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Celtic Knots: A History

First, you must have a history lesson about "What is Celtic?" [Pronounced with a hard "C"] The name Celtic comes from the Greek "keltoi", hidden people, referring to those peoples living north of the Alps. In a true archaeologic and historic sense, it is a misnomer but today the term Celtic has come to mean having anything to do with the peoples who descended from one of the seven Celtic Nations - Brittany, Cornwall, Galacia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, and Wales. These peoples, both indigenous and those fleeing the advance of others into eastern Europe, were linked by shared cultures and language sources as well as Druidic religious customs. Therefore, the term Celtic knot refers to an art form related to these peoples. Second, you must have a history lesson about the evolution of this Celtic art form. From 700 BC to 450 BC, the Hallstatt period, Celtic art was of a tribal geometric nature consisting mostly of maze and labyrinth components that evolved into step and key patterns. From 450 BC until about 400AD, the La Tene period, the native artwork of this area was dominated by spirals that also included past designs as well as hidden faces and animals. Christianity arrived in the British Isles around 450 AD and brought about an early medieval renaissance called the Early Christian period. By the mid-600s, the unique plait work interlacing was a defining characteristic for the area. In the monastery at Iona, at the end of the 8th century, religion, scholarship, and artistry combined to achieve a golden age, the Insular period. The resulting art form became an international style of complex designs of animals mixed with spirals and knotwork. Unfortunately, the Vikings invaded in the early 9th century and nothing was ever the same again. By the 11th century, Celtic knotwork was considered old-fashioned. By the 12th century, this art form was relegated mostly to the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. These peoples were even then looking for links to the past. The knotwork symbols were still being used on their weapons and brooches until their use was made illegal in 1745 after the Jacobite Rebellion.

Then suddenly Celtic art came back big time and has not lost its popularity yet. During the height of the Victorian era's romance with the medieval period, in 1850, a young Irish woman found what was referred to as the "Tara" brooch. Applying modern production methods combined with modern marketing and advertising techniques, this piece of jewelry and its knotwork style became a national phenomena. The queen even bought one for herself and her prince. This event combined with the blossoming of the art and craft movement, the upswing in middle-class tourism, and the nationalistic and historic literary trend by such writers as Sir Walter Scott resulted in the early 1900's Celtic Revival. This modern Celtic Revival is typified by a desire for national identity, by ethnic pride, and by a romantic and nostalgic quest for spiritual self-discovery. This was your final history lesson.

Our understanding of the symbolism of the Celtic knot whether real or imagined is based on our knowledge of the Druidic religion and its deep commitment to nature and its love of life. Unfortunately, it is this same religion that dictates that this symbolism and belief system, we think it represents, are too sacred to be written down. The information was to be passed down generation to generation and unfortunately was lost in the passing of the ages. Therefore, all stated or implied meaning to old symbols are romanticized speculation. However, I personally feel very safe in saying that Celtic knotwork was intended to convey the Celts feelings of continuity, connectedness, and interdependence of people and their world. All else is simply a guess. It is enough for me that these symbols honor the spirit of our Celtic heritage. However, it is not necessary to have the least bit of Celtic blood in your veins to find yourself drawn to these ancient symbols and their spiritual connotation.

So what is this Celtic knot? There are two types of Celtic artwork. The first is knotwork and the second is zoomorphic interlace. Knotwork has two simple rules. First, the weave is always over and then under. Second, the pattern is always a single endless path. Zoomorphic interlace also has the over and under weave but includes people with hands entwined and animals with tails and tongues entwined or ending in curls or spirals. To determine if a design is a Celtic knot or an interlace, cut a single cord of the design and pull the two ends. If it tightens, it is a knot. If it unravels, it is interlace.

One more important thing to note is that these Celtic knotwork symbols were seldom used as isolated elements. This has lead many to speculate that these symbols made up the words in druidic communication and the way they were used together was their grammar. Once again, this is total speculation.


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