Celtic Symbols and Meanings

Celtic Knots have no start or end and represent our complex physical and spiritual nature. Celtic symbols can represent family, strength, protection, love and more. This article is divided into two main sections: Celtic Knot Meanings and Other Celtic Symbols (that are not knots). Scroll down halfway to see that one.

Celtic Knot Meanings

Triquetra (also known as the Trinity Knot)

The Celtic Triquetra is perhaps the most famous of the Celtic symbols
Celtic Triquetra Necklace

The Celtic Trinity Knot or Triquetra is one of the most common Celtic symbols. Some people also refer to it as the “Irish Trinity Knot” or the “Celtic Trinity Knot”.

A number of different cultures used the triquetra for various meanings over time. Christians use this knot as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it appeared on the cover of the King James Bible. Some historians believe pagans used it long before that. To pagans, the triquetra symbolizes Earth elements, or religious meanings. The triangle shape of the triquetra always represents three elements. For example, here is a list of some triads it might represent:

  • The Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  • Land, Sea and Air
  • Life, Death and Rebirth
  • Order, Justice, Peace

    Three Intersecting Circles
    Three Intersecting Circles
  • Faith, Hope, Charity
  • Past, Present, Future
  • Mind, Body, Spirit

Some call the triquetra without the interlocking circle the “simplest knot”. Only two linked circles is not a knot, so three linked circles would be the simplest.

The “three circles” form of the Celtic triquetra knot appears often in popular culture. For example, a form of this symbol is on the album cover for Led Zeppelin IV. John Paul Jones chose the triquetra to represent himself. This is what Wikipedia says about that:

Bassist John Paul Jones’ symbol, which he chose from Rudolf Koch’s Book of Signs, is a single circle intersecting three vesica pisces (a triquetra). It is intended to symbolize a person who possesses both confidence and competence.

Red, green, blue Venn diagram
Red, green, blue Venn diagram

Another place you see the Celtic triquetra is in Venn diagrams. These charts show the relationships between different classes of things. A Venn diagram illustrates how the classes of things overlap. The triquetra appears in these charts when they have three classes or elements. For instance, a triquetra appears in the Venn diagram that shows the how the primary colors red, blue and green combine to make other colors. This diagram shows a simple and easy way what colors you get when primary colors are mixed. For example, red and green make yellow.

Without a doubt, the Celtic triquetra is one of the oldest and most popular Celtic symbols. Personally, my favorite interpretation is the union of Mind, Body and Spirit.

Celtic Eternity Knot (Or Celtic Infinity Knot)

Celtic Infinity Knot Ring
Celtic Infinity Knot Ring

Another Celtic Knot is the Celtic Eternity Knot or Celtic Infinity knot. These come in many different variations. They are all some kind of variation of the infinity symol. The knot looks like a sideways figure 8. This symbol came out of the world of mathematics. According to experts and historians, Leonhard Euler introduced a symbol close to what we use today.

The Mobius strip is another concept from math that is very similar to the infinity knot symbol. That is a circular plane with a twist in it. Another one is the ouroboros. This a symbol or drawing of a snake eating its’ own tail. Sometimes the snake is shown in a figure 8 pattern in these pictures. These are both closely related to the eternity knot symbol.

Wedding bands, engagement rings and other jewelry pieces use this symbol. In that context, it represents the eternal bond of marriage. The symbol used on our Celtic Eternity Knot Ring is a sideways figure 8 that is not closed. The “open” end of it is looped around to create the next knot in the series.

In general, Celtic knots are like circles that have no beginning or end. The circle is another symbol of eternity or infinity. Many believe that knots represent the Celts’ beliefs in eternal life and in humans’ complex relationship with the natural and and spiritual worlds.

Celtic Motherhood Knot

Motherhood Knot Necklace - Silver
Motherhood Knot

The Celtic Motherhood Knot is a heart-shaped symbol.  First, note that it has two separate, interwoven heart-shaped Celtic knots. The two separate knots represent mother and child. In addition, notice that the lower knot is an upside-down Trinity Knot. Two of the corners are rounded into a heart shape. Sometimes colored dots accompany this knot. In jewelry, a birthstone can be used to represent each child. A version of this pendant with birthstones is available here.

