A Harmony of Lines: Celtic Knotwork by Cathy Douglas

I find it fascinating to follow the ins and outs of Celtic knotwork, whether I’m trying to draw one or paper or just trace a design etched in silver.  Weaving so many lines together into a pattern, especially deciding where to run one line over or under another, takes some concentration.  And yet artists have been carving simple versions of these patterns for millennia.

We think of this traditional knotwork as Celtic, but similar patterns go back to rock carvings from the neolithic, and come to us from many parts of the world.  In fact, there’s some controversy about whether the Vikings adopted the style from the Celts or vice versa.  But line-crossing patterns aren’t limited to Europe, and indeed we find uncanny similarities between patterns of the British Isles, India, and China.  Certain motifs are repeated by artists who lived very far away from each other, both in time and space.

Of course we’d love to know what individual knots meant to the people who first used them, but finding this out is not at all straightforward.  Celtic culture was passed down orally, not through writing.  All the early writings we have about the Celts come from people who conquered them–not exactly an impartial source!  Some evidence exists about their beliefs, but it comes with plenty of room for doubt.  So a certain amount of what we guess about the meanings behind Celtic knotwork comes more through a blend of intuition than investigation.  

Here are some of the most common symbols and their meanings:

* Triquetra:
A simple, triangular knot
A holy symbol of the threefold nature of humankind:  body, soul/mind, and spirit.  The original Celtic trinity is Maiden, Mother, and Crone, but the symbol was later adapted by Christians to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This is why you often see the triquetra pattern carved onto Celtic crosses.
* Triskelion:
Three legs running
Progress and success, especially in a competitive situation.  This basic symbol can also represent the three worlds, which go by various names.  Basically, they are this mortal world, the otherworld, and the celestial world.
* Triskele:
A special form of the triskelion, with spirals replacing the “legs”
This symbol invokes feminine power throughout human growth, especially a woman’s passage through the stages of Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  As these stages reflect the three faces of the Goddess, the triskele reminds us that we reflect the Holy.
* Spiral A clockwise spiral most commonly represents growth and development.  An anti-clockwise single spiral, like the one shown here, may represent the sun.
* Claddagh A symbol of close emotional ties.  The hands stand for friendship, the crown for faithfulness, and the heart for love.  Knotwork often interweaves the three main parts of the design.
* Various square patterns Protection and stability.  Squares also reflect other fours:  the elements, the seasons, and the compass points.  Sometimes also called “eternity knots,” representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
* Double spiral A symbol of balance, representing the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.  Sometimes also used to balance male and female energies, similar to the yin/yang symbol.
* Tree of Life Also called the World Tree.  This cross-cultural symbol symbolizes the universe as a whole.  According to many traditions, a life-nurturing tree connects all living things to the lower world of earth through its roots, and to the upper world of air through its branches.  Specific animals appearing in the branches may also be symbolic.
* Three rays The symbol of Awen, the Welsh goddess/concept of inspiration.  Some druids use this as their identifying symbol. The left ray represents male energy, the right female, and the middle ray the creative confluence of both.  A symbol for bards and other creative people.
* Brigid’s cross Four sheaves of wheat, joined at a square center.  A symbol of fertility and abundance.
* Spiked triple knot, sometimes called the horned triskele Strength and courage.
* Celtic Cross A bridge between Earth and celestial realms.  Legend says that St. Patrick modified the pagan sun cross, hoping to draw parallels between pagan and Catholic belief systems so that he could more easily convert Celts to the Christianity.
* Animal symbols Animals may be represented within Celtic knotwork, or knotwork may be part of an animal figure.  Each animal has its own meaning.  A few are listed below.

Here’s what a few of the animals represent:  

Birds:  various, but the basic meaning is nobility of spirit
Cat:  mystery
Deer: stag for the god, doe for the goddess
Dragon:  creation, and the power of the universe; may also represent a guardian or an obstacle
Horse:  hunting 
Raven:  clear vision and prophecy
Salmon:  knowledge
Serpent:  fertility; also rebirth

Of course, there are many more animals, and many more knotwork patterns.  Yet many of these patterns have no historical significance that we know; their specific meaning has been lost in time.  It’s up to healers, artists, and those of us who simply love these designs to discover their meaning through our own intuition and experience.  And in an ever-changing world, that’s the way it should be.

Note:  Most of the photos above come from our jewelry supplier.  We carry many of these designs and similar ones.  Check with the store for availability.

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