Most people assume that Celtic knotwork originated with the ancient Celts themselves. So it comes as some surprise to find out that this form of knotwork originates from the late Roman Empire and is an example of what is known as Celtic style Insular art, or Hiberno-Saxon art dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. There are no known examples of knotwork existing in Ireland, Scotland or England until the age of the first Christian missionaries. It was only with the Celtic Revival in the 19th century that the myth sprang up about knotwork dating back to our Celtic ancestors. By the time knotwork was being used as an art form, the European Celts had been subsumed into the Roman Empire.
There are many examples of this style of knotwork from monuments and manuscripts to floor mosaics and book illumination. It is thought that the knotwork stemmed originally from pre-christian key patterns and interwoven cords, known as plaits, which were not exclusively Celtic. Many other cultures used very similar forms of art – Coptic Egypt, Norse, and Oriental all had forms similar to what we know of as ‘Celtic’ knotwork.
Nevertheless, the Celtic knot is a beautiful and mysterious symbol although its true meaning may be lost in time. It is easy for us in the modern-day to want to ascribe meanings to the various forms of knots. however, this might also be just another ‘romantic’ idea stemming from the 19th century Celtic Revival. However, there is a general consensus that they had to do with the unending cycle of life, the interweaving lines showing the interconnectedness between the physical and the spiritual.
Of course, probably the most famous Celtic knot is the Triquetra, or three-cornered knot. This is also an example of Insular art and is found in the Book of Kells. However, this knot has also been found on Norse rune stones and on many early Germanic coins. In fact it bears a resemblance to the Valknut, a symbol associated with Odin. During the early Celtic christian church this symbol was used as a ‘filler’ in designs and on manuscripts, rather than having a specific religious or spiritual purpose. It was only since, again, the Celtic Revival that it became to represent the Trinity, both for the Father, Son and Holy spirit, and much later the Triple Goddess – Maiden Mother and Crone. In modern-day paganism it can also be used to symbolise Earth, Sky and Sea, or Mind, Body and Soul.
Despite the romanticized myths that have grown up around Celtic knotwork, it still remains a very powerful and spiritual art form, and still adorns many a pagan altar and even people’s bodies in the form of tattoos.