For centuries, Celtic symbols and signs held incredible power for the ancient Celts in every way of life.
The word “Celtic” refers to people who lived in Britain and Western Europe from 500 BC and 400 AD. Celts were of the Iron Age and lived in small villages led by warrior chiefs.
Ireland has been home to various civilisations for thousands of years with its rich history and culture.
Some of these Celtic symbols have even become symbols of Ireland itself.
But did you know that these symbols have more profound and surprising meanings?
Celtic Symbols That You Will Find In This Article:
Click to jump to any one of them:
- The Awen – represents the harmony of opposites in the universe.
- St Brigid’s Cross – Brigid’s Cross is tied to Brigid of the Tuatha de Danaan, which, in Irish Celtic Mythology, is known as a life-giving goddess.
- The Celtic Cross – According to one theory, the Celtic Cross represents the four cardinal directions.
- The Green Man represents the lushness of vegetation and the arrival of spring and summer.
- Irish Harp – The national emblem of Ireland
- The Dara Knot – The name Dara comes from the word “doire,” which is the Irish word for “oak tree.”
- The Shamrock – The national flower of Ireland.
- The Celtic Tree Of Life – Symbolises the Druid belief in the connection between heaven and earth.
- The Trinity Knot – symbolises eternal spiritual life, one with no beginning and no end.
- The Triskele – represents three stages of life: life, death, and rebirth.
- The Claddagh Ring – represents love, loyalty, and friendship.
- The Shillelagh – The Irish fighting stick
- Quaternary Celtic Knot
- The Celtic Bull
- The Ailm Celtic Symbol
- Serch Bythol – The Celtic symbol for eternal love
- Beltane – Celts symbol for the beginning of summer
- Celtic Five Fold Symbol – The holy Celtic symbol.
- The Eternity Knot or Eternal Knot
- St Brigid’s Cross – 1 February – Celtic Symbol
1. The Awen or the Three Rays of Light – Celtic Symbols
This neo-Druid symbol, a popular design for tattoos, jewellery and artwork, is said to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg, an 18th-century Welsh poet.
However, studies suggest that the symbol might be older than initially thought.
The word “Awen” means inspiration or essence in the Celtic language, and it first appeared in the 9th-century book “Historia Brittonum.”
The Awen was said to represent the harmony of opposites in the universe.
For instance, the two outer rays represent masculine and feminine energy, while the ray in the middle represents the balance between them.
There are multiple meanings for the Awen Celtic symbol.
One interpretation is main outside lines are symbolic of both men and women while the inside line represents balance.
2. St Brigid’s Cross – Celtic Symbols
Widely believed to be a Christian symbol, Brigid’s Cross is tied to Brigid of the Tuatha de Danaan, which, in Irish Celtic Mythology, is known as a life-giving goddess.
It is woven out of rushes and sometimes straw on the feast of Imbolc to mark the beginning of spring.
When Christianity came to Ireland, the goddess Brigid became St Brigid of Kildare. Many of the goddess’s attributes, including the symbol and her association with the destructive power and productive use of fire, were transferred to the latter.
Read more: How to make your own St Brigid’s Cross here.
Hang this traditional St. Brigid’s Irish Cross on your wall for protection. St. Brigid, alongside St. Patrick, is one of Ireland’s patron saints.
3. The Celtic Cross – Celtic Symbols
Like with the Brigid’s Cross, many people have associated the Celtic Cross with Christianity. However, studies suggest this symbol predates Christianity for thousands of years.
The symbol has appeared in many ancient cultures. According to one theory, the Celtic Cross represents the four cardinal directions.
Another theory says that it represents the four elements of earth, fire, air, and water.
The Cross is rich in powerful representation and an ideal reflection of the Celts’ hopes and ambitions.
While the Cross is indeed a Christian symbol, it has its roots in ancient pagan beliefs at the same time.
It is remarkable how widespread the distinct shape of the Irish Cross is in the modern era.
