Celtic Cross – History and Symbolism

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The Celtic cross is one of the most well-known Irish symbols and is commonly found in graveyards, public monuments, artwork and fashion. While its origins are disputed, it remains a symbol of Christianity, with pagan associations. It’s also a popular symbol of Irish pride, with many variations depicting beautiful Irish Insular art.

Let’s take a look at the history and meaning of the Celtic cross, and how its used today.

Celtic Cross History

Celtic cross in graveyard

The Celtic cross is commonly associated with Christianity, but its origins can be traced back to pre-Christian times. While the exact circumstances under which the Celtic cross originated remains unknown, many suggestions and legends exist attempting to explain its origins.

  • The symbol of the cross with a circle can be found in other civilizations, as well as in Ireland and Scotland. The Celts had many pagan gods prior to the advent of Christianity. Taranis, the God of Thunder, is often depicted as holding a lightning bolt in one hand and a spoked wheel in the other. This wheel has been found on Celtic coins and decorative items. Eventually, the wheel became known as the sun cross, and later may have morphed into the Celtic cross.
  • The Celts may have used the cross symbol to represent the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) and/or the four directions (north, south, east, west). As such, the symbol was linked to pagan beliefs and practices.
  • Legend has it that when St. Patrick brought Christianity to the druids, he came across a large circular stone that the druids worshipped. Seeing this, he drew a straight line through the middle of the circle, creating the Celtic cross. The cross was thus a representation of the combination of the two cultures – Celtic and Christian. The cross represents Christianity while the circle represents the sun and Celtic view of eternity, with no beginning and no end.

Regardless of the exact origins, the Celtic cross remains an important symbol to people of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. Simply walk through an Irish graveyard, and you’ll see many examples of the Celtic cross used as grave markers. The symbol is also commonly found in ancient Celtic texts, such as the Book of Kells, which feature the image prominently. The Celtic cross is often decorated with motifs and patterns of the Celtic Insular art style.

Celtic cross

Like most Celtic symbols, the Celtic cross declined in popularity but came back into prominence during the Celtic Revival period in the mid-19th century.

However, variations of the symbol have also been used by white supremacists, including by Nazis in Norway in the 1930s and 1940s, much like Hitler’s appropriation of the swastika. Today, most uses of the Celtic cross is non-extremist and has little to do with white supremacy.

Celtic Cross Meaning

The Celtic cross has been a symbol of culture and faith for over fifteen centuries and is most commonly viewed as a Christian symbol, much like the Christian cross. However, the symbol also contains other meanings, and is often interpreted as representing the following concepts:

  • Faith
  • Navigation
  • Life
  • Honor
  • Balance
  • Equality
  • Transition
  • The four directions
  • The four seasons
  • The four elements
  • As a meeting place of the Divine energies (in pagan beliefs)

Celtic Cross Use Today

The Celtic cross continues to be commonly used today in various ways – in jewelry, decorative items, as grave markers, to symbolize Christianity and as a representation of the heritage of Irish, Scottish and Welsh people.

It’s a popular symbol for tattoos as well, with many designs and variations to choose from. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Celtic cross.

Editor's Top Picks
Celtic Cross Necklace for Women - Celtic Knot Design - Handmade
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14k Rose Gold Plated Sterling Silver Two Tone Celtic Cross Pendant Necklace,...
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Sterling Silver Oxidized Celtic Cross Pendant Necklace, 18
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Last update was on: October 19, 2021 5:29 am

In Brief

The Celtic cross remains a beautiful symbol of Irish heritage. It’s pagan and Christian associations represent the long and rich history of the Irish, Welsh and Scottish peoples. It continues to be as popular today as it was 1500 years ago.

If you’re interested in learning about more Irish symbols, check out these related articles:

The Trinity Knot – Symbolism and Meaning

What Is the Celtic Shield Knot?

Celtic cross meaning and history infographic