Knotwork (Celtic Interlace)
The winding, interlaced design motifs known today as Celtic knotwork are some of the most recognizable Celtic symbols. The complex, winding designs, in a variety of abstract, human, and animal shapes, are found in ancient stone carvings, tattoos, and in the illuminated manuscripts of the Celtic monasteries. Today, the ancient designs continue to resonate, and they are equally likely to be found on bumper stickers, key chains, and coffee cups. A cottage industry has sprung up around knotwork symbols that stand for any number of modern concepts.
A great number of gift shops, books, and websites purport to offer a Celtic knot for just about any meaning or purpose one could imagine, mostly for the purpose of selling trinkets or symbolic tattoos. It is important to remember that to the ancients, the symbolism was ritualized and religious. Consequently, they did not create symbols for concepts of eternal love, sisterhood, faith, or any of the other myriad modern meanings assigned by modern folks.
While the ancient interlace designs had an obvious connection with religious belief, their exact meanings have been lost. The contiguous looping and twining of the designs suggest eternal continuity. Motifs of entangled people, animals, and foliage most likely represented the inter-connectedness, rebirth, and interdependency of the natural elements, reflecting the Celtic worldview that life was in a constant state of flux and renewal. Recurring themes in knotwork include hunters entangled with their prey, animals with their natural enemies, and lovers entwined — the fates of all eternally bound together.
A typical Celtic knot.
In the Christian era, there is evidence the symbols may have been used for talismanic purposes, protecting against evil forces. Designs used in scriptures and on Christian monuments carried over some of this symbolism, although in many cases the designs were simply used for ornamentation.
The most recognizable knot design adopted for Christian use is the triquetra (from the Latin meaning “three cornered”), an ancient emblem of three interlocked vesica pisces symbols, marking where three circles intersect. The triquetra is a very ancient symbol, associated with Neolithic and early Celtic mother goddesses, most likely an emblem of the intertwined domains of earth, ocean, and sky. Later, it was adapted to Christian use, as a representation of the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The triquetra became emblematic of the Protestant church under James Stuart of England, and it was also used as the logo of the 1611 King James Bible.
One variation of the triquetra.
The triqueta is also popular among Wiccans and neopagans, for whom it represents a variety of ideas — most notably, the triple goddess ideal of maiden, mother, and crone.