Celtic Cross | An emblem rooted in the Nordic culture
A civilization of travelers, nomads and great warriors, the Viking mixed with all cultures, and their influence spread throughout their reign. The nobility and refinement of this culture can be seen in one of the greatest symbols of our time: the Celtic cross.
Widespread throughout Scandinavia and the Celtic region, it transmits the heritage of Northern Europe, and carries its values. Behind its religious appearance are hidden meanings and values intimately linked to Viking and Celtic beliefs and deities.
Do you know the mysterious origins of the Celtic cross? Do you want to discover in more depth the symbolism and the implicit meanings it inspires? In today’s article, we will trace the history of this priceless jewel, and explore in great detail all aspects associated with it.
The structure of the Celtic cross
The Celtic cross, also known as the nimbus cross or the eucharistic cross, is a well-known emblem consisting of a cross and a ring. It represents the symbol of Celtic Christianity, the religious and spiritual current that reached its peak in the 7th century, following the pagan religions that were widespread in the region.
The two elements of which it is made up, the cross and the circle in its center, constitute a rather characteristic whole, and distinguish it radically from similar and derived symbols. The central part, which was initially used to consolidate the assembly, was gradually transformed into a decorative item from which the branches of the cross protrude.
Depending on the context in which it is found, there are two distinct configurations
- The irregular cross, where the vertical leg is longer than the horizontal, which has a religious connotation.
- The regular cross, with legs of the same length, which is better known in symbology and politics.
The mystical origins of the Celtic cross
Named after the region that gave birth to it, the Celtic cross was the pride of ancient European populations, and by extension that of the Vikings. Its origin is not in doubt, and is duly documented by historical and archaeological findings dating back to the 8th century.
The etymology of the Celtic cross
There are several terms that can refer to the Celtic cross. The original term for it was “Nimbed Cross,” meaning that it was hooped, a way of describing its distinctive structure. Gradually, as this distinctive element took a back seat to religious values, the term Celtic took over.
It was first mentioned by Anglo-Saxons in the mid-nineteenth century, initiated by the Pancelltic cultural movement Celtic Revival. Indeed, there was a tendency to associate the Celtic cross exclusively with Ireland, to the point of calling it the Irish Cross. In order to avoid the appropriation of this common heritage, it was preferred to switch to the word Celtic which also includes Scotland, Cornwall and Wales.
On the other hand, it was also called “Eucharistic Cross“, especially in religious circles. Thus, the circle of the cross would be the holy host, the round-shaped bread, found during the Christian Eucharist.
Scandinavian roots, Catholic influences
Historians trace the origins of the Celtic cross to the British Isles. The Vikings would also have contributed to the emergence of its first examples. Although the exact inspirations are mysterious, it is suggested that these would have been linked to the pagan beliefs that were dominant at the time. Norse mythology, including the god Odin, and Celtic beliefs contributed greatly.
It is through migrations and sea explorations that this symbol reached the continent, and that it mixed with other cultures. Traces of the passage of the Scandinavians are notably evoked in Brittany, where the most models of these crosses are found in France.
It is at this time that the impregnation of the Catholic religion took place, to which it is very much linked today. Many monuments, places of worship and cemeteries testify to the first rapprochement between these two entities. The most emblematic are :
- The Celtic cross of Kells, established in Ireland, on areas that suffered Viking plunder in the 10th century.
- The cross of Saint Cado, located in Brittany which was a region occupied by the Vikings for years.
The mysterious history of Celtic crosses
The history of the Celtic cross is intimately linked to that of Ireland in the Middle Ages. Its evolution followed that of the country, in parallel with the cultural and societal changes of which it was seat.
The Celtic cross and Ireland
At the very beginning, Ireland was formed by a group of villages independent of each other. The lack of coordination exposed them to the danger of the Viking invasion and its disastrous consequences. The largest naval force of the time made short work of the divided people of the time.
Nevertheless, the arrival of the Vikings unified the kingdom, and more importantly, allowed the Nordic culture and its associated pagan beliefs to reign. Various items and runes were brought in during the Scandinavian raids, all related to Viking symbolism. The most notable was, without a doubt, the Celtic cross.
After the raids, the peasants had no other refuge than the churches, because everything was ravaged by the barbarians. Gathered around a Celtic cross, one of the few objects that resisted the massacres, they prayed to be delivered from the Scandinavian occupiers. The rapprochement towards the monotheistic religion started from then on, under the effect of the oppression and the war.
According to some sources, it was Saint Patrick who introduced this symbol to the Irish, as part of the conversion of the people under pagan rule to Christianity. A movement that led to radical revolutions in Ireland, and in the whole Celtic region. A metaphor would therefore be hidden behind this nimbed cross: the circle, representing the obscurantism of the Nordic religions, disappeared, giving way to Christianity.
