Celtic symbols and their meanings are integral to the culture of Ireland. Many originate from the Iron Age ancient Celts of the emerald isle and are still celebrated in our modern age. Many of these symbols you may even recognize and didn’t realize that they were more than a pretty picture.
However, did you know that some famous Celtic symbols aren’t technically Celtic? They are rather symbols that came later but hold an important place in the hearts and minds of the Irish people, such as the Shamrock and the Irish Harp.
Now, although these symbols aren’t technically Celtic, they are still symbols of the island of Ireland. We’ve included them here because they are integral to understanding Irish culture on a deeper level.
With the uptick in the current Celtic revival, many people with Irish heritage are searching for the deeper meanings of some of the most popular Celtic symbols. Whether they are looking to immortalize their heritage with a Celtic symbol tattoo or just have a passion for Irish history, it’s amazing to see Irish and Celtic history become valuable to everyone once again.
Twenty Old And Ancient Celtic Symbols And Meanings
Many Celtic symbols have strong connections to Celtic mythology and belief. Keep reading to discover the symbolic meaning of twenty of Ireland’s most popular Celtic symbols.
However, we’ll quickly point out that not all Irish symbols are of Celtic origin. Many Celtic symbols that we associate with our ancient Celtic ancestors originated long before they arrived on the island of Ireland. Others were designed hundreds of years after they left.
#1 The Celtic Tree Of Life
The ancient Celts weren’t the only civilization with a Celtic tree of life symbol. It’s a symbol that you can also find in Viking culture – Yggdrasil – and many others. Nevertheless, the Celtic Tree of Life, also known as Crann Bethadh in the Irish language, played an incredibly important role in Celtic culture.
The Celts believed that trees were not only a sacred symbol but also home to many of their ancestral spirits and mythological creatures, like fairies.
The oak tree is known as the king of the forest purely because of its strength, fortitude, and longevity. So, it is no surprise that the Celtic tree of life is depicted as the most sacred of all trees.
The Celtic tree of life depicts an intricately woven oak tree and symbolizes balance and harmony, as well as the druidic belief that the trees were a doorway to the other world where those who had passed now lived. Trees were believed to be a link between our world and the next.
#2 The Celtic Shield Cross
Symbolizing protection and safety, the Celtic shield knot is one of the most easily recognized ancient Celtic knot designs. This powerful Celtic symbol was a common sight on Iron Age battlefields and was often as the name gives away, engraved on the shield of the foursome Celtic warriors.
However, this ancient Celtic symbol had more uses than a protective sigil on the battlefield. The Celtic shield knot was carved in and around the homes of the sick and places of worship. Why? Because the Celtic Shield Knot would ward off evil spirits.
Nowadays, the shield knot is engraved on jewelry, bags, and even journals, just to name a few, but it still maintains its original structure of four-cornered pieces interwoven within each other. It’s seen as a symbol of togetherness these days.
#3 The Dara Knot
The ancient Celts and their love for their sacred oak tree knew no bounds, and the Celtic Tree of Life wasn’t the only symbol to have drawn inspiration from the forest king. They also had the Dara Celtic Knot.
The name for the Dara Knot comes from the Irish word ‘Doire‘, which means ‘Oak Tree‘. This Celtic Dara knot symbolizes strength, power, and wisdom and features a highly intricate design of intertwined lines that seem to mirror the complexity of the oak tree’s roots.
It’s also impossible to find the beginning or end of the Dara Celtic knot. This is purposeful in its design and symbolizes our interconnectedness with one another but also that this connection has no beginning and no end.
#4 The Ailm
Designed to represent strength and perseverance, the Ailm symbol was derived from the letter A in the ancient Celtic Ogham alphabet. Ogham was a primitive written language that consisted of lines in different formations.
There are few examples of the Ogham alphabet; most examples we have found are mainly of names.
Yes, it is another symbol of strength. However, this Celtic symbol is believed to relate to healing one’s soul. So, not only is the Ailm known as a symbol of strength but also healing. It is thought that the Celtic word Ailm means Conifer or Silver Fir, and in Celtic belief, these trees were associated with the healing of a soul.
Featuring a braided ring, the Ailm also features a strong braided cross. However, unlike the Christian cross, this one has completely equal lengths.
#5 The Triquetra
The Triquetra, also known as the Trinity knot, is one of the most easily recognizable Celtic symbols. It is also one of the simplest knot formations of all the Celtic symbols. It features three interlaced leaf-like shapes, sometimes encircled by a simple circular line. However, what it lacks in detail, it makes up for in its possible beautiful meaning.
