How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols

Written by beth anderle
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How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols
The triskelion is an example of an ancient Celtic symbol. (Celtic sign image by Roques Jean Chris from Fotolia.com)

The Celtic peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Wales devised and used a large and diverse number of important symbols. Representing their spiritual beliefs and practices, the symbols tell the story of their lives. Even everyday objects were decorated with pictures and symbols, consecrating the ordinary to people's idea of the divine. The symbols are still found on stones, monuments and cairns at ancient sites throughout the British Isles. As Celtic spirituality continues to gain popularity in modern times, more people are becoming interested in their meaning.

Skill level:
Easy

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Things you need

  • Copy of the symbol
  • Pencil or pen
  • Paper

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Observe your symbol and write down everything about it. For example, is it in the shape of a cross? Does it contain Celtic knot work? Is it a spiral? Does it look like a form of writing? Is it a pattern or a picture? Try to notice even the smallest details.

  2. 2

    Locate an Internet source or book about Celtic Christian symbols. To determine whether your symbol is a Christian religious symbol, look carefully at the symbol again. If it is in the shape of the Christian cross with a circle around the centre where the arms meet, or if it has three distinctive arms, spirals or loops, it may be a Christian symbol. The most common Christian symbols are the Celtic cross and various symbols of the Christian Trinity, which can often be made from three interconnecting spirals, knots, fish and other lines.

    How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols
    A good example of a stone Celtic cross. (Celtic cross image by AGITA LEIMANE from Fotolia.com)
  3. 3

    Check your symbol for distinct, animal features. If it is an obvious or stylised representation of an animal, it may well be a Celtic animal totem, or sacred animal. Locate a source, either Internet or book, with examples of Celtic animal totems and compare your symbol to those in the source. Totems played a big part in ancient Celtic spirituality, and the Celts believed that every person had a totem animal that was a combination of brother, talisman and spirit guide.

    How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols
    The hare is a common Celtic animal totem. (Snowshoe Hare on the Rocks image by steverts from Fotolia.com)
  4. 4

    Determine if your symbol appears to be a form of writing, which generally takes the shape of lines, crosses and hash marks. The ancient Celtic form of writing is called Ogham (pronounced "oh-emm") and consists of a 25-character alphabet. Originally from the first century, most of the remaining examples of Ogham writing date to the fourth or fifth century. Locate a source with a picture of each character and compare them your symbol.

    How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols
    Ogham symbols are often incorrectly referred to as "runes." (rune image by Renato Francia from Fotolia.com)
  5. 5

    Locate an authoritative source on well-known ancient Celtic pagan symbols, and compare your symbol to these symbols. They generally consist of spirals, primitive depictions of women (particularly the fertility goddess, which is often the Sheela na Gig), the Green Man (a face made out of leaves, often with vines protruding from the mouth), the Tree of Life, knots and keys. Each of these symbols had its own meaning and power.

    How to Decipher the Meaning of Celtic Symbols
    Celtic symbols were often carved into the walls of burial mounds and chambers. (dolmen image by melanieleleu from Fotolia.com)

Tips and warnings

  • When researching Celtic symbols, use scholarly and reputable sources as many groups have assigned their own, new meanings to the old symbols.

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