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Thread: The Meanings of Celtic Spiritual Symbols (Ancient and Modern)

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    The Meanings of Celtic Spiritual Symbols (Ancient and Modern)

    St. Brendan's Cross - This stylized Christian cross frequently encountered in Ireland is called Brendan's Cross. It is made up of four dolphins placed tail to tail to form a Celtic Cross, and commemorates the journeys of the Irish Saint Brendan, also known as "Brendan the Voyager." Brendan was a sixth century Irish monk famous for his seven year sea journey to find the "Land of Promise" and returned with tales of a Paradise. While there is no real historical evidence that the journey ever took place, many devotees of St. Brendan credit him with the discovery of America.

    Triquetra (Triqueta) - The triquetra (often, triqueta) is a tripartate symbol composed of three interlocked vesica pisces, marking the intersection of three circles. It is most commonly a symbol of the Holy Trinity (Father, son, Holy spirit) used by the Celtic Christian Church, sometimes stylized as three interlaced fish. This symbol predates Christianity and was likely a Celtic symbol of the triple Goddess, and in the North, a symbol of the god Odin. Triplicities were common symbols in Celtic myth and legend, one of the possible reasons Christian beliefs were so easily adopted by the Celtic people. The triqueta makes an ideal Christian symbol. It is a perfect representation of the concept of "three in one" in Christian trinity beliefs, and incorporates another popular Christian symbol, the fish, in its original form of the vesica pisces. It is sometimes enclosed within a circle to emphasize the unity aspect.

    Solar Cross (Odin's cross, wheel of Taranis) - The solar cross is probably the most ancient spiritual symbol in the world, appearing in Asian, American, European, and Indian religious art from the dawn of history. Composed of a equal armed cross within a circle, it represents the solar calendar- the movements of the sun, marked by the solstices. Sometimes the equinoxes are marked as well, giving an eight armed wheel. (The swastika is also a form of Solar cross, emphasizing movement.) The cross in its most simplified form (shown above) is known in Northern Europe as Odin's cross, after the Chief God of the Norse pantheon. It is often used as an emblem by Asatruar, followers of the Norse religion. The Celtic cross is a symbol of the Celtic Christian Church, borrowed from the pre-Christian Celtic Pagan emblem of the God Taranis.

    Awen - The Awen is a not genuine symbol of Druidry, but associated with several modern groups. Awen in the Celtic language means means "inspiration," or "essence," and refers to spiritual illumination. The three parts of the Awen symbol represent the harmony of opposites- the left and right rays symbolizing female and male energy; the center bar their harmonious balance.

    Spiral - The spiral is probably the oldest symbol of human spirituality. It has been found scratched into rocks from thousands of years ago, on every continent in the world. The religious significance can only be guessed, but it has been found on tombs, and possibly has a connection with the sun- the sun makes a spiral shape every three months in its travels. A triple spiral motif found on Celtic tombs is drawn unicursally (that is, in one continuous line), suggesting a cycle of rebirth or resurrection. (this hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that many of these appear to be deliberately placed where they catch the first rays of the sun on the solstice).

    Cernunnos (Herne the Hunter) - Cernunnos is the mysterious horned deity worshipped by Iron age Celts across Europe until the end of the first century. Very little is known about Cernunnos except his name and his image, which appears on numerous stonecarvings and other artifacts throughout Europe. He appears crowned with stag's antlers, is often seated in a meditative position, and is almost always depicted with images of wild animals. His Celtic name is unknown, although he may be associated with Derg Corra, the early Celtic "Man in the Tree." Cernunnos is a Roman name meaning "horned one." He is often associated with Herne the hunter, a character of British folk myth, and the "Green man" of European architecture. Roman invaders associated Cernunnos with the god Mercury. He is later associated with "Herne the hunter," of European legend, and his appearance was eventually adapted as the Christian Devil's. The image which appears above is derived from the "Gundestrup Cauldron," a ritual object of unknown use discovered in pieces in a peat bog in Denmark.

