The History and Symbolism of the Celtic Cross

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Celtic Crosses dot hundreds of cemeteries across Ireland and Scotland, as well as Wales, England, Europe, and beyond. Few symbols are as recognizable as the Celtic Cross as the embodiment of Celtic Christianity. It is popularly believed that St. Patrick introduced the Celtic Cross in Ireland, during his conversion of the kings from paganism to Christianity. Some also believe it was St. Columba or St. Declan who introduced it. Other theories site construction strength to the design – the circle strengthened the cross beams, preventing breakage or destruction by the elements or time.

Ancient Roots

Callanish Stone Circle. Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Calanais/Callanish Stone Circle. Isle of Lewis, Scotland – by Andrew Bennett via Flickr Creative Commons – https://flic.kr/p/7WURPS

While the Celtic Cross is certainly a Christian symbol, it has its roots in ancient pagan beliefs at the same time. The stone circle at Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, is formed in a rough circle, with an even-armed cross within it. This is believed to be a sun symbol to the creators of the stone circle, which became a sacred shape to the Celts. St Patrick is said to have taken this ancient sun symbol and extended one of the lengths to form a melding of the Christian Cross and the sun symbol, and thus the birth of the Celtic Cross.

The even-armed cross within a circle has been ascribed many meanings by many groups and cultures. One such meaning is that of the stages of the day: morning, noon, evening, midnight. Another possibility includes the meeting places of the divine energy, of self, nature, wisdom and divinity. Of course, obvious relations such as east, north, south and west; or earth, air, water and fire can also be derived from the shape. Even the Native Americans used this as a symbol for their Medicine Wheel. The sun wheel has also been called Odin’s Cross, a symbol in Norse Mythology.

I found it interesting that the early Gnostic Christians in Egypt also used a similar form for their Coptic Cross. It had the cruciform within a circle, a longer lower arm, and then a cross under the circle, similar to an ankh. The current form of Presbyterian cross is also a Celtic Cross, with flared ends of each of the arms.

crosses

Author and navigator Crichton Miller has demonstrated that the shape could have been used as a navigational device and architectural aid by ancient explorers and builders. You can see a more detailed explanation of his findings in the March 2012 issue of Celtic Guide.

What does the circle symbolize?

Some say the circle stands for the Roman sun-god Invictus, thus giving the name of Celtic Sun Cross. Others say it represents the halo of Jesus Christ. Others simply see it as a holdover from its pagan roots as a sun symbol. I spoke once with a Franciscan Friar while visiting St. Brigid’s Well in Kildare, Ireland. We had a fascinating conversation about the various pagan pieces intertwined with Celtic Christianity. He was of the opinion that without those essential elements, Celtic Christianity would be a poorer spiritual path than it was. He was quite glad of those aspects, as it helped him keep in touch with the earth. A similar but more elaborate cross from the 7th century, called St. Mura’s Cross, can be found in Fahan, Ireland.

invictus

Invictus, the sun god by ideacreamanuela ideacreamanuela via Flickr Creative Commons – https://flic.kr/p/6oWyxV

Early Celtic Crosses

Original Celtic Crosses were not carved out of the rock – they were inscribed on the rock, such as the cross marker near Gallerus Oratory in Ireland. It is a slab of stone, erected and carved with a Celtic Cross on the surface. Another example is the Edderton Cross Slab in Scotland, made of red sandstone. The Killaghtee Cross in Dunkineely, Ireland is another fine example, dating from around 650 CE. It is thought this latter example marks the transition from flat grave slabs to the upright Celtic crosses. The top of the carving is a Maltese cross with the triple knot of St. Brigit underneath, representing the Holy Trinity.

Cross marker at the Gallarus Oratory and Killaghtee Cross

Cross marker at the Gallarus Oratory (left) by Holly Hayes via Flickr Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/2ZXLB1 and Killaghtee Cross by Patsy Wooters via Flickr Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/cUQpvh

High Crosses were popular in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries in Ireland, and were often built to memorialize famous people or places. Over time, they started sporting elaborate carvings, sometimes telling biblical stories. A famous cross at Clonmacnoise, Ireland is called the Cross of the Scriptures, or King Flann’s Cross. It is decorated with images from the bible, such as the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Guarding of the Tomb.
This tendency towards elaborate story telling through sculpture could be an imitation of Roman sculptures such as Trajan’s Column, or perhaps the much closer Pictish carvings in Scotland. While many of the stylized designs on the Pictish stones are as yet a mystery, some obviously tell stories of battles and events.

While there are many high crosses throughout Ireland, the majority of Celtic Crosses you will see are those for gravestones, a result of a fashion around the 1850s to use them as headstones or monuments. This is the style that has crossed oceans and taken root wherever Irish or Scottish immigrants landed, be it the Americas, far off Australia or New Zealand, bringing with them the beauty and mystery of the Celtic Cross.

