The intricate knot work of ancient Celtic symbols have significant meanings such as love, loyalty, and strength. The beauty of the designs intertwined with the history of the culture and deep meaning have made Celtic symbols one of the most popular tattoo choices in the world.
Who Were The Ancient Celts?
During the Iron Age (600 BC to 43 AD) the Celts were the dominant culture across Europe. This group of people were never one kingdom, but a collection of tribes with a shared culture.
These ancient peoples didn’t practice writing down their history, so most of what we know is from Roman sources. When the armies of Rome came into contact with the Celts, they described the tribes as barbarians and tough fighters.
However, as archaeologists discovered, the Celts had a distinctive way of life filled with metal work, complex social structures, and distinctive religious practices.
What Did The Ancient Celts Believe?
History explains that Celts didn’t write down their beliefs in an effort to protect them – they passed them down orally through Druids.
“The Celtic religion, for example, required animal and human sacrifices to a pantheon of gods, but that esoteric knowledge was restricted to Celtic priests called Druids and passed on orally from generation to generation.”
The ancient Celts were polytheistic, meaning they believed in multiple deities. While we know nature was a big part of their pagan religion – as they held their rituals in forest sanctuaries instead of temples – the specifics were lost with the last of the Druids.
However, they did believe in a life after this one, as they buried food, weapons, and ornaments with their dead.
Did Ancient Celts Have Tattoos?
The Picts were part of the Celtic tribes of ancient Europe, and were so named due to their painted bodies.
“They are first mentioned as ‘Picts’ by the Roman writer Eumenius in 297 CE, who referred to the tribes of Northern Britain as ‘Picti’ (‘the painted ones’), ostensibly because of their habit of painting their bodies with dye,”World History
Their body art was used as a weapon to intimidate their enemies. Not only that, but it is thought that this tribe of ancient Celts also used body paint (made from woad) in an effort to help their wounds heal quicker.
“Today, most scholars agree that Celts who wore blue paint likely did so for medicinal purposes. For one thing, people who have tested woad on their skin found that it burns them, like an antiseptic,”World History FAQ
6 Celtic Symbols And What They Mean
Popular Celtic symbols that you often find in tattoo designs are a mixture of ancient images dating back to BC, to more recent signs of the 17th century.
Whether old or new, Celtic symbols are incredibly meaningful and speak to significant parts of the human condition.
Spirals are one of the oldest Celtic symbols that archeologists have found. This is an example of an ancient symbol that was adopted by the Celts thousands of years ago.
Some of the oldest spirals that have been found were carved in Ireland at a burial tomb in County Meath, dated around 3200 BC (predating the Pyramids!).
However, these aren’t just simple spirals…Different directions mean different things.
“This Celtic single spiral is thought to show the development, or growth of a person over time and maybe connected with cosmic energy,”Let’s Go Ireland
A double spiral – starting clockwise and going anti-clockwise – can be seen as a symbol of traversing from one point to another.
2. The Celtic Cross
This symbol is a Celtic representation of the Christian cross developed after Christianity swept across Europe.
“According to one legend, Saint Patrick first formed the Celtic Cross. He was a missionary who arrived in Ireland to spread the faith of Christianity among the Druid population,”Shanore
The cross with the circle upon it represents the joining of two faiths: Christianity and the Druids’ pagan beliefs with the cross symbolizing the Christian faith and the circle symbolizing the monumental circular stones (meaning eternity) that the Druids would worship.
3. The Triskele
This is one of the oldest symbols, dating back to the Neolithic era with the symbol being seen at the entrance of Newgrange, Ireland. So, while this symbol wasn’t created by the Celts, it was adopted by the culture and used extensively in artwork.
The meaning behind this ancient symbol, however, is unknown.
“Some say that it symbolizes strength and progress and the ability to move forward…while others say it represents the physical realm, the spirit world, and the celestial world of the sun, moon, stars, and planets,”The Irish Road Trip
4. The Trinity Knot
These three interlocking ovals can mean a variety of things. In Pagan traditions it represents the Triple Moon Goddess or the different stages of womanhood: The maidan, the mother, and the crone.
“When Christianity came to Ireland, most of the Pagan traditions were altered to connect with the new monotheistic religion, and symbols, such as the triquetra, were reused,”Study.com
So, this symbol can also mean the Holy Trinity.
5. Crann Bethadh
This is the Celtic Tree of Life. This symbol depicts an oak tree firmly rooted in the ground and represents the connection we have with nature as well as strength. However, the tree is interchangeable, as Ireland Before You Die puts,
“For example, if it is a willow tree, the symbol suggests imagination and intuition.”
6. The Dara Knot
Another symbol of the oak tree is the Dara Knot. The oak was a sacred tree to the ancient Celts, as it was believed that, according to Irish Around The World,
“Trees connected the world of the spirits and the ancestors, living entities, and doorways into other worlds.”
As you can see from the tattoo example above, the intertwined lines seem to have no start or end. This represents the infinite quality of life.
While these symbols all look aesthetically pleasing and transfer into beautiful tattoos, it’s important to remember that these signs are part of a culture. As such, it’s essential to do your research to make sure you’re respecting the cultural significance of these designs.