Irish and Celtic Symbols: The True Meanings Behind Signs of Pride and Power
Irish and Celtic symbols reflect ancient beliefs and traditions and were believed to influence lives. The meanings of symbols such as the Claddagh, Crann Bethadh, Triquetra, and Triskelion have lived on thanks to bards and storytellers maintaining historical pride and passing it from one generation to the next.
The Claddagh Ring: A Tale of Love and Fidelity
The Claddagh symbol has a triple meaning. The hands symbolize friendship, the crown symbolizes loyalty, and the heart symbolizes love which is not affected by time. The design of the Claddagh arose in an old fishing village of the same name that was once located outside the walls of Galway. This symbol has been applied to many items, but one of the most popular is its use on rings. Claddagh rings, as they appear today, first became popular in the 17th century. Due to the meanings behind the symbols, these rings became associated with engagement and marriage.
Claddagh rings are one example of the ancient Roman ring category called fede rings, shorthand for mani in fede which means ‘hands joined in fidelity.’ Like modern wedding rings , these were considered tangible symbols of promises of friendship or love.
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The most popular legendary story of the first Claddagh ring tells the tale of Richard Joyce and his patient lover, Margaret. Richard was a fisherman from Claddagh who was captured by Spanish pirates and sold into slavery in Algeria. He was eventually sold to a Moorish goldsmith who saw his skills and helped him become a master goldsmith. After some time, Richard was able to escape, or was set free, and returned to Ireland, where he was overwhelmed by the love and fidelity of Margaret and thus presented her with the first Claddagh ring.
A gold Claddagh ring. ( Royalcladdagh/CC BY SA 3.0 )
A Celtic Symbol for Irish Pride: The Harp
The Irish harp, also known as the Gaelic harp, Celtic harp, or Clarsach, is a lesser-known traditional symbol of Ireland. It is believed to represent royalty and the immortality of the soul. In ancient times, bards and musicians used to play the harp for their chieftains and the tradition continued for later kings. The harp on a green background symbolizing Ireland first appeared in July 1642, furthering the link between the instrument and Irish people.
And that connection was cemented in the 1798 rebellion, when the Society of United Irishmen used a seal of an elaborate harp with two mottoes: “It is now strung and shall be heard” and “Equality.”
Even today, the harp remains among the most popular Celtic instruments. It also appears on coins, uniforms, and on the Guinness beer logo.
Arms of Ireland. Blazon: Azure, a harp or stringed argent. ( Public Domain )
The Shamrock: Ireland’s Most Popular Symbol is a Celtic Symbol
The Shamrock is one of the most well-known symbols of Ireland. Although the two are often confused or used interchangeably, shamrock are actually a species of the clover plant. The original Gaelic word seamróg, Anglicized to ‘shamrock’, actually means “young clover.” As a plant, the shamrock grows on the hills of Ireland, and, as a symbol, it can be seen almost everywhere (whether as a real shamrock or as some other variation of clover) in Ireland too.
Legends say that at first the shamrock was used by Saint Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to pagans while he was trying to spread Christianity in the country. Although the legitimacy of this story has been doubted , the tale lives on. Nevertheless, the number three held significance for the Celts prior to Saint Patrick’s arrival and the three petals of a shamrock were believed to be filled with good luck. And that meaning is the one that has mostly lived on today.
St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin's Church, Wicklow, Ireland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 de )
Meaning of the Celtic Cross
Another symbol related to religion is the Celtic Cross - also known as the Irish Cross, the Cross of Iona, or the High Cross. It is another symbol of Christianity in Ireland. This cross first emerged in Ireland in the early Middle Ages .
There are many different interpretations on what the Celtic Cross means, such as knowledge, strength and compassion. The four arms on the cross have been linked to the four cardinal directions, or the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water), or as a representation of our mind, soul, body, and heart.
The ring surrounding the cross is believed to represent solar energy , which is regarded as a life source. Or it is said to symbolize endless love, which the Christians interpreted as God’s never-ending love.
Celtic Animal Symbols: Horses, Serpents, Dragons, and Birds
Horses were extremely important animals for Celtic tribes . They were used for meat, milk, work, transport, hunting, and in battle. It was such a major part of Celtic life that horses were associated with the sun god – a being which often was depicted as a horse with a human face. The Celtic horse is also a symbol of victory in war. The horse-mother goddess Epona , a favored deity for warriors, used to be known as the Great Mare. She was the only Celtic goddess that was worshiped within Roman borders.
Epona and her horses, from Köngen, Germany, about 200 AD. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The Celtic Serpent is the symbol of rebirth, wisdom and healing as snakes shed their skin. The snake was also regarded as an immoral creature which came to life each year wearing a new skin. The Celtic belief was that snakes slithered up from the inside of the earth. They also held all of the world’s divine wisdom and they knew all secrets, thus being regarded as Earth Healers.