This ancient symbol may represent eternal life and spiritual unity. However, like many Celtic symbols, it’s hard to know exactly where they began.
Some theories tell us that the meaning of the Celtic trinity knot stems from its name, trinity. There is the idea that the Triquetra was influenced by the holy trinity of the Christian church, the father, the son, and the holy spirit.
However, the ancient Celts also grouped important things into clusters of three. So, the strongest theory is that the trinity knot is an ancient Celtic symbol.
#6 Serch Bythol
Comprised of two trinity knots, the Serch Bethel, also known as the Celtic love knot may be a lesser-known Celtic symbol. However, it is no less important in Celtic culture. It symbolizes the everlasting love between two people.
The different parts of the Serch Bythol represent the many parts of the union between two people and how they are joined together in mind, body, and spirit. Comprised of two triquetra knots, the Celtic knot of love creates a circular design that symbolizes the endlessness of love.
Its symmetrical look may also hint toward the balance and harmony of the relationship held between two people.
If anything, the Serch Bythol is a more fitting Celtic gift for a loved one than the more popular and traditional Claddagh ring.
#7 The Celtic Motherhood Knot
Although not technically an ancient Celtic knot, the Celtic Motherhood Knot is a stylized design that draws inspiration from the intricacies of true Celtic knots. It has become a popular design for mothers, especially if they want to get a Celtic-inspired tattoo to honor their daughters.
This particular design is a variation of the Triquetra, also known as the Trinity knot, which is meant to symbolize the love between a mother and her daughter.
Even though the motherhood knot isn’t a real Celtic knot, this Irish symbol is still beautiful and loved for its stunning design.
#8 Celtic Sailors Knot
The Celts would often ferry the seas, sometimes for months on end, and it is possible that the Celtic sailor’s knot was born from the need to pass the time on the ship.
Using two pieces of rope, this inter-woven design is simple and intricate. Unlike many other Celtic knots, the Celtic sailor’s knot has a more rectangular look to it.
Not only did the Celtic sailors’ knot symbolize the love the sailor had for their loved ones who were often left behind but it also symbolized strength and fortitude, and the Celts believed in keeping the sailors safe while they were at sea.
#9 St Brigids Cross
Although St Brigid’s Cross is a widely used Christian symbol, the story behind this particular Celtic knot is tied to the story of Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the pagan Gods of Celtic Ireland.
Brigid, in Irish mythology, was the Goddess of poetry and was referred to as a woman of wisdom. Brigid was also respected for her protective powers as a woman of healing.
As Christianity forced its way through Ireland, St. Brigid’s Cross became part of the story of St. Brigid of Kildare. A female priestess is also well known for healing knowledge.
St. Brigid’s Cross is usually made from rushes, although occasionally they are made from straw, and features a square knot in the center with four arms reaching out from the center, much like a Celtic Cross. This Celtic knot is thought to ward evil, hunger, and fire from the home.
Beltane is the word for the beginning of Summer in the Irish language and can be spelled in many different ways – Beltine, Beltaine, or Belltaine. In the age of the Celts, Beltane was the Celtic symbol celebrating the return of the warm months and the sun.
Lighting bonfires on the eve of Beltane was a ritual that was supposed to protect farming livestock from disease and was a well-respected tradition still observed well into the 19th century.
Aside from bonfires, Beltane is often symbolized using scenes of Maypole dancing, which was a common Beltane activity.
#11 The Eternity Knot
Also known as the Celtic love knot, the eternity know is one of the oldest Celtic knot designs we know of. With no beginning and no end, this ancient knot resembles two interlocked hearts, and it is believed that the Celts would exchange these knots as we exchange wedding rings these days.
Nowadays, a more stylized version of the Celtic love knot can be found engraved on jewelry. This modern version has a more obvious heart shape to it.
The eternity knot represents the undying love that two people have for one another and it is often seen sitting within an oval shape in more modern designs.
#12 The Celtic Five Fold
Oddly enough, the Celtic Five Fold symbol isn’t unique to Ireland. It can be found among many ancient cultures, including Ancient Greece. The five interlaced rings may remind you of the Olympic Rings, that’s how similar they are.
However, instead of the rings placed in two horizontal lines, the Celtic Five Fold symbol features a singular ring in its center with the remaining four linked in the directions f north, south, west, and east.
