Celtic knot designs are thousands of years old, but they have a beauty and a mystery that clearly appeals to us in the modern world. The mystery may owe to the fact that, while people have always tended to attach symbolic meanings to the knots, there’s almost no hard evidence about what their original designers wanted them to stand for. The Celts who dominated pre-Christian Ireland worked hard to create a variety of knot designs, but they didn’t put much effort into writing down explanations of what stood behind each design.

CJD13The picture gets even more complicated when you realize that Celtic culture and symbols came not only from Ireland, but also from a mix of other Celtic “nations” like Brittany and Galicia, where they may have symbolized all sorts of different things. Some believe that the knots were actually brought into Ireland by conquering Norsemen, or that they migrated from Italy or Britain, where old manuscripts contain somewhat similar looking designs. For whatever reason, however, in the modern world they’re most closely associated with Ireland.

Today, Celtic knot designs are absolutely loved by everyone from new age religion adherents to rock and roll stars and, yes, to people who collect fine jewelry. In just about any social environment, Celtic knots are considered pretty cool.
Specific designs

CelticKnotGreenFour types of knot designs are most widely used in jewelry designers:

Triangles or “Triskeles”: Triangles are drawn from both the natural world, where they’re found in everything from leaves to the eyes of certain animals, and from human architectural designs. Spiritualists often see triangles as pointing to a single point of energy.

Animal Interlace: These often represent men and animals woven together, and are thought to represent various relationships that exist between people and animals or between hunters and the prey they pursue. There are also some designs that interlace men and women.

Circular Knots: These are often interpreted as symbols of eternity, perhaps because of an association people often see with the familiar sideways 8 symbol that often stands for eternity in popular modern culture. Circular knots can also been seen to symbolize unity.

Squares: Square type knots are associated with warrior’s shields, which is why they’re often called simply “shield knots.” They can also be associated with protection not just from military enemies, but from evil spirits. As a result they have often been put near sick people down through history.

CelticKnotSquareDid The Celts See Symbolism?
The greatest mystery of Celtic knots is whether or not the ancient Celts, who populated not just Ireland but many other parts of Europe from about 1200 BC all the way up to the 4th century AD, attached any of the spiritual concepts to the designs that we do nowadays. The question is confused by the fact that when Christians became dominant in Ireland in the 5th century, they re-used the old Celtic knot designs for their own purposes (a common practice. Christmas trees are believed to have originally been used by pagans in Rome, but later adopted to Christian rituals). Celtic knots turn up in all sorts of Christian scriptures, where they are sometimes intertwined with hearts to symbolize love. Over time, the designs that use Celtic knots have grown far more complex, with religious and non-religious calligraphers combining them with crosses, shamrocks and all sorts of other popular images.

Not Even Irish?
Perhaps even more curious is the fact that the connection most of us draw nowadays between Celtic designs and Ireland could be a pure coincidence. Some historians argue that the knots were actually imported into Ireland by Norseman when the conquered Ireland (generally dated around 1169, just over 50 years after Brian Boru’s death). Celtic-knot like designs appear in manuscripts from Italy and England, and on implements and architecture all over Europe.

Musical Knots?
Knot designs were popular all across the Celtic world, and can be found on ancient pottery, building facades and, of course, on the numerous stone crosses on the Irish landscape. They’ve also been found in incredible pieces of jewelry dug up at Irish archaeological sites. Historians often struggle to explain just why the knots were so widely used in ancient times. It’s often been suggested that the knots form a kind of symbolic language. One writer has even suggested that they can be used as a form of musical notation.

In modern times, the knots have taken on a new life, though different groups apply very different meanings to them. Various alternative religions see them as symbols of love. Wiccans view them as symbols of magic. Without doubt, the most popular interpretation is that the knots, which always have loops devoid of beginnings or ends, symbolize eternity. Again, however, there’s no proof that the ancient Celts took this view of the designs.

Some of the most famous early renderings of Celtic knots can be seen in the Book of Celts, currently on display in Dublin. Re-workings of the knots can be found on an almost endless variety of jewelry pieces created by modern craftsmen and jewelry designers.

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