Untying the Meaning of Celtic Knots
March 23, 2018
Triquetra Celtic Knots

When I am researching blog posts I often scurry off on intriguing tangents. Writing about the Claddagh got me thinking about the history and meaning of Celtic knots among other things, so today I am returning to Ireland to tie up some of those loose ends. I have significant amounts of Irish heritage and have often thought about dabbling in the art of Celtic knots. It would be a great achievement to create interlacing of such intricate nature and rich history.

A brief history

Celtic stock has been traced back to Austria during the Iron Age (800B.C.E. to 43C.E.), when a tribal nomadic community lived in a salt mining region called Hallstatt. They developed into what is called the La Tene culture and expanded across Europe, coming into territorial conflict with the Romans. The mighty Romans forced them north, spilling out into the British Isles. Defeated, the Celts disbanded during Roman occupation in Britain and survivors joined Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Meanwhile, other Celtic countries remained standing, chiefly in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man and Brittany. During the 4th Century C.E., Christianity was introduced to Ireland and began to convert the pagan population.

Hallstatt, Austria
Hallstatt, Austria as it looks today.

Pagans and propaganda

The pagan Celts had a decorative style that included knotwork, keys, and spirals. From where they adopted these symbols and their meaning are a subject of great debate. The Romans used knots in handicrafts and mosaic floors as early as 3rd & 4th century C.E, and knots are now known to have been significant in other ancient cultures. So although not unique to the Celts, it was they who developed and maintained the specific art form that we associate with Ireland today.  St Patrick and his Christian cousins used local Pagan symbols to endear Christianity to the pagan population. They repurposed motifs such as the three leaf shamrock and Celtic cross to tell their stories of faith in a way that was familiar and relatable to the Celts and would win their favour.

Irish and English monks sitting in the quiet tranquillity of their monasteries decorated their calligraphic bibles with increasingly ornate forms of these symbols, knots and interlacing patterns–which came to be known generally as Insular Art. The resulting, highly decorated texts are called illuminated manuscripts of which arguably the most famous example is the Book of Kells, held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Viking raids eventually disrupted the development and production of Insular art and it merged into the next era of art history, Romanesque Art.

Entrance to passage.

Anglo Saxon brooch found on the wreck of the Sutton Hoo
Anglo Saxon brooch found on the wreck of the Sutton Hoo. Source: The British Museum

Celtic knot or not?

A Celtic knot is unique whereby it is created from a single continuous and unending cord. Whereas the Germans and Romans tended to leave loose ends lying about. Celtic knots also have a consistent under and over-woven structure. So what constitutes the difference between a knot and an interlace you ask? Well, I found it best explained like this: If two “ends” of the single cord are pulled and they tighten, the pattern is considered a knot. Alternatively, if by pulling the cord you unravel the design, it is an interlace.

The meaning of Celtic knots

Any real expert on the subject will be reluctant to apply meaning to Celtic knots and related designs. While time has seen modern concepts and theories arise, it is very difficult to confirm what the true representations were. Some will even claim that they were purely decorative and have no meaning at all.

Celtic cross engraved with knotwork
A Celtic cross engraved with knotwork

Tie your own

If you’re considering giving the therapeutic art of drawing Celtic knots a whirl, there are oodles of great online and offline resources available to get you started, such as Jo Edkins’ website. The information is presented in a simplistic format that won’t win web design awards but is very useful. There are a number of different methods taught, so it is worth looking around to find which one works best for you. I found David Nicholls’ drawing technique demonstrated in his Youtube video series, to be the most intuitive. I have created a printable 1cm grid especially for use with David’s method, that you can download for free here: Duende Celtic Knot Grid.

If drawing isn’t your thing, here are some more fun ways to get creative with Celtic knots:

For more intriguing Irish history and culture, see The Claddagh – Let Love & Friendship Reign.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Untying the Meaning of Celtic Knots

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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