Beyond the Shamrock: Celtic Lore and Symbolism

Mceltic cross 2ost people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the tradition of Saint Patrick’s Day – originally a Catholic feast day that is now a fun secular celebration for many. But did you know that there is much more to Celtic symbolism than the four leaf clover and the leprechaun? This symbolism is rich and many-layered; much of it extends back into the mists of Celtic history by hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Below are just a few of the items considered significant in ancient Celtic lore, legend, and mythology.

Cauldron. To the Celts, the cauldron may have symbolized the womb of the Great Mother, from which we all arise and to which we all must return. It is the ultimate symbol of abundance and regeneration. The magic cauldron figures largely in a number of Celtic myths and is probably the predecessor to the Irish “pot o’ gold.”

Celtic Cross. The Celtic Cross represents the bridge between celestial and earthly forces. They are also considered solar symbols, and sources of potent spiritual power and energy.
Green man 1Green Man. The Green Man is the ultimate archetype of the Earth and Nature. Sometimes associated with the stag-god, he is the personification of the forest. In days gone by his foliate face often bedecked the doors of churches and cathedrals.


Horse. Associated with the Celtic goddesses Epona, Macha and Rhiannon, the horse epitomizes the sovereignty of the land. As embodiments of maternity, prosperity, and prophecy, they guide and protect mortals on their journeys through life.

KnotCeltic knot 1work. For the Celts, life was seen as a riddle or the “eternal journey.” Celtic knotwork may have symbolized their labyrinthine sojourn through eternity, and their understanding of various levels upon their spiritual quest.


Oaoak leaf public domain 1k. The Druids often saw the oak as the mightiest of the sacred trees, a figure of courage and endurance and the protective power of faith. It is regarded as a doorway to inner spirituality and a pathway to heaven.


Raven. The raven is an all-knowing messenger of the Otherworld, and a vehicle of deatraven public domain 3h and transformation. The raven is especially associated with the Irish goddess known as the Morrigan and theWelsh god Bran.


Salmon. Salmon are often connected with sacred wells and springs, sites of spiritual rebirth and healing. Salmon are said to eat the sacred hazel nuts which fell from above, thus bestowing them with worldly wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

Sheela-na-Gig. A Celtic fertility goddess, her blatantly sexual figure was once placed over the doorways of churches. They were removed upon the establishment of modern Christianity with its initial revulsion of anything “of the flesh.”

Celtic spiralsSpirals. Spirals are found carved on the walls of Newgrange, an ancient burial site in Ireland. To the Celts, spirals may have represented the life source, serpentine energy, cyclic time, and the never-ending journey of the soul.
deer stag public domain 2
Stag. Horned animals, especially stags, may have been associated with male sexuality and with the wild force of Nature. Known as Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter, the stag or antlered god is the ruler and protector of the forest and of animals.

tree public domain 1Trees. Their roots extend deep into the earth; their branches reach into the heavens, reminding us as above, so below. The ancient Celts used an alphabet called Ogham; each letter was associated with a sacred tree.

trinity knot


Trinity Knot. To the Celts, three was both a sacred and magical number. The trinity or threefold knot reflected that sacredness and may have been used as an amulet of protection.


triskele 4Triskele (the triple spiral). One of the most common features of the Celtic world was the importance given to triplicities. The triskele may have been a magical charm to avert evil and/or to impart good fortune to its owner.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Stewart, R.J. Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses.
London: Cassell, 1990.

Bord, Janet and Colin. Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland.
London: Granada, 1985.

Green, Miranda. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend.
New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

James, David, editor. Celtic Connections.
London: Cassell, 1996.

O hOgain, Daithi. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. New Yotk: Prentice Hall Press, 1991.

Sharkey, John. Celtic Mysteries: The Ancient Religion.
New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

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