4. The Green Man – Celtic Symbols
In many cultures, the Green Man is represented as the head of man-made foliage.
Seen in many buildings and structures in Ireland and Britain, the Green Man symbolises rebirth and the co-dependence between nature and man.
He represents the lushness of vegetation and the arrival of spring and summer.
The Green Man’s tradition is carved onto Christian churches across Europe, including examples such as the Seven Green Men of Nicosia in Cyprus, a series of seven green men carved in the thirteenth century onto the facade of St Nicholas Church in Nicosia.
It is on the Irish Euro coins and is the Guinness logo, which many consider the country’s national drink.
It is believed that the Phoenicians brought the harp to pre-Christian Europe from Egypt as one of their trading goods.
Since the 10th century, it has been an essential symbol for the Irish people, personifying its spirit.
The harp so threatened the British Crown that in the 16th century, the British ordered all harps to be burnt and all harpists executed.
6. The Celtic Symbol For Strength – The Dara Knot
We are halfway through this great list. I thought this would be an excellent place to talk about the Celtic symbol for strength.
The most notable of these is the Dara Knot. The name Dara comes from “doire,” which is the Irish word for “oak tree.”
- Trees connected the world of the spirits and the ancestors, living entities, and doorways into other worlds.
The most sacred tree of all was the Oaktree.
The intertwined lines have no beginning or end. This is known as the Celtic symbol for strength because of the analogy that we all have our roots, and this symbol rises from the sources and has no end.
Oaktree symbolises power and strength, so the Dara knot is the best Celtic symbol for strength.
7. The Shamrock – Celtic Symbols
If there’s one symbol widely associated with the Irish, it’s got to be the Shamrock.
Now the national flower of Ireland.
The Shamrock is a small clover and was an important symbol to the ancient Irish druids because its three heart-shaped leaves represent the triad.
The Celts believed that everything necessary in the world comes in threes.
Like the three ages of man, the moon phases, and the three dominions of earth, sky, and sea.
In the 19th century, the Shamrock became a symbol of Irish nationalism and rebellion against the British Crown, and anyone caught wearing it was executed.
8. The Celtic Tree of Life or Crann Bethadh – Celtic Symbols
They are often represented by a tree with branches reaching to the sky and the roots spreading into the earth.
The Celtic Tree of Life symbolises the Druid belief in the connection between heaven and earth.
The Celts believe that trees were the ancestors of man and connected to other worlds.
Here are some interesting facts about the Celtic Tree of life:
- Trees connected the world of the spirits and the ancestors, living entities, and doorways into other worlds.
- The most sacred tree was the Oaktree, representing the Axis Mundi, the world’s centre.
- The Celtic name for oak, Daur, is the origin of the word door– the root of the oak tree was the doorway to the Otherworld, the realm of Fairy.
- Countless Irish legends revolve around trees. One could fall asleep next to a particular tree and awake in the fairy realm.
- This is why the tree of life symbol itself relates qualities to it, such as wisdom, strength & longevity.
- The Celts believed their enemies would be rendered powerless if their sacred tree was cut down.
- The Celts derived the meaning of rebirth from the seasonal changes they would see each tree go through(Summer to Winter and so on).
9. The Triquetra or the Trinity Knot – Celtic Symbols
Like all Celtic knots, the Triquetra is made with one continuous line that interweaves around itself.
Celtic knot meaning:
It symbolises eternal spiritual life, one with no beginning and no end.
Christians feel that it started with the Monks, who brought these designs and their teachings of Christianity when attempting to convert the Celts of the day.
However, the Triquetra has been speculated to be the oldest symbol of spirituality.
In the ninth century, the Book of Kells appears as a decoration with no particular religious significance. The symbol has been found in Norwegian churches dating to the 11th century.
This symbol matches the Celtic belief that everything important in the world comes in threes.
You might recognise it from Thor’s hammer in the modern-day movie.
10. The Triskele – Celtic Symbols
Another Irish symbol representing the triad’s Celtic belief is the Triskele or the triskelion.
