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Celtic Knot Meaning, History + 8 Old Designs

Celtic Knot Meaning, History + 8 Old Designs

 Celtic Knots are arguably some of the more notable Celtic Symbols.

They come in all shapes and sizes and can be found everywhere, from ancient stonework to modern tattoos.

They date back to the time of the Celts and are steeped in history, myth, and meaning

In this guide, we take a look at the various Celtic Knotwork, their meanings and where they originated.

Some quick need-to-knows about Celtic Knots

Celtic knotwork variations

© The Irish Road Trip

Before we unravel the mystery of Celtic Knotwork, let’s take a look over the basics first of all to get you up-to-speed quickly:

1. Their Appearance

Celtic Knots take several different forms, as we’ll see below. But for the most part, they feature interlaced patterns with no start or end. Many are heavily inspired by basket weave knots, which are believed to date back thousands of years and were among the first crafts carried out by humans.

The earliest-known Celtic knots were similar to plaits, or braids, most likely taking inspiration from the weaving of flexible materials to make baskets, clothes, and countless other essential items.

2. Used in Insular Art

While Celtic Knots have their origins in essential craftworks, their use was mainly decorative and remains so to this day. These stylized, decorative representations of various knots have been seen in other cultures throughout history.

But, no one else used them quite to the extent that the Celts did in what is now termed as “Insular Art”. Insular art refers to art produced in post-Roman Britain and Ireland, including decorative metalwork, manuscripts, and stonework.

3. Where they’re found

Celtic Knots can be found almost everywhere you look these days. They’ve made appearances in Hollywood movies, album covers, historic ruins, tapestries, book decorations, gravestones, jewellery, tattoos, and even crop circles. Between 1955 and 1968, even the Guinness logo featured Celtic Knots on their iconic Irish Harp.

They’re rife in Ireland, especially among monastic sites, and you’ll often see old, and new, churches and cathedrals featuring Celtic Knots carved into the stonework. Celtic knots became popular symbols for tattoos around the 1970s and their popularity has never waned. 

The history behind Celtic Knotwork

Celtic Cross Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

Before we look at the various Celtic Knot meanings, it’s time to take a step back in time to see where it all began. The Celts certainly weren’t the first to use interlaced knots and braids for decoration.

While it’s difficult to ascertain exactly when they first made an appearance, the earliest reliable evidence points to the late Roman Empire. But, some believe that such patterns date back much further, as far as 5,000 BC, though solid evidence is hard to come by.

Early examples

Early examples of what would become Celtic Knotwork appear around the third century AD, where knot patterns have been seen in Roman floor mosaics.

From then on, artistic use of knot patterns sprung up in various cultures and uses, including Byzantine book illuminations and architecture, Islamic art, African art, European architecture, and of course, early Celtic art.

The Christian influence 

Early Celtic art featured a variety of step patterns, spirals, and key patterns as the dominant motifs. After Christianity started to have an influence on the Celtic culture around 450 AD, the same patterns began to make their way into early religious manuscripts and artwork.

Over the years, these patterns started to evolve into more intricate interwoven knots. The earliest example of a true Celtic Knot was found in a fragment of a Gospel Book that dates to the 7th Century and was created in northern Britain.

Unlike previous designs that featured an unbroken plait of interlaced lines, the knots in this manuscript were more intricate, branching out from the relatively simple designs of the previous centuries. 

The evolution of Celtic Knotwork

Over the following centuries, Celtic Knots became ever-more intricate, encompassing a huge variety of designs. However, it’s widely accepted that there are eight elementary knots.

These form the base of more or less every interlaced pattern in Celtic art. Celtic Knots soon became commonplace on religious buildings, tombstones, and manuscripts, with one of the most famous examples being the Book of Kells.

Use in more recent times

Besides religious uses, Celtic knots were featured extensively in jewellery, armour, weapons, and everyday life. Sailors would tie two knots together as a tribute to the love they left behind while at sea.