Another common theme is that Celtic symbols stand for virtues such as wisdom, strength, love and honesty. These traits definitely apply to the motherhood knot.

Celtic Wedding Knot

This ring features the Celtic Wedding Knot. The wedding knot has three different elements: it has two ovals interwoven with an Eternity knot. Each oval represents husband and wife. The eternity knot represents their eternal love. Therefore, the symbol taken as a whole represents the marriage of these three elements.

 

Other Celtic Symbols and their Meanings

This section is about other Celtic symbols we use in our jewelry that are not Celtic knots. Some versions of them contain Celtic knots, but the symbol can also be done without them.

Celtic Tree of Life Meaning

Celtic Tree of Life Pendant
Celtic Tree of Life Pendant

There are many different versions of the Celitc tree of Life. Some show the roots and branches reaching out and becoming intertwined. Others show the leaves falling down to the ground. The idea is that the leaves decay and become part of the roots. Often (as is the case with ours) the tree is within a circle. All of these things symbolize the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, and how all life is inter-related. In other versions, the tree has spiral branches. You can read more about spiral symbolism in the section on the Triskele or Celtic Spirals below.

Dozens of different cultures all over the world have utilized the Tree of Life in art. Ancient Egyptians and Norse mythology both used the Tree of Life, and many others in-between. Wikipedia has a great explanation of what it means to many different cultures. Trees feature prominently in early Irish art. It is not known if their version refers to a “Tree of Life” or if the Celtic tree had some other meaning. Like a lot of things, when Christianity came to Ireland the symbol took on more of a Christian meaning. The book of Genesis in the Bible refers to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22 – 3:24 reads:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

In the Bible, the Tree of Life is a separate and distinct concept from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It says if you eat of the Tree of Life you will live forever.

Science Tree of Life
Science Tree of Life

Science also refers to a “Tree of Life”. The scientific tree of life depicts how all species evolved from another, “branching” off from the original. When you go back far enough, you will find that all life evolved from a single-celled organism. Some of the main branches of this tree divide plants and animals. To learn more about the scientific view of the tree of life, go here.

The Tree of Life appears in popular culture as well. It plays a role in C.S. Lewis’ book The Magician’s Nephew from the Chonicles of Narnia series. Cigna (the health services company) uses a Tree of Life motif in their logo.

The Tree of Life appears in several movies. It plays a central role of symbolism in the 2006 movie The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky. That film played off of the idea that if you eat from it, you will live forever. Through three different stories the main character searches for a way to extend life. Another movie that uses the scientific concept is The Tree of Life. It is a very unique unique story that uses evolution and the tree of life as kind of a parallel to the main story.

Celtic Shamrock Meaning

People associate The Celtic Shamrock  with Ireland so tightly that many assume it is the official symbol of Ireland. In reality the shamrock is an unofficial symbol of Ireland, and the harp is the official symbol. Few people stop to ask how the Shamrock became an Irish symbol.

The main reason the shamrock is so closely tied to Ireland is because of the legend of St. Patrick. According to the legend, he used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to people during his mission there. The symbol caught on and many people adopted it. He of course won many people over to the Christian faith. This article explains more about St. Patrick and the symbol of the shamrock.

The shamrock is a clover, and there are four main species considered “shamrocks”. Clovers are very prevalent in Ireland. The one most people recognize is the Trifolium Dubium. You can read more about the different species of clover here. In addition, at one time it was a food source for livestock. Therefore, the shamrock or clover can also be a symbol of abundance or fertility.

Today people associate four leaf clovers with good luck, but experts say that a fairly recent development. Experts say roughly 1 in 10,000 clovers have 4 leaves. So if you find one it is good luck indeed.

People also associate shamrocks with Leprechauns. The myth says if you capture a Leprechaun, he may cast a spell or hypnotize you to escape. According to the myth, the only way to disperse this spell is with a shamrock.

