One of the oldest ancient Celtic symbols, the Ailm was a Celtic symbol for strength and endurance for the ancient Celts. Featuring a basic cross shape usually surrounded by a circle, the Ailm symbol may be simple in appearance it had an incredibly special meaning and is likely to be the oldest symbol in Celtic history.
Keep reading to discover the Ailm symbol, where it comes from, and how we still use it today.
What Is Ailm?
Celtic culture is well known for its decorative and intricate Celtic knot designs, so the Ailm may leave you underwhelmed with its basic cross shape.
Unlike some better-known Celtic symbols, like the trinity knot, the Celtic cross, and the Dara Celtic knot, the Ailm symbol features a simple, even-lined cross that a simple circle can often surround.
Sometimes you may find a more modern version of this Celtic symbol where artists have put their own Celtic knot spin on it by turning it into a braided cross with an intricately woven circle.
However, these versions are more modern interpretations of the Ailm symbol because there is a reason why this Celtic symbol is so simple.
Although we now see the Ailm as just another Celtic symbol, it was originally part of an old Irish written language called ogham. The Celtic ogham alphabet has few remaining examples, but we know that it consisted of simple notched lines along a vertical line to create words and names.
What Is The Symbolism Of The Ailm?
The Ailm symbol had many symbolic meanings for the Ancient Celts, such as strength, healing, purity, and endurance. You may have noticed a running theme if you have read some of our other Celtic symbol articles regarding these Irish symbols and their connection to strength.
Many Celtic knot symbols signify strength and endurance in one way or another. Not only was this a trait that the Celts valued, but ancient life was hard, and strength was always needed to survive.
The Ailm does not symbolize physical strength but instead is about fostering an inner strength within yourself. Like many other old Celtic symbols, the Ailm symbol was connected to the trees.
In ancient Celtic culture, many of their native trees were respected and admired for their ability to withstand difficult conditions. The Ailm symbol was likely created to inspire the people to keep their heads held high and keep moving forward regardless of the hardships they experienced.
The Ailm symbol also symbolized healing and purity. The Ailm represented the fir tree or pine trees that were abundant back then.
These trees were symbols of resilience and rebirth due to their ability to withstand the harshest conditions. Pine trees were also a great source of ancient medicine for the Irish Celtic people and also the highlanders of Scotland.
Pine sap was used to treat respiratory illness and their pine cones would be hung around the home to ward off illness and disease.
This ancient Irish symbol also represents fertility and rebirth. Connected to this Celtic tree once again, the pine cone was used by Celtic women to speed up conception.
Pinecones were the rebirth of the pine tree itself and this is possibly why the pine cone, and the Ailm symbol, were seen as a symbol of fertility. The Celts believed that by placing pine cones beneath their pillows or under their bed they could improve their chances of falling pregnant.
A Bit Of History About The Celtic Ailm Symbol
Irish history is steeped in mysticism, symbolism, and a connection to the earth. The Ailm symbol is one of many Celtic symbols that were used as a way for the ancient Irish people to connect with their Celtic Mythology and beliefs.
This Celtic symbol for strength possibly dates back as far as the first century BC. The simple cross would have been all that the Ailm consisted of originally as this simple design was the 16th letter in the written language of the Celts, called Ogham.
The Celtic Ogham Alphabet And The Ailm Symbol
Although there are not many examples of Ogham that still survive today, there are some around the island of Ireland carved into upright-standing monoliths and rock faces.
Ogham may be considered a primitive form of the Irish language today but it was, and still is, an important of Irish culture.
The Irish word Ailm stands for the letter A in the Ogham alphabet but this word also means pine in English. However, Ailm isn’t the only letter in the ogham alphabet representing one of the many divine trees in Celtic beliefs.
There were twenty-six letters in the alphabet altogether and eight of those seem to have had a connection to one of eight culturally important trees. They were the pine tree, the oak tree, the birch tree, the alder tree, the yew tree, the ash tree, the hazel tree, and the willow tree.
The ancient Irish people deeply connected and respected their trees, particularly ancient oak trees. They were a respected life symbol and were treated as the depictions of eternal spiritual life they believed to be.
However, the Ailm symbol is only considered a part of this important grouping of letters because of one single reference to the word.
“Caine ailmi ardom-peitit”
This was the line of a poem called ‘King Henry and the Hermit” and it roughly translates to mean “Beautiful are the pines which make music for me”. Just to throw a spanner in the works, this particular poem likely post-dates the medieval tradition of ogham but it was probably influenced by the original meaning of the letter rather than being a separate and individual meaning.
Unlike our modern alphabet, where each letter is just a letter. Each letter of the ancient Irish Ogham also had a meaning. In early Irish literature, they had a Bríatharogaim, which was a list of two-word kennings that explained the meanings of each Ogham letter.
It is believed that Ailm had three Bríatharogaim associated with it. These different kennings gave different meanings to this word depending on its use.
- Ardam íachta meaning loudest groan
- Tosach frecrai meaning beginning of an answer
- Tosach garmae meaning beginning of calling
Two of these kennings support the idea that the Ailm was a Celtic symbol for strength and rebirth as they describe the beginnings of something.
How Is The Ailm Symbol Used Today?
The Ailm symbol isn’t as widely known as more popular Celtic symbols, such as the Dara knot, St Brigids Cross, the Celtic Triskelion, and the Spiral symbol, even when it is used today it is often seen out of context to its original meaning.
The Ailm symbol and its meaning need the support of its surrounding ogham letters to be understood truly but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful to us today.
Nowadays, this symbol for strength can be found on jewelry, and accessories, included in the fabrics of Celtic-inspired clothing, and even used as a permanent nod to our Celtic ancestors in the form of a tattoo.
Tattoos especially have become very popular with people trying to honor their Irish heritage. If you believe in the symbolic power of this Celtic symbol, it may help you draw upon your strength and resilience or even help boost your fertility.
What Is Ogham?
Ogham is an ancient written form of the old Irish language. It consists of a single vertical line with horizontal lines etched along it.
Each notch represents a letter of the ogham alphabet. There aren’t many examples of Ogham left today and those that are still around can be found etched onto stone monoliths around Ireland, with the most notable of these found in County Galway and County Kerry.
Ogham can also be found in Western Britain, specifically Wales. However, Ogham is still considered to be a written language birthed in the South of Ireland.
Is The Ailm Symbol Irish?
Although Celtic symbols can be found all over the Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Ailm symbol is believed to be an Irish symbol. This is because of its connection to the ancient Irish written language Ogham.
Even though many different people with Celtic ancestry use these Celtic symbols to reconnect with their ancestors, the Ailm, a Celtic symbol for strength, is an Irish symbol.
What Does Ailm Mean In Irish?
The Ailm symbol has many different symbolic meanings, such as strength, resilience, fertility, and healing but the word Ailm, when translated into English, means pine or pine tree.
This gives us an indication as to how important both the symbol and the word itself were to the ancient Celtic people. The pine tree was one of eight trees that had a special meaning within the Celtic belief system.
I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.