    Pictish Symbols - The Picts were a tribal people who lived in Northern Britain and Scotland until about a thousand years ago. Their language is lost, except for fragments, although they left behind a wealth of "picture stones," large monoliths carved with mysterious symbols whose meanings are mostly unknown. There are about fifty major symbols. Some are easily identified as animals or mythical creatures; others are completely mysterious, such as the "crescent and V-rod" and the "double disk." They may have originated as tattoos or amulets. After the fifth century, most Picts converted to Christianity, and most of their carvings reflect this change; many of the so-called "Celtic" crosses dotting England and Scotland are in fact Pictish stones.

    - Pictish animal signs may have been related to Gods and Goddesses, and included boars, salmon, wolves, and birds.

    Mythical creatures - Some of the most famous Pictish carvings are of monsters, mermaids, and other sea creatures.

    Enigmatic Symbols -
    Most unusual are the enigmatic symbols known as the "V-rod," "Z-rod," and "double disks," all named for their unusual shapes. The V-rod is a bent arrow superimposed on a crescent; it is thought by some to be a symbol of death.

    Mirrors - Another object commonly inscribed is the mirror, often paired with a comb. The comb and mirror are symbols of female prestige, and usually denote a woman's memorial.

    Shamrock (Trefoil, Cloverleaf) - The Shamrock is the ubiquitous symbol of all things Irish. Although today it is usually regarded as a simple good luck charm or a St. patrick's day decoration, it is one of the oldest Celtic symbols. The shamrock is a native species of clover in Ireland. A Catholic legend holds that St. Patrick used it's three lobes as a device for teaching the Holy trinity. To the Druids who mcame before, it symbolized a similar "three in one" concept- the three dominions of earth, sky, and sea, the ages of man, and the phases of the moon. In Celtic folklore, the Shamrock is a charm against evil, a belief that has carried over in the modern belief in the four leafed clover as a good luck charm.

    Horned Shaman (dancing sorcerer of Trois Freres) - The horned shaman figure is one of several dancing figures from a cave painting in Ariege, France, dated 10,000 BC. Nicknamed the "dancing sorcerer," it is believed to represent a shaman in ceremonial dress, or in the form of a shape shifter. The composite creature has the tail of a wolf, the body and antlers of a deer, the eyes of an owl, and the paws of a bear. It may be related to early depictions of the Celtic deity Cernunnos, the master of animals.

    Green Man - The Green Man is a mysterious, eerie figure depicted mainly in medieval European stonework, believed to represent an ancient vegetation deity. The Green man is nearly always depicted as a "foliate head," that is, a face made of leaves and vines. Sometimes, it appears as a human face peering out from leaves, other times with animal features. The image of the Green man may have been adapted from Roman decorative stonework, or from Celtic interlace figures. Older versions bear a very close resemblance to Celtic and Norse interlace figures, and often combine plant and animal features. One of the oldest examples was discovered on an Irish obelisk that dates to the third century BCE. This may be the Derg Corra of Celtic myth, the man in the tree.

    The name "green man" was coined in the late 1930s. Other names for this figure are Jack in Green of Jack of the Green. Many believe the greenman is related to the pre-Christian Celtic deity Cernunnos; others that it is simply an expression of the forces of nature, or even a reminder that we, too, are part of the cycle of life. There is no real evidence linking the images to any particular philosophy, cult, or belief, although the faces are strikingly uniform through time. The greenman is not a strictly European phenomenon- similar images appear in Asian, Indian, and Arabic architecture and art as well.

