I may add details if your answers inspire more detailed questions. Thank you so much.

One Response to “What does the Celtic Cross represent?”

  • bdkrodgers:

    What is the symbolism of the Celtic Cross? is a question I am often asked. As a craftsman and jewelry designer in the Celtic tradition I bring some very ancient symbols to a contemporary audience. The answer is not as straight foreword as one might hope. The history of this powerful symbol is ambiguous. There are many variations of interpretations and legends about the original meaning that are commonly repeated even today. The Presbyterian and Catholic are often startled to learn that the other considers this symbol their own. In our modern multicultural world the ringed cross is as much a symbol of ethnic heritage as it is of faith and it is often used as an emblem of ones Irish, Scottish or Welsh identity.

    If you spend much time rooting around in the history of the Celtic lands you are sure to have many explanations and historical anecdotes offered to you in forms ranging from casual explanations from individuals to historical markers, tour guide banter, grandmother’s family lore and souvenir shop hang tags. This variety of sources of information is available on many topics of history, customs, superstition and when the subject is Celtic Art I have found that the popular and casual sources of information are very generous. Conversely the academic and scholarly sources of information are very cautious to the point of being truly a disappointment if your seek confirmation of the meaning of mysterious ancient symbols.

    The Irish Catholic priest will have no hesitation telling you that the circle of the Celtic Cross is a symbol of eternity that emphasizes the endlessness of God’s love as shown through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. That is unless he says the circle is a halo. He may go on to explain that the crucifixion is important not just as an event at a certain point in time but, as the circle symbolizes, as the unending mystery of how through the crucifixion and resurrection Christ continues to offer the hope of salvation to the faithful throughout all time.

    At the pub when the subject comes up you might just as likely hear the explanation that the great stone Celtic Crosses were carved from the standing stones of the Druids and were originally phallic symbols, just carved into crosses to disguise their original purpose. No proof of this theory is offered and the in-your-face delivery of this information will probably intimidate you from asking for any. The barroom iconographer will swear on the graves of all his ancestors that it is true. With the rise of interest in the occult and pagan ideas in recent years you are likely to read New Age interpretations about how the cross in the circle is a symbol of the Sun that was worshipped by the Druids and that this symbol was appropriated by the Christians. Look for these sorts of explanations on the cards that accompany jewelry and head shop bric-a-brac. Born Again Pagans are enthusiastic about Celtic designs and are successfully appropriating Christian symbols back to their supposed primal meaning. Just how much of this is fantasy and how much is based in historical fact is difficult to sort out since the academic keepers of the facts are so reluctant to discuss symbolic meaning.

    There is a legend of how St. Patrick when preaching to some soon-to-be converted heathens was shown a sacred standing stone that was marked with a circle that was symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone making the first Celtic Cross. This legend implies that the Saint was willing to make ideas and practices that were formerly Druid into Christian ideas and practices. This is consistent with the belief that he converted and ordained many Druids to lives as Christian priests.

    These and many other stories and beliefs are the sort of folk lore history that cannot be substantiated by the academic convention of looking back into the written record for early citations or for iconographic precedence that contains enough supporting evidence of what the artist is really trying to say. What we have from the modern scholars and archeologists about Celtic art from early times are careful descriptions and comparisons. The questions the scholars attempt to answer are about dates and the migration of ideas. Which came first? Who was exposed to which prototypes? Figurative panels are often easier to interpret such as the scene of a Samson striking a Philistine with the jaw of an ass as depicted on the back of the Inchbraoch Stone. The knotwork, spirals and key patterns on the carved cross side of this 7th or 8th century Pictish monument are usually treated by scholars as a subject that can be described and classified but is rarely interpreted. When the meaning of the decorative elements are attempted the academic scholar tends to be very cautious and will often cite obscure references in ways that make their text difficult to understand.

    George Bain, in 1951 in the preface his excellent book Celtic Art; the Methods of Construction wrote the following about meaning:

    “After consultation with an eminent prehistorical Archaeologist, his advice to publish the meanings that the evidences suggest was accepted, with the qualification that if others could bring evidences to prove other meanings, agreement to such would benefit truth. In such a way, the art which was communicative and ornamental might regain its original communicative purpose.”

    That statement sounds sensible enough but it is neither followed nor preceded by more than the vaguest of hints of what the original communicative purpose might have been. Frustratingly this is just about all Bain has to say that even suggests that his subject even has any meaning. Bain’s book is a text book on how to construct Celtic Art. By following his instructions the student of Celtic Art learns a lot. By learning the creative process of construction one comes to feel a sense on knowing on a intuitive level what this is all about. In this way Bain succeeds brilliantly in communicating his message. What he writes is rather typical of the scholar who is concerned about being right in a way that can be defended with the proof of facts. If the reader expects a code book to interpret ancient symbols, Bain does not offer any convenient, quotable explanations.

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