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Celtic Jewelry – Symbol, Art And Mystic Hand In Hand

Celtic round dogs

Celtic jewelry are easy recognizable due to their intricate interwoven patterns. You have probably seen a Celtic knot or a letter surrounded by lines, mazes and impossible to do looking patterns. But did you know that this kind of jewelry have a long and interesting history? And that those lovely pieces of craftsmanship have deep and mythical meanings?

There are not lot of knowledge about the original Celtic people. They transferred their knowledge verbally and not in any written form, so much of their history is lost in time. There are some things we know though.

Today we can find their descendants in Ireland and Scotland, but originally they came from Germanic tribes in mid and western Europe. Archeological findings show that they used to adorn themselves with jewelry, brooches and other artifacts and that they did the same with their horses.

They buried their dead with their jewelry, so we have proof of their exceptional metal working skills in museums around the world. Celtic jewelry is a living display of their culture, tradition and belief.

For reasons unknown, the Celtic tribes invaded today's British islands, and settled there. They had agriculture and crafts as their main occupation, and their peace regularly interrupted by invasions and brutal raids from the vikings (my ancestors), Romans and Saxons. Traces of Celtic influence on Norwegian jewelry can be seen in ancient jewelry from the Viking ages, but in a more crude form.

The Celtic jewelry were very ornate, symbolic and enchanting, and was sought after by traders for their beauty and quality. Their golden era in jewelry making was between 200 BC to 500 AD, but Celtic jewelry design is still highly priced today, created with many of the same techniques that the ancient Celts used. Many of the beautiful pieces they created during this period can be seen in The National Museum Of Ireland.

The Celts believed in reincarnation, and used symbols in their jewelry. Most of the meanings of the different symbols are lost, so one can only guess what they were meant to be. Over time though new meanings have been put on the different symbols, and many are pampered with several meanings. But, symbols were important to the Celts. They payed tribute to nature by adding symbols to their swords, shields, clothing, jewelry and even tattooed them on their bodies.

They often used symbols of animals for spiritual reasons, like to attain the characteristic of the animal, not unlike other ancient tribes. But, the Celts took this to a higher level, by interweaving them into mazes, spirals and geometrical shapes.
Spirals, maze patterns and knotwork were dominant in the Celtic jewelry and culture until they came under christian influence. After 450 AD these patterns were adopted into christian designs and manuscripts.

The first true Christian Celtic knot works are seen in the Irish monks gospel books, such as the Book of Kells and the Book of Lindisfame. Monks used Celtic patterns to adorn their pages, often with inlay of gold leaf. You can see them in old bibles, where the first letter of each page is large and intricately surrounded by Celtic knots and mazes, or used as frames around the pages.

Before invading the British islands, the Celts were the first central European tribe to experience and profit from the iron age and they took the knowledge with them to the British islands. When the roman empire collapsed in 300 AD, the freedom from the Romans gave a boost for cultural and spiritual development for the Celts. They were relatively isolated on the islands, and was not largely influenced by other cultures as they had been in central Europe, so their culture and art continued to evolve in peace.

With the fall of the Roman empire, Christianity came to the islands. Before that their metal crafts had mainly been to make weapon and jewelry. With Christianity they crafted more artifacts related to religion. They did however still use their pagan motifs in the designs. This era is also referred to as the Christian Celtic Renaissance, and some of the most beautiful crosses are created with Celtic designs, even today.
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Over time metal work techniques developed and new techniques were introduced. New types of Celtic jewelry were created, like the penannular brooch, a type or ring brooch with a gap through which a pin could be inserted.
One of the most famous surviving masterpiece from that period is the Tara brooch. The brooch did not come from the hills of Tara, but was called Tara for commercial purposes. It was actually found outside Bettystown by a peasant woman in 1850. The metal work in the Tara brooch is exceptional, and shows clearly the advanced metalworking in Ireland during the early Christian era. You can see it in the National Museum of Ireland.

The most known designs:
The symbolic meaning of Celtic designs are long lost, but there are some that have widely accepted meanings. There are however no solid facts backing these meanings, since the Celts never put anything down in writing.

Knots and interlace:
May represent the crossing of the physical and spiritual paths of our lives. Never ending knots may represent the permanence and continuum of life, love and faith. But, again, there are no facts to underline this as true.

Cruz de Santa Susana

The Celtic cross:
This cross is easily recognizable due to the characteristic circle. The circle may be seen as a pagan symbol of the sun, but some Celtic Christians would argue and say that it is a clairvoyant anticipation of the coming of Christianity by the pre-Christian druids. However they tend to forget that the halo in Christianity also is the pagan symbol of the sun, picked by Emperor Constantine in year 330 AD, to merge different religions into one, the Christianity, for political reasons.
Celtic Bronze Disc, Longban Island, Derry

Spirals occur frequently in nature, like snail shells, galaxies and whirlpools. It is the oldest sign of humans artistic vocabulary and is found in most traditions of the world. The overall accepted meaning of the Celtic spiral is that if it goes clockwise, it represents good luck and blessing. If it goes the other way it represents spells.
It may however be difficult to determine the direction of a spiral, depending on whether it is followed inwards or outwards. Spirals that goes in both directions may be seen as being in balance.

Maze patterns:
Is widely accepted as the symbol of the journey we take on the long and winding road of life.

Symbolism in Celtic jewelry today:
Celtic designs are today very popular in jewelry and also in tattoos. The meaning of the symbols are flourishing, although the old meanings are long lost. The widely accepted versions of interpretation of the symbols, are based on findings in graves and archeological sites, but have no proof about their true meanings.

Whether newly invented meanings should be accepted are hotly debated. However, the mysticism of the Celtics stunning work is enough to spellbind us, and Celtic jewelry is not bought solemnly because of its beauty, but also because the old or new symbolism mean something to us. Therefor Celtic jewelry represents something deeper and more personal than many other types of jewelry. We are seduced by their knotworks and decorative motifs which still picture and represent the symbolism and mystic from ancient times.

Over time the styles and decorative motifs have changed. In modern times Alexander Ritchie is considered the father of the 20th century Celtic jewelry designs, and designers like Archibald Knox have transformed Celtic knot work into Art Noveau designs. So, if a beautiful new designed Celtic knot have a meaning that makes sense to you, is that not enough? Does the meaning it had almost 2000 years ago necessary have to be the same as today?

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