Other knots were shared between lovers, used as protection in battle, or to give strength. Celtic knots are popular tattoos around the world, while many items of jewellery are designed around their intricate style.

And, to this day, Celtic knots and crosses can be seen in graveyards across Ireland, the UK, and even occasionally in places like Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe.

The various Celtic Knot meanings

Celtic Knots

© The Irish Road Trip

There is no one Celtic Knot meaning – there are several types of these designs symbolises something slightly different.

There is, however, an underlying theme that runs through almost every Celtic Knot. This relates to the endless nature of Celtic Knots and the fact that there is no start and no end.

Depending on your beliefs, you can interpret this in many ways. But for many, it represents eternity, and an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Others see it to mean eternal love or faith, while others still liken the endless nature of the knots to mythology cycles.

The different types of Celtic Knots

Now that you have a sense of the general Celtic Knot meaning, it’s time to delve into the various designs.

Below, you’ll get an insight into the Trinity Knot, the Dara Knot, the Tree of Life and more.

1. The Triquetra (aka the Trinity Celtic Knot)

the trinity knot

© The Irish Road Trip

The Triquetra is perhaps the most well-known Celtic Knotwork. It’s famous for its appearance in the Book of Kells, but it’s far more widespread than that.

In fact, it’s been found carved into stonework across northern Europe and is believed to be one of the oldest Celtic Knots. It’s been suggested that it dates back as far as 5,000 BC, but the first solid evidence of its widespread use dates back to the 7th Century AD.

This three-pointed knot is made up of three ovals or arcs, one in the centre pointing up, and two pointing downwards to either side. Often, the arcs are encircled by a separate loop.

Depending on your beliefs, the three points can symbolise numerous things. However, one common theme stems from the Celtic conviction that everything of relevance comes in threes.

This Celtic Knot meaning varies from group to group. For early Christians, it was easy to adapt the Triquetra to represent the holy trinity. In pagan belief systems, it may have represented life, death, and rebirth.

Alternatively, it may have symbolised the three domains of the earth; land, sea, and sky, or the passing of time; past, present, and future.

For many, it’s believed that the three points originally represented the maiden, the mother, and the crone, or innocence, creation, and wisdom.

2. The Dara Knot

the Dara Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

The Dara Knot is a well-known Celtic symbol for strength. Now a popular tattoo design, it features an intricate weaving of two separate strands without start or end.

Stemming from the Gaelic word ‘Doire’, which translates to ‘oak tree’, the Dara Knot is also widely considered to be a Celtic symbol for family.

The intricate design is said to represent the complex root system of an oak tree, which was revered by the Celts. In fact, trees were believed to link the living world to the world of spirits, and the oak tree was the most sacred of them all.

Like the Trinity knot, the Dara Knot regularly appears in stone carvings and was likely a common feature on armour and weaponry.

3. The Celtic Tree of Life

Celtic Tree of Life

© The Irish Road Trip

As we’ve seen with the Dara Knot, trees played a huge role in Celtic culture. In fact, several Celtic creation myths (there’s no singular story) revolve around the Celtic Tree of Life.

In most iterations, the tree of life is typically a mighty oak, from which Celtic Gods are created from the saplings grown from fallen acorns, and mankind is created from the bark.

Most designs clearly depict a tree, with a complex root system that is often mirrored by its upper branches. This often creates a symmetrical circle that never ends.

This Celtic Knot meaning is said to be strength, balance and harmony, a core concept of Celtic culture. 

It is also believed to symbolise community and belonging, and perhaps even the eternal oneness that states we’re all—Gods, humans, animals, and plants alike—descended from the same root.

4. Serch Bythol

serch bythol symbol

© The Irish Road Trip

At first glance, a traditional Serch Bythol Knot might look like an owl flying toward you. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that it’s actually based on the classic Trinity Knot, where two have been placed side-by-side.