The Triskele is one of the oldest Irish symbols, and you can find many of them on the kerbstones of Newgrange.
According to researchers, these carvings were made during Neolithic times or around 3200 BC.
You can see evidence of this around the world, as you can see from the image below from Athens, Greece:
The spirals could have changed over the centuries, but the base meanings include:
- Three stages of life: life, death, and rebirth
- Three elements: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
- Three domains: earth, sea and sky, past, present and future.
11. The Claddagh Ring – Celtic Symbols
The Claddagh ring (Irish: fáinne Chladaigh) is a traditional Irish ring representing love, loyalty, and friendship (the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the Crown represents loyalty).
Claddagh Rings are widely known in Ireland as the symbol of union and loyalty.
Claddagh comes from the Irish phrase, “An Cladch”, which means “flat stony shore.”
It was the name of the village on the coast of Ireland where the Claddagh design originated. The ‘GH’ ending is added for phonetic English speakers to create the guttural, phlegmy sound that doesn’t have a character in our language.
It is believed that Richard Joyce, a fisherman from the village of Claddagh near Galway, made the ring for her lady love.
The woman eventually became his wife.
For years after, pirates kidnapped Joyce, Waited for him, sold him into slavery, and later regained his freedom.
You might not know a few ways to wear the Claddagh ring.
Below are the different ways the ring can be worn.
The Claddagh Ring Rules
- The right hand with the heart’s point toward the fingertips: the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
- On the right hand, the wearer is in a relationship with the heart’s point toward the wrist.
- The wearer is engaged on the left hand, with the heart’s point toward the fingertips.
- The left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist: the wearer is married.
The women’s Claddagh ring is a beautiful part of the long tradition of Claddagh rings.
The Claddagh ring’s tradition started in Galway, a western city facing the Atlantic Ocean. It was often used as a wedding ring, and the way one wears the ring- facing the heart towards the body or away from it designates whether their “heart is taken.”
According to the Claddagh ring’s story, it is better to give the Claddagh as a gift than buy one for oneself, so this Claddagh ring makes for a perfect gift!
This particular Claddagh ring is made out of sterling silver, while the heart in the centre is made out of solid 10K gold. The ring measures ⅜” wide and comes in a variety of sizes.
This Claddagh ring was designed and crafted by Solvar in Co. Dublin, a company that prepares Irish jewellery from fine metals for the modern era. Buy this elegant Claddagh ring for a loved one today!
Some celebrities have worn the Claddagh ring over the years. Including Julia Roberts, Walt Disney and Jennifer Aniston. Read the post on the celebrities wearing the Claddagh ring here.
12. The Shillelagh – The Irish fighting stick
Shillelagh (pronounced ” shi – ley -li ) is the name for a traditional Irish stick or stick of blackthorn wood, who, having a thickening at the upper end.
She is known by many names, including bata in Gaelic – which means fighting stick.
The original cane gets its name from the Shillelagh Forest in County Wicklow. The forest was once famous for its massive stands of fine oaks.
Unfortunately, many of those great oaks were cut down and exported to various parts of Europe.
The Shillelagh was initially used for settling disputes in a gentlemanly manner — like a duel with pistols or swords.
What does a Shillelagh look like?
Shillelaghs comes in different forms, such as walking or walking stick with a length of up to 100 cm, as a pure weapon with a mean and a concise length.
Irishmen carried the stick just about everywhere they went. Various groups or factions were always present at most social gatherings, and faction fighting was widespread until the famines of the 1840s.
The blackthorn wood was quickly available in large quantities; high hardness and stiffness species grew on each roadside.
In the 19th century, it belonged in his form as a walking stick naturally to an Irish gentleman’s appearance; until modern times, disputes were often discharged with the Shillelagh.
How was the Shillelagh made?
Traditionally, the blackthorn sticks, whose thorn batches were left on the stick, were smeared with whiskey butter and smoked over a fire in a fireplace.
This gave them their dark, glossy surface, along with a very distinct odour.