The Celtic dragon was another creature of myth and legend. It was regarded as a symbol of power and fertility. Originally, the dragon was said to have been created when the first living cell was born from the earth. This cell was then fertilized by the sky with water and wind, thus producing the magical dragon associated with earth energies and the fertility of each season.
Celtic birds represented freedom and transcendence as birds can soar up into the heavens. They also symbolized the liberation of the human soul and were believed to bring messages, guidance, and prophecies from the gods to humans. In this way, birds were seen as mediators between the human world and the world of the gods.
A Celtic helmet with a complete winged-bird crest. ( Wolfgang Sauber/CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Celtic Tree of Life and Other Significant Trees
Also known as the Crann Bethadh , the Celtic Tree of Life shows a tree with branches reaching out into the sky and roots spreading out into the earth. It represents oneness with nature, the link between heaven and earth, and harmony.
The Celtic tree of life was believed to have special powers and whenever a new settlement was being built, they would plant a Crann Bethadh at the center. This is the location where they would hold their important events and ceremonies. Trees were also believed to be human ancestors and to provide a gateway between the living and the dead and into other worlds.
The Celts had many tree symbols. Each type of tree had a certain symbolism and meaning to the ancient Celts. For example, the ash represented wisdom and surrender, while birch represented youth and renewal. But the most sacred was the Oak , which represented the axis mundi , the center of the world.
An 1847 depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil (tree of life) as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda by Oluf Olufsen Bagge ( Public Domain )
Significance of the Triquetra, Tuim, and Triskelion
The famous Celtic spirals and knots reflect their belief in eternal life and in the complex relationship which humans have with the natural world and the divine. The Triquetra is also known as the Trinity Knot. It is the most common Celtic knot and when it is surrounded by a circle it reflects the unity and the trinity of the heart, the mind, and the soul. This symbol also suggests three different but interlocked levels of the mental, spiritual, and physical or phases of time, as in the past, present, and future. Finally, the Triquetra is a symbolic representation of triple deities, such as a lunar goddess called the Great Mother and the war goddess Morrigan.
The triquetra design on the cover of a replica of the Book of Shadows. ( Public Domain )
The Tuim knot, on the other hand, symbolizes the four seasonal lunar holidays as well as the four traditional elements. The triple spiral represents the continuity of life and the manner in which life travels in cycles. The triple symbolism here represents body, mind, and spirit or birth, death, and rebirth.
The Triskelion, or Triple Spiral, is another popular Celtic triple symbol. It has been depicted since at least Neolithic times and can be seen at the entrance of Newgrange in Ireland. As it is so old, scholars have had difficulty in pinpointing exactly what it is meant to symbolize, but there are two main interpretations.
First, the appearance of energy spiraling out from the center suggests it may represent movement or motion, or action, cycles, progress, revolution, and competition. Secondly, the Triskelion could depict a specific cycle of events or relationships, such as life-death-rebirth, spirit-mind-body, mother-father-child, past-present-future, power-intellect-love or creation-preservation-destruction. In general terms, some say the Triskelion is a symbol representing the unity of eternal life, spiritual growth, and the flow of nature.
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The Wheel of Being and the Ogham Alphabet
The Wheel of Being is also known as the Wheel of Balance or the Five Fold symbol. It is made up of four circles united by a fifth one in the center. It represents the four powers or elements which are balanced by a fifth one. This is a symbolic representation of the Druidic universe which consisted of four powers united by the fifth which stood for the balance of the universe. It also shows connectedness and unity.
The Irish Ogham Alphabet is regarded as a gift from the Celtic deity known as Ogmios who was honored as the god of eloquence. The real origins of this alphabet do, however, remain shrouded in mystery. Scholars tend to believe Ogham believe it dates back to roughly the 1st century AD and think it was probably modelled off of Roman, Greek, or Runic script.
It’s believed that it was probably used to write Primitive Irish language in secret communication, however, people’s names also appear in prevalence, which some researchers believe means it was used more frequently to show ownership or to mark graves. Today, Ogham is preserved on stone, yet it is believed people probably used sticks, stakes, and trees more often as writing surfaces.
An Ogham stone with an added cross symbol. ( Kevin Higgins/CC BY SA 2.0 )
Top Image: A Celtic Cross, one of the more popular Celtic symbols in Ireland. Source: NikaM /Adobe Stock
By Valda Roric
Valda Roric – “Wonders of History and Mythology”
Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”
T. G. E. Powell, “The Celts”, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000
Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology – Norse, Classical, Celtic, Anness Publishing, London, 2014