It’s widely believed that the Serch Bythol Knot symbolises the joining of two souls, which is why many see it as one of several Celtic love symbols.

The endlessly flowing pattern represents the everlasting love shared by a couple, who will be forever joined in mind, body, and soul.

Nowadays, it’s a popular choice for soulmates and is featured in jewellery, tattoos, and decorative crosses.

5. The Motherhood Knot

Celtic Motherhood Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

The Motherhood Knot is arguably one of the most common Celtic knots you’ll see in the modern age. It was traditionally a variation of the iconic Triquetra Knot, which takes the form of two interlinked heart shapes. 

While heart shapes have been seen in ancient art dating back as early as 300 BC, they weren’t necessarily linked to romance and love, at least in Europe, until around the 13th century, long after the Celtic culture had died out.

Having said that, the heart has been considered an emotional centre by various cultures around the world for far longer.

That is perhaps why many people believe that the Motherhood Knot represents the unbreakable bond between mother and child. An emotional bond that can be tried and tested, but will endure forever.

6. The Celtic Cross

Celtic Cross Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

Also known as the Irish Cross, the Celtic Cross is one of the most well-known Celtic symbols. While not strictly a knot in itself, almost all Celtic Knotwork Crosses feature Knots in their design.

With its familiar encircled cross design, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a Celtic Cross on any visit to an Irish church or graveyard.

Nowadays, the Celtic Cross is almost always linked to Christianity, with many believing that Saint Patrick himself introduced it.

But evidence suggests that Celts were using the design long before. As such, the Celtic Knot meaning for this one is open to interpretation, in particular the four quadrants.

They may represent the four seasons, the points on a compass, or perhaps the four elements; earth, water, fire, and air. One thing most people agree on is that the Celtic Cross is a symbol of faith.

7. The Celtic Love Knot

Celtic Love Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

It’s not too difficult to figure out what this recent invention represents! The Celtic Love Knot design features two intertwined hearts, one upside down, the other the right way up.

One of the simplest designs, it almost looks like a link in a plait or braid. These days, it commonly represents the love between two people, similar to the Serch Bythol.

The latter symbol seems the more authentic choice, but like everything, this Celtic Knot meaning is down to interpretation!

Having said that, many people do believe that ancient Celts used to give these knots to the betrothed in the same way we give engagement rings today, though we haven’t been able to find any hard proof of this.

8. The Celtic Shield Knot

Celtic Shield Knot

© The Irish Road Trip

As the name suggests, the Celtic Shield Knot typically symbolises protection. A relatively simple design, it traditionally depicts a circle split into four quadrants or corners, much like the circle of a Celtic Cross.

It suggests an unbreakable barrier, while the single, interwoven thread hints at the timelessness of this protection. According to some resources, the Celtic Shield Knot was given to the sick to ward off evil spirits.

For the same reason, you’ll often find it on tombstones and religious sites. Other uses saw it on the battlefield, adorning armour and keeping warriors safe (see our Celtic warrior symbols guide for more).

FAQs about Gaelic Knots

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What Celtic Knotwork is good for weddings?’ to ‘Which makes a great tattoo?’.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What is the meaning of a Celtic Knot?

The Celtic Knot meaning will vary depending on the Symbol in question. Many Gaelic Knots symbolise strength, unity and an everlasting bond/love.

What are the different Celtic Knots?

Some of the more notable Celtic Knotwork are the Triquetra, the Dara Knot, the Celtic Shield Knot and the Celtic Tree of Life.

Are Celtic Knots for protection?

You could argue that the Celtic Shield Knot is the main protection Knot. It’s a variation of the Dara Knot (see it in this guide above).

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Annette

Tuesday 8th of November 2022

Hi, I love your site! It's interesting and informative. I just wanted to ask if you know the closer depiction of the celtic symbol for fatherhood? I've done a bit of research, the one that keeps appearing is in the shape of an abstract acorn with a heart, is that the closest to the true symbol ?

Thank you for your time. Annette

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