Also known as the Borromean Cross, the Celtic Five Fold represents heaven, faith, spirituality, and the universe. However, it has taken on extra meaning with the arrival of Christianity, God.
This particular symbol is also very similar to the pagan pentagram and is often associated with protection.
Other things the fivefold may symbolize are nature’s seasons or the four elements, fire, water, earth, and fire.
#13 The Green Man
Appearing as many different characters across ancient cultures, the Green Man was an important symbol in Celtic culture. He symbolizes rebirth, vegetation, and the connection between man and nature.
The life of the Celts revolved around nature and its importance to everyday life. Paganism was a nature-based faith, so it’s not surprising that the Celts had their own version of the Green Man.
In Druidic paganism, the green man was called Cernunnos, nature and fertility God. It was typically believed that the Green Man retreated during the winter months only to reappear in spring, encouraging the growth of the countryside.
The Green Man was a pagan symbol that the Christian Church didn’t try to wipe from history. Considering they were strongly opposed to most pagan beliefs, this was impressive. You may even notice that depictions of the Green Man have been carved onto Christian places of worship all over Europe.
#14 Celtic Spirals
Spirals are one of the most ancient forms of symbols that we have examples of throughout multiple ancient cultures across Europe and beyond. However, some of the oldest spiral examples have been found in Ireland.
Celtic spirals themselves aren’t Celtic symbols. However, they can be found throughout Irish Celtic art unless you’re talking about the Triskelion. Yet they heavily feature in symbolic Celtic art.
It’s hard to decipher a specific meaning for Celtic spirals but some meanings that make sense are the interpretation of the anti-clockwise spiral. It may symbolise the passage from the inner to the outer self.
As well as the clockwise spiral you can find the double spiral, the single spiral, and the double-centred spiral in many Celtic symbols.
#15 The Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross is possibly an Irish symbol but not a Celtic one. Although, we know for sure that this Celtic Cross came long after the Celts inhabited Ireland. No one knows for sure exactly where the Celtic cross originated. Theories include Wales, Scotland, and even England as its place of design.
One story says that St Patrick created the Celtic cross with Celtic designs to convince pagan priests to convert to Christianity, but as with most stories from that time, it’s hard to say whether it’s true.
Either way, the Celtic Cross is a Christian symbol with a Celtic influence, as is the same with all Celtic crosses, including the Carolingian Cross. However, it has become a favorite for those who love the Celtic design and Celtic traditions.
Featuring a traditional cross, the Celtic cross has engraved Celtic knots and is surrounded by a circle. It is thought that the circle represents the eternal love given by God and the hope of salvation.
#16 The Awen Symbol
Another so-called Celtic symbol is the Awen symbol. This particular Celtic-inspired symbol was actually a Neo-druid symbol designed by the Welsh poet and antiquarian Edward Williams in 1792. It was designed as a sigil for his society of welsh poets, Gorsedd Cymru.
Some believe that the Owen symbol is far older, but there is no proof that the Awen pre-dated Williams.
Featuring a simple design of three rays pointing up towards three dots and surrounding by one or two circles. There have been many interpretations of the meaning of this symbol. However, the consensus is that it symbolizes the symbolic harmony of the opposites within the universe. Think good and evil, man and woman.
#17 The Shamrock
Another Irish symbol that often finds itself mistaken for a symbol of the ancient Celt. It is possible that the Celtic Druids saw this three-leaved as a representation of the triads and how everything important was grouped in clusters of three.
In most recent years the Shamrock has become a symbol of Ireland itself. During the 19th Century, the Shamrock became a symbol of Irish nationalism and the rebellion many Irish nationals fought against British rule. Those caught wearing the Shamrock were often executed.
The Shamrock is also a symbol of St. Patrick and many of those who celebrate St. Patrick’s day will proudly wear clumps of shamrocks or paint them on their faces.
#18 The Irish Harp
The Irish Harp has become the official emblem of Ireland, and you can find it printed on coins and even within the Guinness logo. Once again, this Irish symbol isn’t of Celtic origin. However, it has come to symbolize the spirit of the people of Ireland.
It is believed that harps arrived in Ireland way before Christianity broached its shores, where it was a common trading item. Over the years, the Irish people put their own spin on it, creating the well-known Irish Harp.
In fact, the Irish Harp was such a strong symbol that in the 16th Century, the British crown ordered the destruction of all harps and the people that played them. Luckily for us, the Irish were stronger than that. The Irish Harp has made a revival with many young harpists showing up on the music scene.
