The Celtic Cross (sometimes called a Gaelic cross) is a powerful symbol that has been used for centuries, but its origin and meaning are often misunderstood, especially when it comes to the crossover of Christianity and Paganism in Ireland. In this blog post, we will explore the history of the Celtic Cross and try to answer the question: Is the Celtic Cross Pagan?
We will look at how it has been used in different cultures and religions throughout history, as well as its current usage in modern times. By understanding the history of this symbol, we can gain insight into its true meaning and significance.
What is the Celtic Cross?
The Celtic Cross is a symbol that has been used for centuries by people in what we now call the ‘Celtic Nations’, and it is also present in other cultures. The term ‘Celtic Nations’ does not refer to a particular blood line, or genetic heritage. It is instead an academic term used to speak to a collective of tribes that share commonality on things like language, art, or culture. The Celtic cross’ usual form is that of an equal armed cross with a circle around it, which is often decorated with intricate patterns, including high relief carvings of human and animal figures, and the decorative art style known as Celtic strapwork.
The Celtic Cross has become an iconic symbol of Celtic culture and heritage, as well as being associated with Christianity through the imagery of a cross, even though in this case the arms of the cross are generally equal in length as opposed to the classical christian depiction as shown on a crucifix.
The History of the Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross has a long and varied history, with its roots stretching back to ancient times, in Ireland and beyond. A form of this symbol may have originated in the Iron Age, perhaps to signify protection, strength, or the cycle of the sun. If we attribute the symbol solely to Christianity, its thought that missionaries introduced the Celtic cross to Ireland around the 5th century CE (Common Era).
At least 60 examples remain here today, in churches and graveyards with a number of associated ruins still standing. May of these Irish crosses were built until around the mid-12th century, after which time their construction tapered off significantly, if not stopped completely.
The oldest known Celtic Cross in Ireland is the Muiredach’s High Cross, located in Monasterboice, County Louth. This cross dates back to the 10th century and is considered one of the most important examples of early Christian art in Ireland. It stands at over 8 feet tall and features intricate carvings of biblical scenes, as well as the traditional Celtic knotwork designs.
Another interesting tale about a Celtic cross is that of the Nethercross or Lowercross of Finglas. It is said that it was carved from granite to honour St. Canice who has studied at a famous school on the banks of the Tolka river. The school was created in the 6th century and had no less than five saints linked to it as a place of learning. The cross stood for a thousand years marking the northern boundary of Finglas village, until word reached them of the invasion of Cromwell and his forces at Ringsend in 1649. The cross was dismantled and hidden, buried in a grave so that it could not be desecrated, and was then believed lost to history.
That is until 1806, when a vicar assigned to Finglas heard a story. Rev. Robert Walsh was fascinated by the tale of Finglas’ hidden Celtic cross and decided to pursue the legend. Following the oral traditions of Ireland’s past, the tale had been carried down through the generations of one particular family. Dr. Walsh spoke with an old man whose grandfather, as a boy, had been at the burial. After one hundred and sixty years, hidden in the land, the buried cross was found. It was erected in the corner of the ancient graveyard and still stands there to this day.
The Celtic Revival of the mid-19th century led to an increased use and creation of Celtic crosses in Ireland. In 1853, casts of several historical high crosses were exhibited at the Dublin Industrial Exhibition. In 1857, Henry O’Neill published ‘Illustrations of the Most Interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland’. These two events stimulated interest in the Celtic cross as a symbol for a renewed sense of heritage within Ireland. Since the Celtic Revival, the ringed cross became an emblem of Celtic identity, in addition to its more traditional religious symbolism.
Unfortunately a version of the Celtic cross is inappropriately used as a symbol by white nationalists and white supremacists. It was used by Nazis in Norway in the 1930s and 1940s, and more recently it has been used by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacist groups. Their misappropriation of this symbol may stem from their foolish and incorrect belief that ‘Celtic nation’ refers to some line of genetic ancestry. The symbol is used by non-extremists in contexts such as Christianity, neo-Paganism, and Irish patriotism. The vast majority of uses of the Celtic cross are not associated with white supremacists.
The Meaning Behind the Celtic Cross
Exploring the meaning behind the Celtic cross necessitates a deep dive into what can only be considered as cultural symbolism and given that cultures change over time, their inferences and understandings also change. This form of exploration needs to be taken with some margin for error in interpretation.
An equal armed cross is thought to represent the four directions of the compass in ancient cultures. It can also symbolize protection, strength, or the cycle of the sun. In fact, though the Celtic cross is notably different, its does share much of the same form as the Sun Cross examples of which can be found as early as the neolithic and into the bronze age. Similar imagery also can be seen in the Sacred Hoop or Medicine Wheel. This symbol sees widespread use by Native Americans.
The circle around the cross is thought to represent eternity, and the combination of the two symbols can be seen as a representation of the unity between heaven and earth.
Popular legend in Ireland says that the Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick. It has been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity, the cross, with the original symbol of the sun cross to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the christian cross. By linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun its was thought that the symbol might appeal to pagans. Other interpretations claim that placing the cross on top of the circle represents Christ’s supremacy over the pagan sun.
The Celtic Cross has been interpreted in many different ways throughout history. For some, it is a symbol of Christianity, while for others it is a symbol of Paganism. It can also be seen as a representation of the unity between heaven and earth, or as a symbol of protection and strength, but is also notably used as an emblem of Celtic identity.
Is the Celtic Cross Pagan?
The answer to this question could be yes or no, honestly. It is very difficult to carbon date stone, archaeologically, and we rely on this and other scientific methods to provide some context, as well as certain indicators such as particular carvings or representations. Many of these would indicate Christian provenance, in the examples we have of the Celtic Cross.
Perhaps, though, people see what they want to see, when they examine the carvings – archaeologists and historians are certainly fallible, and subject to personal bias.
The Celtic Cross, or symbols that share much of the same form, have been used by many cultures throughout history, including those who practiced Paganism. However, it has also been adopted by Christianity and is now seen as a symbol of faith in many parts of the world.
So is the Celtic Cross Pagan?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. To some, it is a symbol of Christianity, while to others it is a symbol of Paganism. The truth is that the Celtic Cross has been used by many different cultures and religions throughout history, and its meaning can vary depending on the context in which it is used.
Ultimately, the meaning of the Celtic Cross is up to the individual. For some, it may represent a connection to their Celtic heritage, while for others it may be a symbol of faith and hope. What do you think?
Where To Now?
If you think that Paganism is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: