K is for (Celtic) knotwork…debunking myths!

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.

Brompton Cross

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.

Detail of Roman mosaic – Woodchester

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.

Detail from Book of Kells




7 thoughts on “K is for (Celtic) knotwork…debunking myths!

  1. To clarify- I agree that the knotwork isn’t only Celtic-since cultures have clearly borrowed from each other throughout history- I don’t agree that the ancients didn’t use them- I wanted to clarify because I realized my comment might have come across wrong. Sorry! 🙂

    • Ah, no need to clarify dearest but so kind of you to do so. 🙂 From my research I have found that ancient Celtic art forms were more spirals, circles and paits (as touched upon in the post). The actual knotwork that we nowadays call ‘celtic knotwork’ is much later in origin although with Celtic influence but also influence from other cultures also. Anyway, it is of no matter. It’s good to have differing opinions – wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same LOL 🙂

  2. Thanks for the post, I never really knew much about Celtic knot work. I mean, I had heard the stories about it but wasn’t sure how much truth was in that given the romanticism of the revival. I still think it’s beautiful, I’m just a big fan of knowing the history of things as well. Do you have any recommendations for books on general Celtic history or druids (from a historical perspective)?
    I was going to pick up the Ronald Hutton books, would you recommend them?

    • Glad you liked the post and found it interesting. There is SO much garbage written about the Celts and Celtic tradition but this is mainly due to the Celtic Revival of the 19th Century. You see the Celts wrote nothing down as they were an oral culture. What we know of them comes from archaeology and historical evidence from manuscripts written by the early Christian monks as well as the Druidic ‘universities’ during the Roman Empire times. to get a real honest view of Celts and their history you’ll need to turn to scholarly reference books such as Alwyn and Brinley Rees (Celtic Heritage) and Anne Ross (Pagan Celtic Britain). Those are two I can really recommend although they are not light reading. I think Ronald Hutton is a very good historian and I’ve read all his books too. He is a bit ‘opinionated’ but I think his books are fair and an honest approach. Books I would stay well away from are Graves (the White Goddess), anything written by DJ Conway – not because their books don’t have useful things in them but their historical accuracy is complete pants! Hope this helps 🙂

  3. Triquetra – In my “I” posts I show how to make one out of fabric. 🙂 I agree the design isn’t just from the UK – the Vikings on Gottland and in Denmark were also creating these designs. B

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