Sometimes, the knob on the end was hollowed out and filled with molten lead.
This was known as a “loaded stick.”
But with sticks made of blackthorn, the knob was the root, and it would not have been necessary to “load” it because it could pack a significant whack!
If you have an old bata or walking stick made of oak, ash, holly or blackthorn, you indeed have a real shillelagh.
The Shillelagh came to be regarded as a stereotypical symbol of Irishness in popular culture, particularly in an Irish-American context.
Other spelling variants include shillelah, shillalah, and shillaly.
Did you ever have a Shillelagh? Comment below.
13. Quaternary Celtic Knot
Meaning: Quaternary simply means “four” – in this case – four-cornered.
Ah, I just finished this lovely blog post about the many different types of Celtic knots.
Interestingly, the quaternary knot mixes the sailor knot, the Dara knot, and a shield knot.
The main thing to keep in mind with the Quaternary Celtic knot is four-sided.
The belief for what this means could be debated for hours and hours.
But a few possibilities are:
- The four Directions, North South East West
- The four Latin Gospels in the Book of Kells
- The four Celtic festivals Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc, Lughnasadh
- The four seasons, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
- The four elements Earth Fire Water Air
Technically you could make an argument for anything with four sides—even a Rubix cube(haha, just joking).
The Quaternary Celtic knot is very popular with Celtic tattoos because of its diverse meanings. Depending on the era the Celtic symbol could mean different things.
14. The Celtic Bull Meaning And Mythology
If one animal is recognised in Celtic mythology for its strength, it is the Celtic Bull.
There was often the relationship between the greatest Celtic warrior and the most powerful animal symbols.
Animals were featured in Celtic jewellery, tapestries, carvings, clothing and anything else that you could draw on.
The idea was simply a specific animal had specific virtues. In this case, the bull was strong, fearless and strong will. While Celtic men often would use the Celtic bull to ensue these attributes, it was also a sign of fertility for women.
A carving of a bull on a bed would represent stamina, and well, I do not need to go into more details.
While you might be drawn straight to the symbol of strength, the Celtic bull also surprisingly symbolised wealth.
The bull was a huge food source for Celtic villages and played a massively important role in the ecosystem.
It is no wonder that the bull is still so popular in tattoos in today’s society. Particularly for men. Even on wall street, the statue of the bull has become an iconic piece.
15. The Ailm – The Celtic Symbol For Strength
If you have been reading the post so far, you will probably be saying, “wait a minute, I thought the Dara knot was the symbol for strength?”.
You would be correct; they are both the symbol for strength, but they differ quite a lot.
The Ailm is derived from the letter “A” of the Celtic Ogham alphabet. Ailm represents strength, endurance and resilience. The word “Ailm” is assumed to mean “conifer/silver fir”. In tree lore, evergreen conifers are associated with healing one’s soul.
This is one of the most important Celtic symbols.
It is held in high regard for so many positive notions.
So many of today’s symbols and brands use this symbol to take advantage of its positive connotations.
16. Serch Bythol – The Celtic symbol for everlasting love – Celtic Symbols
This Celtic symbol of everlasting love is formed from two triskeles.
The triskeles, three-cornered knots, denote the three aspects of two people, body, mind and spirit. The two triskeles, joined together, show a circle, the endless circle of eternity. This is a great gift to give someone as it not only has a deep meaning but looks just lovely.
17. Beltane – The Celtic symbol for the start of summer
Yes, who doesn’t love the beginning of summer!? It turns out the Celts also celebrated summer. I’d imagine their parties were a bit different from ours.
While Beltane(May Day) is represented in a few different ways, the most well-known is the maypole. The young Celts would go off to the woods and select the straightest tree they could find. Typically it would be pine or birch.
They would cut it down with much ceremony, drag it back to the village, and then erect it on the village green. It is most commonly held on 1 May. About halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Beltane is a Celtic word that means ‘fires of Bel’ (Bel was a Celtic deity).
It also celebrates the fertility of the coming year.