The Celtic Shamrock is yet another of the Celtic symbols that sometimes represents the Holy Trinity. Others are the Trinity Knot and the Triskele (or Triple Spiral) symbols. Like those, the Shamrock represents a “triad”. Examples of this would be “life, death, rebirth” or “Earth, Sea, Sky”. It is interesting there are so many different symbols for the same concept.

Celtic Cross Meaning

The Celtic Cross meaning seems obvious – it is a symbol of religious faith. However, there is quite a history behind it. There are many different versions that have slightly different meanings. Many of these crosses closely associate with specific Irish Saints.

The earliest Celtic cross is just a simple cross with a circle. This was possibly a variation of the Sun cross, which goes back to an even earlier era. It is clear that pagans used the cross as a symbol. Christians converted it into a Christian symbol as missionaries introduced Christianity to Ireland. Once it became more of a Christian symbol, the lines of the cross extended beyond the circle. Also, they lengthened the bottom line to make it more like a Christian cross.

Round Celtic ross Necklace - Bronze
Round Celtic Cross

Another kind of Celtic cross is the kind with Celtic knots and interwoven patterns on it. This kind of cross frequently appears on gravestones, churches, or other religious sites. It definitely appeared after the conversion towards Christianity began. There are several historic monuments which use this kind of cross, such as the Ardboe High Cross and the Monasterboice ruins.

Yet another variation of Celtic Cross is the round kind, or “shield” type. Some refer to this as the Celtic warrior shield or symbol. There are different types of this one as well. One version of a round cross is at the St. Brynach church yard in Wales. St. Brynach was a 6th century Welsh saint who spread Christianity and built a monastery.  It is also used on headstones and other religious settings.

The last type of cross associated with Celtic symbols is Brigid’s Cross. Historians attribute this cross to Brigid of Kildare, or Brigit of Kildare. She is also a saint. There is a legend associated with this cross. According to the story, a pagan chief was very ill and in a lot of pain. His caretakers could not calm him down. Brigid tried to console him. She picked up some straw off the floor and wove it into a cross. Finally, the man calmed a bit and asked what she was doing. She explained what the cross meant and how she wove it. He converted to Christianity moments before his death.

Triskele or Triple Spiral Meaning

Triskele Necklace - Nylon
Triskele Necklace – Nylon

The Triskele (or triple spiral) is one of the oldest Celtic symbols and has many different meanings. However, triskeles appear in many modern contexts today.

Some of the earliest examples are at ancient sites in Ireland. The triskele appears on tombs there. One notable example is at the Newgrange passage tomb. This symbol pre-dates Christianity in Ireland. However, Christians also used it. For them it was another symbol for the Holy Trinity.

Above, we discussed how the Triquetra was often used to represent triads. Similarly, the Triskele also symbolizes any type of “triad”, or things that come in threes. For example, this could be “mind, body, spirit”, or “past, present, future”. For early Celts, it possibly symbolized the three realms of Earth, sea and sky. A full list of triads is in the Triquetra section at the top of this page.

Triskeles appear in many non-religious contexts today. However, they have a very different meaning in many of those contexts. In some versions, three sets of running legs replace the spirals. For example, one the flag of Sicily. In this context, the triskele symbol symbolizes action, progress, or moving forward. Another example is the U.S. Department of Transportation. They use a triskele as their logo. The triskele also appeared in the television show Teen Wolf.

This idea of progress can also take on a more personal meaning. In that context, the triskele means personal growth, or learning and understanding. Buddhists used this symbol in this context. This is my favorite idea behind the triskele.

Finally, there are several variations on the triskele symbol or triple spiral. Some have the triangle in the center and some do not. In other versions, elements wrap around the outside of the symbol and make a circle. Undoubtedly, it is easy to understand why the various versions of triskele symbol stood the test of time.

Claddagh Ring Meaning

Claddagh Ring
Claddagh Ring

Another famous symbol is the Claddagh ring. It dates back to the 17th Century in Ireland and is one of the more famous Celtic symbols. Its’ name comes from the fishing village of Claddagh, which was just outside Galway, Ireland. A Claddagh symbol contains hands holding a heart adorned with a crown in most versions. Furthermore, according to the story, the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty.

