Ancient Celtic symbols and their meanings are an integral part of Irish history.
Now, just to clear something up from the beginning: there are Celtic symbols and there are Irish symbols, and the two differ greatly.
Irish symbols, like the Irish Harp and the shamrock, are symbols of Ireland that came about much later.
Below, you’ll find the most popular Celtic symbols and meanings. You’ll also find a few Irish symbols along with how they are used today.
12 Celtic symbols and meanings explained
- The Celtic Tree of Life
- The Celtic Cross symbol
- The Dara Knot
- The Ailm
- The Triquetra / Trinity Knot
- The Triskelion
- The harp
- The shamrock
- The Claddagh Ring
- Serch Bythol
- The Celtic Motherhood Knot
- The symbol for new beginnings
1. The Celtic Tree of Life
While the branches reach for the sky, the roots permeate the earth. For the ancient Celts, the Tree of Life symbolizes balance and harmony.
Spin this symmetric Celtic symbol 180 degrees and its appearance remains the same.
Known in Irish as ‘Crann Bethadh’, this ancient Celtic symbol represents the belief of the close association between heaven and earth.
The Celts believed that trees were the spirits of their ancestors, providing a link between their earthly life and the next.
A Celtic symbol for strength, longevity and wisdom
The Celtic Tree of Life symbol represents strength, longevity and wisdom, each of which are attributes that the Celts revered.
They also believed that the tree symbolized rebirth (they would have witnessed it shed its leaves in fall and grow new ones in spring).
The Celtic Tree of Life symbol also clearly shows the link between every root below the ground and every branch above.
Discover more: Read more about this symbol in our guide to the Celtic Tree of Life.
2. The Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross has been present in Ireland from the early Middle Ages and it is arguably the most recognisable of the many Celtic symbols.
Interestingly enough, some of the earliest Celtic Cross symbols in Ireland date back to the 8th or 9th century and can be found in Kilkenny and Laois.
Originally, these crosses would have been made from wood or metal and they were likely much smaller than the surviving stone carved pillars that can be found across Ireland.
In the Middle Ages, many Celtic Cross symbols were carved into rock, but over time they were developed and built as independent standing stones or monoliths.
One of many Celtic symbols with several meanings
There are many theories about the meaning of the Celtic Cross. One interpretation is that the four ‘arms’ represent the four cardinal directions of the earth (north, south, east, and west).
Another interpretation of the Celtic Cross symbol is that it represents the four elements: Earth, fire, water and air.
The four quadrants may also represent the four seasons of the year or the four stages of the day: morning, midday, evening and midnight.
Discover more: Read more about this symbol in our guide to the Celtic Cross.
3. The Dara Knot
Another of the better-known Irish Celtic symbols is the Dara Celtic Knot. This symbol boasts an interwoven design and a name that comes from the Irish word ‘Doire’ which means “oak tree”.
The Dara Knot is derived from this word and the symbol represents the root system of an ancient oak.
Like many Celtic knot symbols, the Dara Knot is made up of intertwined lines with no beginning or end.
There is no single design for the Dara Celtic Knot but all versions are centred on the common theme of the oak tree and its roots.
Celts and Druids revered nature, particularly ancient oak trees, and considered them sacred. They saw the oak tree as a symbol of strength, power, wisdom, and endurance.
The Celtic symbol for inner strength
The Dara Celtic knot is symbolic of the roots of the oak tree with the same symbolic source of inner strength.
Celtic knots were used for decorations, as spiritual charms, and as teaching aids.
With its association with nature and oak trees, the symbolic intricacy of the Dara Celtic Knot clearly represented strength.
The symbol would be called upon by the ancient Celts to provide strength and inner wisdom in tough situations.
Discover more: Read more about this Celtic symbol in our guide to the Dara Knot.
4. The Ailm
The Celtic Ailm symbol is derived from the first letter of the Celtic Ogham alphabet.
Ogham was a primitive form of written communication in Celtic history and the Ogham was originally a group of trees that were thought to dispense knowledge and wisdom.
The Ailm is thought to be a type of conifer or silver fir tree. In ancient Celtic tree lore, evergreen fir trees were associated with the healing of a person’s inner soul.
The Celtic symbol for inner strength
Trees are the most accurate Celtic symbol for strength, and it’s no mystery why.
The likes of an oak can survive and grow in difficult circumstances and can ‘live’ for hundreds of years.
The Ailm represents strength, endurance, and resilience as well as healing, purification, health, and fertility.
The Ailm tends to be one of the most popular Celtic signs used to represent inner strength and you’ll often see Celtic God and Goddesses depicted with tree-related symbols.