#19 The Celtic Triskelion Symbol
The Triskelion, also known as the Triskele, is one of the most well-known Irish symbols and one of the oldest. However, the triple spiral’s age makes it impossible for this triple spiral to be a Celtic symbol.
The Triskelion features three interlocked anticlockwise spirals.
The neolithic tomb of Newgrange is over 5,000 years old and on its entrance stone sits a stunning Triskelion, perhaps even one of the most famous triple spiral examples.
The triskelion is another symbol that can be found in many other cultures and it may symbolize the importance of the number three, motion, the interconnectedness of life, and even the life cycle itself. Yet because of its age, it’s difficult to pinpoint a definite meaning of this ancient symbol.
We know that the number three was an incredibly important Celtic symbol, which may be why they adopted the Triskelion when they arrived in Ireland around 1000BC.
#20 The Claddagh Ring
Believed to have originated in a small fishing village in Galway in the 1700s, this traditional Irish ring, although not a Celtic symbol, evokes the spirit of Ireland.
However, it didn’t garner its name until the middle of the 19th century, when it became more commonly known as the Claddagh ring – named after the place where the River Corrib meets Galway Bay.
The Claddagh ring has three distinct parts. The hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty. Symbolizing this love, loyalty, and friendship, the Claddagh ring is often given from one loved one to another.
There are even different ways of wearing your Claddagh ring to convey your relationship status to others.
For example, if the wearer has the ring on their right hand with the heart pointing towards their fingertips, it means they are single and looking for love.
How To Wear Your Claddagh Ring
- On the right hand with the heart pointing towards the fingertips – the wearer is single and looking for love
- On the right hand with the heart pointing towards the wrist – the wearer is in a relationship
- On the left hand pointed towards the fingertips – The wearer is engaged
- On the left hand pointed towards the wrist – The wearer is married
Irish and Celtic symbols are loved the world over but not everyone knows exactly what many of them mean and it can be tricky to tell the true Celtic symbols apart from ones that have just been influenced by Celtic design.
We hope this article has helped to illuminate your mind and break you into the symbolism and meaning behind many of the most popular Irish and Celtic symbols.
Below are some more questions we see regularly asked about ancient Celtic symbols and meanings, how they are connected Celtic mythology and Celtic culture.
What Do Celtic Symbols Mean?
Although there are many different Celtic symbols and they have unique meanings, there are some symbolisms that these Celtic knots and spirals all share.
Many of their designs feature threes or patterns of threes, this is because the number three was a sacred number to the Celts. They often have themes of interconnectedness and eternity intertwined within their own meanings.
This is usually represented by the knot designs with no beginning and no end and the always connected spirals.
Here are some popular Celtic symbols and their meanings:
- The Celtic Tree Of Life – Balance, Harmony, and the doorway to the otherworld
- The Celtic Shield Knot – Protection and Togetherness
- The Dara Knot – Strength, Power, and Wisdom
- The Ailm – Strength and Healing
- The Triquetra – Eternal life and Spiritual Unity
- Serch Bythol – Everlasting Love
- Celtic Sailors Knot – Love, Strength, and Fortitude
Are Celtic Symbols Irish Or Scottish?
Although many Celtic symbols are considered Irish, and these symbols conjure images of the emerald isle, Celtic symbols are both Scottish and Irish.
The Celts didn’t only inhabit Ireland. They also moved on to Scotland and Wales. So many Celtic symbols, such as the Triquetra, Celtic knots, and Celtic spirals, can also be found in Scotland.
However, some Irish symbols that have been inspired by Celtic design are only Irish, such as the Irish Harp, the Claddagh ring, and the Celtic Triskelion.
What Is The Oldest Celtic Symbol?
This is a hard one to answer. Many believe the Triskele, or the triple spiral, to be the oldest Celtic symbol but, as we now know, the triple spiral predates the Celts by thousands of years.
If we are only considering Celtic symbols that originated with the Celts themselves, the eternity knot could likely be the oldest Celtic symbol.
What Is The Most Famous Celtic Symbol?
The most famous Celtic symbol is likely to be the trinity knot. This Celtic symbol features one single line that weaves around itself in a three-leaf-like structure. Symbolizing eternal spiritual life, the trinity know is a common appearance in ancient Celtic designs and modern Celtic-inspired artwork.
It is even thought that the Triquetra could be the oldest symbol of spirituality in the world. This Celtic symbol appears in the famous Book of Kells, which was written in the 9th Century. Although it holds no religious significance in the book and seems to be there purely for decoration.
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.