    Claddagh - The Irish Claddagh Symbol is named for the Irish coastal town of Claddagh (pronounced "clah-dah"), where the ring design is attributed to an ancient local legend. The now famous tale, about a townsman kidnapped into slavery, who returns to present a ring to his true love, is one of the most popular romantic tales of Ireland.
    Despite the romantic story, Claddagh rings are a traditional token of loyalty and friendship as well as romantic love. The Claddagh design usually appears on rings, but is now used on all sorts of items, from jewellry to napkins to family crests. The hands in the design represent friendship, the heart, love, and the crown, loyalty. Various traditions ascribe different meanings to the ring, depending on how it is worn- as a wedding ring, it is worn on the left hand, with the heart pointed inward. As an engagement ring, it is worn on the right hand, with the heart pointing inward; for friendship, it is worn on the right hand, heart turned outward.

    The Celtic Knot is one of the best known motifs in Celtic jewelry and art. The delicate twists and turns are found in ancient stone art and tattoos, in illuminated manuscripts- in fact, just about anywhere the Celtic people have travelled. Similar designs exist in Norse culture, and as far as China. While there are many Celtic symbol guides available, especially those that list every variation of celtic knot, many of the purported meanings of the symbols are usually simply made up (most often to sell trinkets and jewelry). There are no known authentic knotwork designs meaning love or loyalty or many of the other common meanings ascribed to the designs.

    While many of the ancient designs certainly had some spiritually significant meaning, these have been lost to the ages. The continual looping of the designs suggests themes of eternity and interconnectedness, and knots may have been made at one time to foil evil spirits. Interwoven figures of people and animals may have represented the interdependent nature of life-two or more knots laced together symbolize lovers, hunters and their prey, God and man, etc. Some knots were used as magical talismans for protection.

    The more modern designs, such as those found in decorated Christian scriptures, were mainly decorative designs used for ornamentation. Other relatively modern designs include linked hearts and other "love knots," Christian crosses, harps, shamrocks, and other folk symbols, and so on. The Celts themselves left very little in the way of records, and most symbols are interpreted by archaeologists and other scholars who study the symbols in context. Some ancient Celtic symbols have changed in meaning over time, having been influenced by the introduction of Christianity and the influence of other cultures.

    A general rule of thumb is: the shape of the design often determines the "meaning" of a knotwork design- triskele and trefoil shapes should be regarded as triskeles, bird, fish, and animal designs represent the attributes of the animal, etc. Circles represent unity or eternity, spirals reincarnation or cycles of life and rebirth, triangles and trefoils the threefold dominions of earth, sea, and sky. Squares or four-fold shapes are shield knots, symbols of protection from spirits or malevolent influence. Interlaced animals and men usually represent relationships, or emphasize the interdependence of mankind and nature.

    Brighid's cross - Usually known as "Bride's cross," this equal-armed cross is traditionally woven from straw in honor of Ireland's Saint Bridget (Bride, Brighid, Brigid) on her holiday, Candlemas, held on the second of February. There is a very strong likelihood that there never was such a personage as St. Bridget, and that she may have been a cover for worship of the Celtic Goddess of the same name. The cross itself is a type of solar cross, and both the symbol and the woven representation probably predate Christianity in Ireland.

    Sheela-na-gig (Síla na Géige) - The Sheela-na-gig is a shocking, immediately noticable figure found in Celtic and medival stonework. Sheela is most commonly depicted as a squat, ugly female creature using her hands to display grotesquely large genitals. Sheelas of various ages adorn stone steles all over the Irish countryside ; they are also found in the intricate carvings in cathedrals and stone churches in ireland, England, and throughout Europe, often in tandem with the Green man. Sheela is very likely related to the ancient Celtic Goddess; her images are much older than the churches they often appear in, suggesting they are elements of much older religious sites. Many closely resemble ancient Viking figures of a creator goddess Ormgudinna.

    Ogham - The Celtic Ogham alphabet dates from the fourth century. The alphabet is named for Ogmos, the Celtic god of knowledge and communication. Ogmos was associated with the Gaulish Ogmios and the Greek Hermes. More on the Ogham alphabet here.

    Lík börn leika best.

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