If you look up Beltane or May Pole on Google, just be warned that the rabbit hole goes quite deep. I went from lovely Celtic celebrations to all sorts of spells and mythology. But if you are interested in that, be sure to look further into Beltane.
18. The Celtic Five Fold – Celtic Symbols
This is an interesting Celtic symbol. It is not spoken about that much online, but it appears in everyday life.
Probably the most noticeable being the Olympics, of course! The Celtic 5 fold is also known as the Borromean cross. It is five rings arranged as four outer rings are joined with one central ring.
The Celtic Five Fold Meanings:
- Celtic mythology represented heaven, spirituality, faith and god.
- But also could have meant the four classical elements of fire, water, air, earth, or the four seasons.
- Four directions: South, North, East, West
The extra ring would be our connection to the universe or balance.
While you can compare it to the Olympic symbol, it is very different. The Olympic symbol represents the five continents coming together in unity for the Olympic games.
Whereas the Celtic five-fold has one central ring holding the others together(God in this case.) The number five is also often associated with protection.
19. The Eternity Knot or Endless knot
This is an interesting one. It overlays into many other histories and is even seen in Tibetan Buddhism. Their understanding of it is pretty similar to the Celts. Because the knot has no beginning and no end, the eternal knot symbolises the Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion. Or, in the Celt’s case, the circle of life.
The Celt’s used this symbol to represent the world’s eternity, of life, of love and friendships and relationships. At its centre rests a Celtic triskelion.
Various interpretations of the eternity Knot Celtic symbol are:
- The endless knot iconography symbolised Samsara, i.e., the endless cycle of suffering or birth, death and rebirth within Tibetan Buddhism.
- Interplay and interaction of the opposing forces in the dualistic world of manifestation, leading to their union and ultimately to harmony in the universe.
- The mutual dependence of religious doctrine and secular affairs.
- The union of wisdom and method.
- The inseparability of emptiness (shunyata) and dependent origination, the underlying reality of existence.
- Symbolic of knot symbolism in linking ancestors and omnipresence (refer etymology of Tantra, Yoga and religion) (see Namkha.)
- Since the knot has no beginning or end, it also symbolises the wisdom of the Buddha.
Wow, that is a lot of meanings! You can read more about it on the main Wikipedia page.
20. St Brigid’s Cross – Officially 1 February the last of my list on Celtic symbols
I couldn’t include a St Brigid’s Cross as one of the Celtic symbols. Irish people around the globe still celebrate this day. St Brigid, born in Dundalk in 450 AD, is accredited with creating the first unique Cross, which we know today is called “St Brigid’s Cross.”
Even now, in 2021, people around the globe made their very own Brigid’s Cross on 1 February.
Widely believed to be a Christian symbol, Brigid’s Cross is tied to Brigid of the Tuatha de Danaan. Which, in Irish Celtic Mythology, is known as a life-giving goddess.
What other Celtic symbols do you know about?
Be sure to pin this Celtic Symbols image to your Pinterest board, and if you enjoyed these, be sure to browse some incredible Celtic Jewelry here:
Other hidden Celtic Symbols secretly that have been grown around Ireland:
This giant 100-meter long Celtic Cross is now known as the “Emery Celtic Cross”, proudly named after its creator Liam Emery.
Liam intelligently planted two different pine trees species in the shape of this giant Celtic cross design ten years ago in the woods of County Donegal.
The reason is that the outer trees are evergreen and don’t drop their needles during Autumn, but the trees used for the actual cross design are not evergreen & turn a golden colour right before they drop their needles for the cold seasons ahead.
You can discover more about these secret Celtic Symbols in my article on them here.
I have decided to update this article every week with a new Celtic symbol. When I first published this article five years ago in 2015, I only had 10 Celtic symbols.
Over the years, I have regularly kept it updated, and you will find only the most up to date information here from an Irishman.
Thanks for reading,
P.S Love all things, Irish? Get your weekly dose of Irish straight to your inbox here.