. It is the time when all nature comes together to
provide the abundance which will follow. In Irish tradition, all fires were extinguished
and the four Kings came from the provinces to rekindle the flame at Uisneach. from
this flame all flames in the country were rekindled.
Summer Solstice (Joy)
The summer solstice and the festival of Joy (21st-23rd June) culminated after the
third day of the Solstice with Midsummer's Day 24th June) Mid Summer is the time of
maximum light and the beginning of the journey back into the dark. Interestingly, this
was the time of the court of King Arthur and Guinevere presided over the Round Table.
The Round Table symbolized the solar wheel, the wheel of space and time, with it's
four seasons, eight festivals and 13 moons. Mid Summer is a time of great warmth and
color with Nature in full flower. The element Air represents Summer and Air represents
the Mind. Light represents illumination and so Mid Summer celebrates the fully
illuminated when the dream is absolutely clear and reveals it's full color. This is the
season of Joy when the sun in highest in the sky and the Earth is abundant and fruitful.
Lugnasagh celebrates the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn. The horse
racing and fairs all took place around Lugnasagh as the animals were at their strongest
and well fed. The corn is ripe and the fruits begin to appear. The festival was also
known as Lammas, derived from Loaf Mass, used to denote the first offering from the
harvest of the year. In the Christian it is celebrated by the festival of Transfiguration
Aug. 6th and followed by the festival of first fruits Aug. 8th, marking the culmination
of the summertime illumination and the beginning of the Autumn harvest. The climbing
of Croagh Patrick (Co Mayo) on reek Sunday is lined with the Lugnasagh festival.
Croagh Patrick is Ireland's holy mountain, Irelands mountain of vision, having been to
the mountain top, it is what you bring back from into their daily lives which is
important. Fire is the element of Autumn, the fire is action, the fruit of your labors. It is
the fire in the belly that gets things done. Lugnasagh celebrates the transformation from
thought to action- the bringing down of a vision into magnification. just like the sun,
we travel from a place of maximum light back into the dark.
Autumn Equinox (Harvest)
The main harvest festival is celebrated at the Autumn equinox (22nd-23rd Sept.)
The ripe corn is harvested and stacked in sheaves in the fields, where the golden heads
of corn will continue to ripen in the sunlight while the stalks and sheaf start to wither
and die. All that is no longer useful is allowed to die. So we reap the harvest of all the
work that we have put in over the previous years and symbolically let go of all that is
no longer useful as we move in the year to come. The turf is gathered and is dry in the
shed, the darkness of winter is moving in. We await the firelight
Samhain, the festival of Peace or of Death, celebrates the culmination of the cycle
when the old dies and the new begins. It is the time when we cross from the light into
the dark half of the wheel. It is the time of the threshing, when the sheaves of corn are
threshed, the grain separated from the chaff, the chaff and the straw burned and the
grain either ground up for flower to make the bread or sown into the ground as seed for
the new cycle. The seed planted rests asleep until it's germination at Christmas.
It is a time of Remembrance of all that is dead, a time for storytelling, remembering all
that we have done and who we met. A time of Reflection from a place of outer action
to a place of inner comtemplation. The Christian calendar celebrates the festival with
Halloween 31st Oct, All Saints Day Nov. 1st All Souls Day Nov. 2nd when the souls
of all, past and present are remembered.