There are a couple legends associated with the origin of the Claddagh ring. One credits silversmith Richard Joyce with creating it. To illustrate, here is the key passage from the story according to Wikipedia:

According to legend, Algerian Corsairs captured Joyce and enslaved him around 1675 while on a passage to the West Indies; he was sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him the craft. King William III sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand the release of any and all British subjects enslaved in that country, which at the time included Richard Joyce.

After fourteen years, they released Joyce and he returned to Galway and brought along with him the ring he had fashioned while in captivity: what we’ve come to know as the Claddagh. He gave the ring to his sweetheart, married, and became a goldsmith with “considerable success”. His initials are in one of the earliest surviving Claddagh rings but there are three other rings also made around that time, bearing the mark of goldsmith Thomas Meade.

The Claddagh ring works as a promise ring, an engagement ring, a wedding ring, or simply for decoration. Some debate whether promise rings is a proper use for a Claddagh ring, but I cannot find an exact answer to this question.

There is another element to the Claddagh ring meaning. It takes different meanings depending on how it is worn. How it is worn indicates the relationship status of the wearer. Specifically, these are common meanings of how the Claddagh ring is worn:

  • Single and looking for love: wear the ring on the right hand, pointed away.
  • In a relationship: wear the ring on the right hand, pointed towards you.
  • Engaged: wear it on the left hand, pointed away.
  • Married: wear it on the left hard, pointed towards you.

In the last decade or so the Claddagh symbol appeared in a lot of other contexts. It is pretty unmistakably Irish. So, I believe the Claddagh is another symbol of Ireland. Some artists combine the Claddagh symbol with Celtic knots in different ways.

In the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy was given a Claddagh Ring by the charcter Angel. According to this site, many famous people graced Claddagh rings:

One of the first movie stars seen wearing a claddagh ring was Julia Roberts in 1995. Observers speculated that Daniel Day Lewis gave it to her. In addition, Jennifer Aniston and Tate Donovan exchanged claddagh rings to celebrate their first anniversary, and Jude Law gave Sienna Miller a claddagh ring.

Many musicians also wear claddaghs. Irish musicians Liam and Noel Gallagher from the band Oasis have both sported the claddagh, as has U2 singer Bono. In her book Strange Days, Patricia Kennealy explains that she gave Doors frontman Jim Morrison a gold claddagh and he gave her a silver one in a pagan hand-fasting ceremony.

Celtic Shield

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Celtic warriors used shields in battle. Because of this, to many people the shield is a Celtic symbol for strength, resolve and protection. Knots and other Celtic symbols often adorn Celtic shields. The most famous Celtic shield is perhaps the Battersea Shield. Shields take many forms. Some are square in shape, while others take the shape of more of a traditional shield (flat across the top, rounded and coming to a point at the bottom).

The shield pendant shown in the picture at right is a circular design. It contains two knots, each with four loops. Since James Bowen invented this type of knot, it became known as the Bowen Knot. The shield shown here contains two Bowen knots. Some refer to it as the “true lover’s knot”. The knot on the inside is traditional and the one on the outside rounds into a shield shape.

Leaf Symbol

Primarily, the leaf  means renewal, rebirth or revival. This was my intention when I designed this leaf Celtic Knot. The main reason for this is that leaves grow back on trees every spring. Similarly, the leaf represents fertility or personal growth, as leaves only grow in fertile soil and climates. Different cultures believed that leaves had medicinal value (and some actually do).

In one sense the leaf symbol relates closely to the Tree of Life. The tree represents the cycle of birth, life and death. In the same way, the leaf can represent those things. First, the leaf grows off the tree and falls to the Earth. Then it decomposes and incorporates into the roots, completing the cycle. So the leaf also symbolizes the journey of life.

The Bible mentions leaves or a leaf numerous times. It presents the leaf as a symbol of truth, faith or prosperity. To illustrate, here are Bible verses that mention a leaf or leaves:

Psalm 1:1-3

1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

Jeremiah 17:8

7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”