Gallery of Celtic Crosses by Christy Jackson Nicholas aka Green Dragon

 

About the Author

Christy Jackson Nicholas (aka Green Dragon) writes about Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips and hidden places in her books: “Stunning, Strange and Secret: A Guide to Hidden Scotland” and “Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland.” More information at www.greendragonartist.com and www.facebook.com/greendragonauthor and www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Nicholas_Christy/index.htm

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4 Comments

  1. All this stuff about a pagan origin is a lot of hooey. Of course the circle existed before the Celtic cross – so what? There are no known Irish pagan symbols using this design or anything similar – and why on earth would the Irish want to depict a Roman God? Clearly (although it may have had practical convenience for the sculptors) the circle is a symbol of holiness, such as is used universally in Christian art. Some people seem to *want* to believe that Celtic Christianity was really some sort of quasi-paganism – that’s all it is.

    I visited this page hoping for some info about the symbols carved on the crosses – the groups of figures etc. But there’s nothing about that at all; I guess because there’s no way you can make them out to be druids or something?

    Post a Reply
    • Patrick,

      You may find more of what you are looking for at http://irishhighcrosses.com/ – using the search term “high cross” instead of “Celtic cross” will likely yield more of the information you seek.

      Because Christianity in Ireland wasn’t in line with the Roman Catholic tradition until 1100s, it can be interesting to look at how pre-Christian traditions influenced Christianity in Ireland… and vice versa.

      That said… many people don’t realize that some aspects of the “Celtic Spiritualism” movement that is popular today actually has its roots in the 1960s & 70s more than ancient Ireland.

      All appealing topics for folks to read up on… gotta love the internet for that.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Post a Reply
      • My first post on this vanished so apologies for any repetition. I wanted to point out that what distinguishes the Celtic Cross, as we know it today, from other cross/circle combinations such as the Presbyterian cross is not the big circle. Many such combinations appear, as this site shows and the reader note. Rather, the true Celtic cross is distinguished by the four little circles that appear at the junctions of the arms of the cross, and how the four arms of the cross narrow at their base to form the circle shape. (See the first picture in the Gallery above.) These little circles trace to much earlier forms of Celtic monoliths in which those four circles appeared alone. For example:
        http://www.123rf.com/photo_918501_ancient-weathered-celtic-cross-cornwall-uk.html

        Four circles in this array strongly suggest solar references, either diurnal or seasonal, but not Roman ones. They long predate the Roman period, for one thing, and emphasize a cyclical cosmology rather than a central patriarchal cosmic power, for another.

        Engraved on a stone, the four circles leave a rudimentary cross shape in the middle, so it wouldn’t be hard to carve a cross in that space as a formal feature when Christianity appeared on the scene. For example:
        http://l7.alamy.com/zooms/f562edb67c6e41a896b56f57654b4309/ancient-lichen-covered-celtic-cross-laneast-church-cornwall-bdw29d.jpg

        In some cases, the solar disks are actually recreated in the round holes that are left:
        http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/ornate_gravestone_cross.html?mediapopup=49523923

        The big circle that is today (wrongly) considered to distinguish Celtic crosses was formerly the circle within which the four small circles appeared; it contributes to the pagan symbolism by completing the outer sides of the little circles. See here:
        http://www.whats-your-sign.com/celtic-symbols.html

        Thus the old solar references are embedded in the Christian figure. The difference is easy to spot once one is alerted to it: where the cross arms and outer circle don’t work together to create those four smaller circles, it’s not a Celtic Cross in the sense of being Celtic – i.e., representing an indigenous religious symbol.

        In short, what the survival of the four solar circles suggests is that any purported “Celtic” cross is not really one if they don’t appear. Which is why the Presbyterian Cross or Odin’s Cross (see above) is not a Celtic Cross.

        It would be intriguing to imagine that redesigning the original Celtic Cross in this way (adding the cross and big circle to the original four-point solar design) was a way to sustain yet conceal the pagan solar reference from Christian authorities, who — there’s little reason to doubt — were probably just as grimly repressive in the early Irish context as they were later, and as they were practically everywhere else (due respect to the sage enlightened priest quoted on this page notwithstanding). But it’s just as likely that embedding the pagan symbol inside the Christian one represented a true syncretism, as he indeed suggests and has found to be a source of great spiritual depth and insight. Or maybe, depending on the era and individual reactions, it was both.

        Post a Reply
  2. Christian hatred of native Irish culture is still on display in the comments. These Semitic terrorists from Palestine are no better than ISIS. Their ignorance of history and hatred of anyone not Christian is the foundation of their criminal cult.

    The Celtic cross is ancient and from the stone age. Look up stone circles and you will see they look EXACTLY the same. The cross is even an original part of them.

    https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/87/ec/91/87ec918a2d42f7b57fbffea91e0c6534.jpg

    Here is a Scottish cross. This is called evidence, Christians, and you are wrong. Just as you are wrong about creationism and flat earth.

    The Celtic cross is wholly animist in origin and Christians adopted it. They do not own it, hence it not being seen in middle eastern Christianity.

    Post a Reply

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