The double origin of Celtic crosses is well demonstrated by this example, which is also the origin of the diversity of meanings of this symbol. The balance between darkness and light, between rings and crosses, is well highlighted throughout its history.
The panceltic movement, the savior of the nimbed cross
After many centuries, the Celtic cross has been in sharp decline, especially in Great Britain. Long used in religious ceremonies, the very existence of the nimbed crosses ceased following the Reformation in the 14th century. It was thought that they would disappear for good.
The great return of the Celtic crosses was made thanks to the Celtic Revival Movement. It has allowed the rediscovery of this symbol rooted in the culture of the region, and to give it its due. They have taken up this mystical symbol for the making of traditional jewelry with a tinge of Celtic and Scandinavian culture.
Meaning of the Celtic cross
The Celtic cross is an ancient symbol whose origins go back to the time of the most ancient civilizations. Whether in Native American, Chinese or more recent Christian traditions, the cross has existed in various forms before becoming the Celtic cross we know today.
The oldest crosses, with only four branches that stop at the edges of their circles, are called “sun wheels”. This primary type of cross is found as early as the beginning of the Stone Age on rock paintings in Sweden, dating back to well before the age of Christianity.
It was long after this that the cross was adopted as a Christian symbol. It represents the “signaculum domini”: the five-pointed wound of Christ. Alluding to the heart, it symbolizes life, love and the essence of all things.
The heart is seen as a symbol, more powerful than the sun itself, because it offers without taking. Indeed, the heart gives life without asking for anything in return, just like the Lord’s limitless graces to mankind.
However, it is long before that; more precisely in Celtic mythology, that the nimbed cross finds all its quintessence.
The meaning of the cross in the Celtic civilization
The Celtic cross has three circles, each representing in Celtic mythology the different levels of the universe, where the soul will make its ascent:
- The outermost circle, which is called the “Keugant“. It represents the world of chaos and emptiness, where only the Uncreated or the Creator can live. It encompasses the other two circles that represent creation.
- The second circle corresponds to “Abred“. It is the representation of the earthly world, where man must prove himself, and acquire the experience that will be necessary to reach the last celestial level.
- The last circle, the smallest of the three circles, represents the “Gwenwed“. It is the equivalent of paradise, a world of light and prosperity where the soul lives in peace for all eternity.
Thus, the Celtic cross symbolizes both the journey of man and the experience he must acquire to reach transcendence, but also reminds us of the omnipresence of the creator at each of these stages.
Indeed, to hope to reach the world of Gwenwed light, man must first prove his worth on Abred. To do so, he must acquire the necessary knowledge, the source of all enlightenment.
But if he fails, he will be sent back to the very first circle, the Keugant. He will have to wait to be reincarnated by God, to try once again to reach the white world Gwenwed.
Only, if in the course of this journey, the man allows his soul to be perverted, he risks being lost in the darkness. His punishment will be to descend to Annoum or Anwn, the fourth hidden circle of the Celtic cross that illustrates hell. Ironically, it is represented by the shadow of the last circle Gwenwed.
This particular arrangement of the different circles also symbolizes our solar system. Gwenwed in the center represents the sun which is surrounded by eight planets.
As for the four branches of the Celtic cross, they symbolize either :
- The four elements of the earth, that is to say: water, air, fire and earth;
- Astronomical representations of the seasons, more precisely the 2 solstices and 2 equinoxes;
- Or by the 4 plant elements corresponding to each of these seasons: mistletoe, clover, ear, acorn.
Whatever their meaning, these four branches are linked to the fifth element “ether”. In ancient times, this element was considered the fluid that fills all space and represents the source of all light. In the Celtic cross, the Gwenwed or circle of divine light is the ether.
The Celtic cross in modern civilizations
Despite its modern representation essentially linked to Christianity, the Celtic cross has very ancient origins, essentially pagan.
It is found in various cultures, but the most significant is undoubtedly the Viking civilization. The wheel of the sun, another name for the nimbed cross, was also called the cross of Odin. This is a direct allusion to the origins of the father of the gods, the one who was at the origin of the creation of the Viking world.
According to Viking mythology, it was Odin who gave the first Viking men the gift of knowledge. It is thanks to this knowledge that they will be able to reach the ultimate enlightenment and thus be able to make their ascent from the circle of “Abred” to the paradise.
Discover our Celtic Crosses !
The nimbed cross, whether considered a Celtic or Catholic symbol, is now ubiquitous in our modern culture. It can be found in tattoos, pendants and objects of worship, all of which are charged with mysticism and meaning.
A pillar of Scandinavian cultural identity, it is the pride of the Celtic countries, and a strong link to their ancient origins. You too can discover our Celtic crosses, a symbol that will surely seduce you.