7 Celtic Jewelry Symbols And Meanings
Celtic tradition spans many centuries. The oldest Celtic symbols date back to the times before Christ, when Celts were still pagans. This is the time of spirals, triskele, and Celtic knots. Then came the time when Celts became Christians and ancient symbols like the triquetra and St. Brigit’s Cross were reinvented to fit the new worldview. New symbols like the Celtic Cross and the shamrock became a part of the Celtic culture. Finally, in the 17th century, the Claddagh ring became the Celtic way of saying ‘I love you’.
Nowadays, those symbols are often incorporated into Celtic jewelry with meaning. The most significant Celtic jewelry symbols and their meanings are listed below.
1. Spirals and triskele - Celtic symbols for harmony and unity
First Celtic artefacts based on the shape of a spiral date as far back as 3000 BC. A spiral is a fairly simple shape which occurs frequently in nature. Snails, young ferns, whirlpools, and even galaxies are spirals. But what did the Celts make out of it and why did they draw and make so many spirals?
Most of ancient Celtic spirals are single spirals drawn clockwise, reflecting the movement of the Sun across the sky. These spirals are thought to represent harmony between Earth and the Sun, an ordered connection between the earthly and the heavenly. Anti-clockwise spirals are less common and they are said to represent things unnatural or going against the natural law, for example spells and magic.
There are also double spirals, which consist of one spiral drawn clockwise and the other – anti-clockwise. They represent the unity of contradictions, for example the perfect harmony between male and female energy. They are also associated with equinoxes.
The triskele is a triple spiral. It is the rarest of Celtic spiral designs. The most notable triskeles have been discovered in the Newgrange tomb in Ireland. Triskele is thought to represent the religious beliefs of the ancient Celts, symbolizing the triumvirate of druidic goddesses Fódla, Ériu, and Banba. It may also point at the interconnection between the three worldly spheres of sky, sea, and land. Some say it represents the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Ancient Celts believed that life had three beginnings: the first beginning was the birth of one’s ancestors; the second beginning was one’s own birth; and the third, ultimate beginning was one’s death. Celtic art illustrates this belief.
Spirals and triskele are just the beginning of our Celtic jewelry symbols and meanings list. Next is our favourite...
2. Celtic knots - jewelry to unravel
A Celtic knot is usually made of one unbroken line which is woven to form simple or more elaborate patterns.
There are four types of knots: triangular knots also known as triquetras, circular knots, square knots also called shield knots, and much more complex knots which can even include depictions of animals and other complex shapes.
It is believed that knots are symbols of eternity or the cycle of all life. Close-ended knots represent the more cosmic cycle of life and the universe, whereas open-ended knots stand for individual life journeys. Knots could also perform more specific tasks. For example, love knots were made to portray the love of two people and were then exchanged between lovers, just like couples nowadays exchange rings. Shield knots were talismans for protection against evil spirits, disease, and other misfortunes of life. Circular knots stood for purity and wholeness.
According to Frank Mills, the knots had also another purpose. The task of unravelling a knot, a repetitive activity requiring great focus, enabled one to enter another level of consciousness, and “to see” beyond the mortal plane. Celtic knots performed the same function as rosary beads or mantras do in other cultures .
3. Triquetra - Celtic jewelry means three
Triquetra is a close-ended triangular knot. Nowadays, it is mostly associated with the Holy Trinity. But symbols evolve and adapt, and triquetra has not always been a sign of the greatest Christian mystery. The Celts created and used this design before Christianity spread across the Celtic lands. However, the fusion of the two cultures – Christian and Celtic – was so complete that it is difficult to extricate the former meanings of ancient symbols overwritten by Christianity.
Some speculate that the triquetra is just another way the Celts used to express their worldview. The number three appears very often among the remains of the Celtic culture. It is thought to express the Celtic belief in the three aspects of the world: the Earth, Cosmos, and Humanity. Another theory claims that the triquetra points toward the connection between the mind, body, and spirit.
4. St. Brigid’s Cross - Celtic symbol that protect from fire
It is a small cross usually woven from rushes. Its center slightly resembles a square spiral. This is another ornament which has two meanings: Christian and pre-Christian. Newer tradition ties the symbol with St. Brigid of Kildare, one of the patrons of Ireland. Legend says that she wove this cross from rushes while consoling a dying pagan lord, and the cross caused him to convert to Christianity right before he died.
The older tradition connects the cross with the Irish goddess Brigid. The crosses were woven on 1 February, which was the pagan festival of Imbolc, celebrated as the beginning of spring. Coincidentally, this is now St. Brigid’s day. These crosses were (and in some parts of Ireland still are) placed beside doors and windows to protect a home from harm, especially fire.
Just like triquetra, St. Brigid’s Cross is a relic of pagan Celtic culture, adapted and reinvented to ease the transition from paganism to Christianity.
5. Celtic Cross - symbol of fertility
The Celtic Cross is a Roman cross with a ring, or a halo, around the part where the vertical and horizontal lines of the cross meet. It is usually adorned with carvings, often in knot patterns. The first Celtic Crosses started appearing around the 9th century.
The most obvious meaning of this symbol is the meaning of the Roman cross. It reminds us of the suffering and death of Christ. However, there has been much discussion about what the circle of the Celtic Cross means. According to one theory, it is a halo underlining the holiness of Christ. Another theory says that it is a leftover from the pagan sun cross, which was a cross surrounded by a circle. It was a symbol of the Sun god cult. It symbolized life, virility, and fertility, but it is now thought to have served as a sort of calendar as well. The sun cross divided a year into four equal parts, and the arms of the cross marked the equinoxes. As legend has it, it was St. Patrick who adapted the symbol of the existing pagan cult and reinvented it to help convert the Irish to Christianity.
6. Shamrock - jewelry for the Irish
The shamrock is a three-leaf clover. It is one of the most recognized symbols of Ireland. Supposedly, St. Patrick used the shamrock as means of explaining the Holy Trinity to the Irish. In fact, he is sometimes depicted bearing a cross in one hand and a shamrock in the other when chasing the snakes out of Ireland.
It is not clear, whether clover was significant to the Celts before St. Patrick’s arrival, but some experts speculate that its threefold shape may have been important to the Celts, like all other things coming in threes . It might have also been symbolic of nature and earth.
7. Claddagh Ring - Celtic symbol of loyalty
Two hands holding a crowned heart make a Claddagh ring. It was first produced in the 17th century. It is given as a token of loyalty, friendship, and love. Claddagh rings are used usually as engagement or wedding rings, but they can also be worn to express the wearer’s Irish identity.
Claddagh closes our celtic symbols list.
Grain of salt
Most of the Celtic jewelry symbols and meanings discussed above have a very long tradition, reaching further back than any relevant written records. This means that there is no certain way of knowing what exactly those symbols meant to the ancient Celts. We can only make educated guesses based on other facts we know about Celtic customs and their beliefs.
What little remained of the ancient Celts: jewelry, ornaments, sculptures, and, most notably, the Book of Kells, dazzles us with beauty and mystery. Especially Celtic jewelry symbols have become very popular. Celtic jewelry is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also symbolic and saturated with meaning. Meaningful jewelry can become a powerful statement or a daily reminder of things and values which you hold precious.
- Mills, Frank. “Art as a Mystical Experience”. Brigit’s Feast: The Journal of Celtic Thought, Culture, History & Folklore. – .
- Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Facts On File, Inc. .