Discover more: Read more about the Ailm in our guide to the Celtic symbol for strength.
5. The Triquetra / Trinity Knot
There is no definitive Celtic symbol for family, but there are several ancient Celtic knots that represent the meanings of eternal love, strength and family unity.
The elaborate Triquetra, also known as the Trinity Knot or Celtic Triangle, is one of the most beautiful Irish Celtic symbols and it shows a circle interwoven with a continuous three-pointed symbol.
The Celtic Symbol for Family
The meaning of this Celtic Knot is that with no beginning and no end, it represents unity and eternal spiritual life. The symbols line interweaves through the circle in an unbroken flow.
Many believe that this symbol represents the pillars of early Celtic Christian teachings of the Holy Trinity (God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).
It also represents the unity of spirit when enclosed in a circle. The circle protects it, so the symbolic spirit cannot be broken.
Discover more: Read more about the Triquetra in our guide to the Trinity Knot.
6. The Triskelion
Also known as the Triskele, the Triskelion is another of the ancient Irish Celtic symbols thought to have been around during Neolithic times (that’s around 3,200 years BC!).
This spiral symbol once again reflects the Celtic belief that everything important comes in threes.
The Triskelion has three clockwise spirals connecting from a central hub, a little like the Manx three-legged symbol. In fact, the Greek word Triskele means three-legged.
Also known as the triple spiral, the Triskelion has rotational symmetry and is very common in Celtic art and architecture.
A symbol that represents progress
The Celtic spiral is one of the oldest and most primitive decorations on earth and is believed to represent the sun or ethereal radiation energy.
Celtic spirals that are clockwise are believed to have a meaning connected to harmony or earth; if they are anti-clockwise they are thought to be pagan symbols that manipulate nature.
The meaning of the Celtic Triskelion is seen as a symbol of strength and progress. As it appears to be moving, the Triskelion also represents the will to move forward and overcome adversity.
Discover more: Read more about this symbol in our guide to the Triskele.
7. The Irish Harp
The first of the non Celtic signs in this guide is the Harp. The Irish Harp is the national emblem of Ireland and is still widely used today.
Look for it on Irish Euro coins as well as on the label of every can and bottle of Guinness. The meaning of the Irish harp symbol embodies the spirit and essence of the Irish people and is said to represent the immortality of the soul.
In fact, it was so revered that the British banned all harps (and harpists!) in the 16th century in an effort to break the symbolic tie.
Needless to say, the Irish Harp symbol survived and it is now one of the best known Irish Celtic symbols along with the Irish flag.
8. The Shamrock
The Shamrock is another of the many Irish symbols that tends to be mistaken for one of the ancient Celtic symbols.
This tiny bright green three-leafed plant grows all over Ireland and beyond, and it thrives in cool damp climates.
If you find a clover with four separate leaves it’s said to be lucky (read more about the luck of the Irish). It is the national flower of Ireland and its symbolism is deeply rooted in the past.
The shamrock is believed to have been an important Druid symbol. Druids are said to have felt that the three heart-shaped leaves represented the triad.
According to legend, St Patrick used the trefoil leaves to explain the unity of the Holy Trinity – three parts yet one whole – to the pagans during his Christian teachings.
9. The Claddagh ring
When it comes to Celtic symbols for love, one design tends to (incorrectly) pop up time and time again, despite clear evidence of its origin.
I’m talking, of course, about the mighty Claddagh. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Claddagh is a beautiful Irish symbol, but it has nothing to do with the Celts.
The Claddagh symbol originated in County Galway in a little fishing village of the very same name.
The Celtic symbol for love
Claddagh rings are widely exchanged in Ireland and elsewhere as a symbol of loyalty and unity. The word Claddagh is the name of the coastal village where the design was invented by Richard Joyce.
The Claddagh ring is often used as a wedding ring and tradition says that you should never buy a Claddagh for yourself; it should be given as a gift.
Discover more: Read more about this symbol in our guide to the Claddagh ring.
10. Serch Bythol
Although less well known than some other ancient Celtic symbols, the Serch Bythol is significant. It also shows the early Celts were deeply in touch with their emotions and relationships.
The Serch Bythol symbol is made from two Celtic knots / triskeles to symbolize the everlasting love between two people, which is why it’s one of the more popular Celtic friendship symbols.
The two defined yet closely intertwined parts represent two people joined together forever in body, mind, and spirit.
The Celtic symbol for everlasting love
This symbol is believed to represent eternal love and the side-by-side design creates an endless interconnected flow of lines without end.
The unification of the symmetrical left and right halves signifies the bringing together of body, mind and spirit with the central circle representing the eternal love which binds them together.
