The Spiral – A Universal Symbol
One of the most important symbols used by the ancient Celtic peoples, the spiral is actually a universal symbol shared by many other primitive cultures worldwide. Both in Ireland and in China, for example, it was used as a symbol of the sun. The ancient Egyptians depicted their snake god Mehen (meaning ‘coil’) as a protective force coiled around the sun god Ra.
To call the great Celtic goddess Danu mother of the leprechauns might sound strange. The legendary ‘little people’ generally depicted as tiny old men in green coats, in fact, are a far cry from the mysterious early Celtic races with their formidable and often scary deities. Yet in Irish mythology the now world-famous leprechauns are actually said to descend from the Tuatha De Danann (Children of Danu), a race thought to have descended from the gods, of which Danu was the Great Mother. Legend has it, in fact, that during one of the invasions of Ireland the Tuatha De Danann shape-shifted into the elusive Sidhe race of magical people that through the ages evolved into what today are known as leprechauns, ‘faery folk‘ or ‘little people’.
The Celtic symbol of the head was of central importance among the ancient Celtic tribes. It was believed, in fact, to be the seat of the soul, the spirit and the power of the human being. Celtic art expert Paul Jacobsthal wrote that “Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.” The head does not seem to have been actually worshipped by the Celts, but rather venerated, as, for example, modern-day Catholics venerate the relics of saints and attribute certain powers to them.
Though one of the central figures and symbols of the tales of King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake as a Celtic symbol is a perspective that is generally overlooked.
In the Arthurian tales the Lady of the Lake goes by the names of Nimue or Vivian. Nimue is believed to derive from Mnemosyne, or Mneme, a water-nymph of Greek and Roman mythology. Nimue gives Arthur his sword; Mneme provides Perseus with similar weapons.
The name Vivian, however, relates the Lady of the Lake to Celtic mythology. ‘Vi-Vianna’, or ‘Co-Vianna’, most likely derives from the Coventina, the Celtic triple goddess of wells and springs.
The ‘Painted People’
The Picts and their symbols are still today somewhat of a mystery. What is most commonly known about the Pictish people is that they were a Celtic tribe who inhabited the North of England and Scotland, and were known for two predominant characteristics. The first of these was their reputed habit of painting or tattooing their bodies.
The name ‘Picts’, in fact, which was given to them by the Romans who were then ruling southern Britain, is traditionally said to derive from the Latin pictus, or ‘painted’; hence the Picts were the ‘painted people’.
The ancient Greeks called them the ‘Pritanni’ (perhaps the origin of Britannic) and the Gaelic Celts knew them as ‘Cruithnii’ – both of which mean ‘People of the Designs’.
There are different theories on the actual origins of the ancient Celts, but evidence based on archaeological finds suggests that they may have originated from the merging of two groups of people in the late Neolithic period.
These two groups (named after the artifacts found in their respective burial sites) are known as the Battle-axe folk, from the Steppes of Southern Russia, and the Beaker folk, from Iberia or Central Europe.
The most important and well-known animal symbol of the ancient Celts, the Celtic stag symbol, is associated with Cernunnos, the horned (antlered) god of all wild animals, hunting and fertility and the consort of the Great Mother. Cernunnos represents the active side of nature; consequently, he is the god of sexuality (in the detail on the left he is depicted holding a torc in one hand and a serpent in the other – symbols of female and male sexuality). This characteristic caused him to be branded as evil by the early Christian Church, which identified him with Satan himself. In actual fact, Cernunnos was not an evil god, but the fact that he was worshipped by pagan Celtic populations as the god of all things made him an altogether too popular rival for the Church.
Sheela na Gig is the name given to a squat, ugly female figure found carved in Celtic stonework, and is most well-known for the fact that she is depicted with exposed and/or grotesquely large genitals, which are often held open with her hands.
Throughout the ages Sheela-na-gigs have been a common figure in the stone carvings of churches in Ireland, England, and various European countries.
She is often portrayed together with the Green Man.
There are various theories regarding the origin of the Sheela-na-Gig figure. The most popular of these are:
The Celtic Cross symbol, with its characteristic circle, is believed to be a Christian adaptation of the far more ancient Celtic symbol sometimes known as the Sun Wheel, Solar Wheel or Sun Disc, representing the Wheel of Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder (see Fig. 1 below), who is likened to the Viking god Thor and the Roman god Jupiter.
The Sacred Well, or Holy Well, is one of the most evocative of the Celtic symbols. To the Celts, as to many pre-Celtic populations, water was believed to represent a boundary dividing the land from the sky, and the physical world from the Otherworld.
Caves, wells and springs were ‘gateways’ to the Otherworld and, therefore, sacred places. Consequently, the water that sprung from such places, especially hot, steamy or bubbling water, was believed to have healing properties.
The sacred well as a Celtic symbol of the feminine.
In the ancient Celtic religion and culture the sacred well was seen as the entrance to the womb of the Goddess or Great Mother.
Sacred wells and springs were believed to be guarded by the three-fold Goddess.