Introduction to Celtic Art and Culture
(Part of the "Sacred Circles" Art Unit)

Students were introduced to Celtic art and symbolism through lectures, reading assignments and photographs, with the understanding that the true meaning of many symbols found in Celtic art cannot completely be verified.

The Celts (pronounced "Kelts") are traditionally viewed as a people who lived in western and central Europe from the Bronze age through the early Christian period. They had no written language, so much of what we know of them is from their artwork, and from the writings of the Greeks and Romans with whom they traded and fought.

The Celtic culture was spiritual in nature, and they believed in the interconnectedness of life, and the rebirth of the soul. Death was viewed merely as a transition, and because of this, Celtic warriors were often fearless in battle.

One of the persistent themes in Celtic artwork is the endless knot design, and while it cannot be proved, many assume that this symbol was used to signify man's eternal connection to the earth and to the realm of spirit. Their system of worship included a host of gods and goddesses, and ritual celebrations which corresponded to the changing seasons, moon cycles, and other observable changes in nature.

Another design common in Celtic art is the spiral. While interpretations vary, most believe that the spiral represented the concept of growth, energy, and expansion. To some Celtic tribes and clans, the spiral may have also represented the sun.

Many examples of Celtic artwork show radial balance and cardinal points. As with many earth-based religions, the north, south, east, and west cardinal points seem to indicate the positions of the sun, as well as the four seasons.

Celtic crosses were in existence well before Christianity. Again the symbolic "four" is seen, with the true Celtic cross having arms of equal length, and often being contained or surrounded by a circle.

Celtic myths offer more clues as to the symbolism of their artwork. While scholars cannot totally agree on interpretations, the Celts seemed to attach strong symbolism to various animals, often based on an animal's physical traits that they admired. The hawk, for example, was used as a symbol for freedom, and the boar was a symbol of strength with warrior courage.

Representations of plants were frequently found in Celtic artwork, too, and it is believed that these symbolized growth and new beginnings. Trees, in particular, were seen in many examples of Celtic work, as they were believed to be sacred.

The transition of the pagan Celtic spirituality to Christianity led to some of the most stunning examples of Celtic artwork, such as seen in The Book of Kells. Rich with the symbolism of its Celtic heritage, new meanings were given to many of the ancient symbols in this transcription of the four Christian Gospels.

However, just as with Native Americans in this country and Tibetans in 1959 when their country was taken over by Communist China, Celtic people also faced persecution. Those who continued to follow the "Old Religion," with its gods and goddesses, rituals and earth-based spirituality, were ultimately subjected to witch trials and executions, beginning as early as 1430 AD. Because of the danger of being charged with heresy, many of those who clung to Celtic traditions went underground, practicing their religion in small, private gatherings.

In the last decade, the renewed interest in "all things Celtic" (consider the popularity of the "Riverdance" phenomenon) has led many to examine the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Celts, and some have adopted this form of religion or one of its variations. Unfortunately, the general public and most traditional Christian churches continue to regard Celtic spirituality as somehow "satanic" in nature, when it is nothing of the sort, and is, instead, rather closely related to Native American beliefs and forms of worship.

Especially viewed as suspect is the symbol of the pentagram--the five-pointed star in the center of a circle. While some satanic groups have used this emblem (usually inverted), it has also been used by Jews, to whom it represents the five books of Moses, and by Christians, to whom it represents the five wounds of Christ.

To neopagans--new followers of old, earth-based religions--the pentagram can be the symbol for the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plus Spirit. When the star is contained in a circle (as it most often is) it represents unity, wholeness, and a quest for divine knowledge.


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