You’ll often see some of the Celtic mythology creatures with versions of this Celtic symbol on their armour.
11. The Celtic Motherhood Knot
Celtic knots, called Icovellavna, include many knots used for decoration in the Celtic style of Insular Art.
The elaborate Celtic Motherhood Knot symbolizes the bond between mother and child or, in Christianity, the Madonna and Child.
The meaning of the Celtic Motherhood Knot is one of enduring love between a mother and child, faith in God and the Celtic heritage.
A symbol of enduring love
Whatever your personal faith and beliefs may be, this Celtic symbol depicts an unbreakable, never-ending bond of love and life.
Traditionally, the Celtic Motherhood Knot consists of two hearts interlinked with no beginning or end.
One heart is lower than the first and children are often denoted by a dot, heart or another symbol inside or outside the heart design. As the family grows, more symbols can be added to represent each child.
A Celtic symbol for mother and son or mother and daughter
So, a lot of very finely drawn Celtic designs online would lead you to believe that there are specific Celtic symbols for mother and son or mother and daughter.
If you’d like to discover more about these designs (and why many of them are false) jump into one of the following guides:
- The Celtic symbol for mother and son
- The Celtic mother daughter knot
- The Celtic symbol for sisterhood
- The Celtic symbol for brothers
Discover more: Read more about this symbol in our guides to the motherhood knot.
12. The Celtic symbol for new beginnings
Despite what you find online, there is no such thing as a Celtic symbol for new beginnings; it’s entirely made up.
Someone invented a design, posted it online and now people believe that it’s one of the ancient Celtic symbols.
The most likely explanation for this Celtic symbol is that it is one of several ‘Zibu’ symbols created by an artist (Zibu) who claims they were given the symbols by the angels.
Where did Celtic symbols come from?
Celtic designs arrived in Ireland with the Celts. The Celts were an indigenous race that lived in groups across Northern Europe from pre-500BC to the Medieval Period.
These ancient people lived in small tribal communities and, despite being widely scattered, they spoke similar Celtic languages and had many common cultural symbols.
One of the groups among the ancient Celts were the Druids. Druids were among the high-ranking professional, religious and law-keeping members of Celtic culture.
Consequently, Druid symbols have a close association and overlap with many ancient Celtic symbols and meanings.
What do the Celtic symbols mean?
Many Irish Celtic symbols were handed down over time and their meanings were never actually recorded in writing. However, many symbols have been interpreted over the years.
With these symbols, there is a common theme of love, loyalty, strength, unity and religious belief. Many Celtic designs have three intertwined parts which represent the belief that everything of significance is in three parts.
These included three domains: Earth, sky and sea. The Celts also divided the stages of life into three phases: the past, the present and the future.
With the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, the Celtic trio was extended to include the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Other trios in Celtic symbolism include humankind being made up of mind, body and spirit.
FAQs about Celtic symbols and their meanings
We’ve had a lot of questions from people over the years asking everything from ‘Are Celtic symbols and meanings evolving?’ (I’m not really sure what this one means, but we get it a lot) to ‘Which Celtic love knots make good tattoos?’.
Below, I’ll try and tackle as many of these questions as possible. If you have one that we haven’t answered, ask it in the comments.
What do Celtic symbols and meanings represent?
There are many Celtic and Irish symbols and meanings, many of which can’t be attributed to the Celts. However, the Celts did bring many symbols with them when they arrived here, from the Tree of Life to the Celtic Cross.
Are Gaelic symbols from the Celts?
This is a very hard question to answer, as it depends what you are categorizing as ‘Gaelic symbols’. If by ‘Gaelic’ you mean Irish symbols, like the shamrock, then no. The various Celtic symbols and meanings often get lumped in with Irish symbols, like the harp, which can cause confusion.
Which Celtic designs are the most authentic?
The more notable Celtic symbols and meanings are the Triquetra, the Celtic Cross, the Trinity Knot and the Dara Knot. Note that several Celtic designs you see online are modern interpretations.
Which Celtic knot meaning is most reliable?
It depends which one you choose. In our opinion, the Dara Celtic knot meaning is the most straightforward, as the design represents the root system of a tree (i.e. it means strength).
Keith O’Hara has lived in Ireland for 34 years and has spent most of the last 10 years creating what is now The Irish Road Trip guide. Over the years, the website has published thousands of meticulously researched Ireland travel guides, welcoming 30 million+ visitors along the way. In 2022, the Irish Road Trip team published the world’s largest collection of Irish Road Trip itineraries. Keith lives in Dublin with his dog Toby and finds writing in the 3rd person minus craic altogether.