Celtic Knots: the history, variations, and meanings of these Irish symbols

Looking for a unique gift idea or a new tattoo? Delve into the world of your ancestors with our guide to the history and meaning of Celtic knots.

The popularity of ancient Celtic symbolism has seen a massive resurgence in recent years.  The most enduring of these is the famous Celtic Knot. You’ll probably be familiar with some of the variations of these beautiful symbols, but what do they mean?

History of Celtic Knots

There's so much history behind the ancient symbols used across Ireland.
Credit: interact.discovernorthernireland.com

The use of interlace and ‘knot’ patterns had its origins in the late Roman Empire. Still, it can also be found in Islamic, Byzantine, Coptic and Ethiopian art throughout the ages. These patterns were also of considerable significance to Celtic people.

Even before Christian influence on the Celtic culture around 450 AD, variations of these knots could be found. They then managed to make their way into many early Christian manuscripts and works of art. The most famous example of this is probably in the Book of Kells, which remains on display in the beautiful Trinity Library in Dublin.

These intricate symbols have seen somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in recent years. An increase in the demand for Celtic jewellery has occurred both in Ireland and abroad. Since the 1970s and 1980s, tattoos of Celtic knots have become common in the United States and Canada.

Popular variations of knots and their meanings:

The Triquetra / Trinity Knot – the power of three

The Triquetra is a symbol used to represent The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity Knot, or Triquetra, is one of the most popular variations of Celtic Knot. Consisting of three sections and formed by one continuous line, this symbol illustrates the importance of the number three in Celtic culture. To the Celts, many of the most sacred things came in threes; birth, life, and death, the phases of the moon, and the three trimesters of pregnancy. The Triquetra could be seen to represent any one of these.

The symbol has recently been adopted as a neo-pagan symbol. It is used to symbolise the three faces of the goddess, the Mother Maiden, and the Crone. It signifies the three life cycles of a woman in relation to the phases of the moon. You may recognise this symbol from the popular ‘90s TV show Charmed.

In Christian times, it has also come to be recognised as a symbol of ‘The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit’, similar to the shamrock used by St. Patrick.

The Celtic Crosses – a spiritual symbol

Celtic crosses are popular and another of the top Celtic knots you should know about.

A quintessential symbol of Ireland, the Celtic cross is both a religious and a spiritual symbol. In pre-Christian times, the symbol was used to represent the Sun God.

Christianity in Ireland has also used the symbol as a reference to Jesus Christ and the crucifixion. These popular crosses have been adapted by various cultures and religions through the ages.

The Shield Knot – to ward off negativity

Another of the top Celtic knots full of symbolism is the Shield Knot.

The Shield Knot is a lesser-known but equally recognisable Celtic symbol. It was believed to have the power to ward away negativity and evil spirits from your home, as well as on the battlefield.

While this is a popular symbol in Celtic culture, the Shield Knot can be found across various cultures throughout the world over the last few thousand years. Regardless of where it is found, it’s associations of protection against danger and malevolence remain.

Celtic Spiral Knot – a symbol of eternal life

The Celtic spiral knot is another of the Celtic knots you should know.

This recognisable Celtic knot is believed to represent eternal life. The significance of the number three to Celtic people can be seen here once again. One of the oldest Celtic designs, it is also thought to signify water, fire, and earth. The fact that this design consists of one long continuous line is said to represent unity and spirit.

Sailor’s Knot – the strength of friendship

Sailor's Knot is one of the top Celtic knots that symbolises friendship.
Credit: Circle Line Art School / Youtube

This simple but popular design features two intertwined ropes. It is thought that this design may have been initially created by sailors during extended voyages at sea, to keep love ones in their thoughts. As such, this knot is also seen as a symbol of friendship, affection, and love.

Celtic Love Knot – a symbol of enduring love

The Celtic Love Knots is one of the top Celtic knots you should know.
Credit: Circle Line Art School / Youtube

 A simple design, the Celtic Love Knot resembles two interlocking hearts and usually sits within an oval shape. Due to this, it is thought to represent the love between two people. There is a belief that Celts would exchange these knots in much the same way as many couples exchange wedding rings today.

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Born in County Down, Lewis Sloan is a writer who has a passion for Irish travel and history. While studying toward a Master's in English Literary Studies at Queen's University Belfast, he held the role of Features Editor for The Gown, Belfast's largest independent student newspaper. When not writing, he can be found practicing yoga or petting every cat he meets on the street.