The Celtic Cross is essentially a combination of two of the most basic shapes that appear in the symbology of the ages – the circle and the cross. Often also known as the Irish Cross, it has long been associated with the Christian traditions of the Celts, particularly those with roots in Ireland.
However, as is the case with virtually all the ancient symbols we have uncovered, the history of the Celtic Cross is not as cut and dried as the name might initially suggest.
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The Celtic Cross – A Ringed Cross or Something Else?
Ringed crosses, of which the Celtic Cross is simply one manifestation, first appeared in association with Christianity in Ireland and Scotland in the 9th century. There is considerable debate over whether they are an original Christian symbol or something that was adopted or modified from earlier native religions.
By exact definition, an Irish Cross or Celtic Cross has to have four semi-circles cut away at the four points where the horizontal and vertical beams meet. It is also a common trait that the lower vertical section is wider at the base than at the point where it meets the center, while the other sections are rectangular.
Neither of these are strictly followed in the modern tradition. It is because of this divergence from what were the defining features of the Celtic Cross that there is great debate over its origins.
The discussion often involves its comparison with similar symbols from around the world that are thought – either correctly or incorrectly – to have inspired the Irish Cross.
The Celtic Cross and the Sun Cross
The sun cross is a symbol remarkably similar to the Celtic Cross in that it is a combination of the two basic shapes of circle and cross. The sun cross, though, has a history that stretches much further back into human history. Even if it is not directly related to the Irish Cross, it might be a predecessor of the shape.
The sun cross is a circle divided into four equal quadrants by a horizontal and a vertical line. Neither of the two lines extend beyond the circumference of the circle. This symbol, the earliest remnants of which have been dated to the Neolithic Age, was used by early Europeans who revered the sun for its essential role in giving and sustaining all life on earth.
Experts suggest that the sun cross was a representation of the disc of the sun combined with spokes of a wheel deemed to be a depiction of that of the chariot of the Sun God who moved the giant orb across the heavens. The four quadrants may be taken to represent the four seasons of the year or the four stages of the day – morning, midday, evening and midnight.
The early pagan peoples of Europe and modern-day India, loosely known as the Aryans, held the sun in very high regard and symbols associated with the heavenly body are widespread in monuments and relics from their history. It is an appealing argument that early Christians were eager to associate the similarity between the symbol of Christ with that of the sun for the positive connotations that it held.
The Celtic Cross and the Egyptian Ankh
The ankh was one of the most potent symbols of the combination of heavenly and earthly power in ancient Egyptian society. It was almost an essential accessory of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon and was always either carved or put into the pyramid tombs of the pharaohs, all of whom were considered god-kings
Coming many millennia after the sun cross, the Egyptian ankh, too, is nevertheless also often considered a precursor to the Celtic Cross. In fact, the Coptic Christians adopted the ankh wholesale in its original form and it is the official symbol of their church.
However, rather than being a reference to the sun, it is thought that the ankh may be the combination of a phallic symbol and a symbol of the female divine, juxtaposed to represent a union of the two which is the basis of human life.
The Celtic Cross and …Carpentry?
Another interesting theory is that the ring of the Celtic Cross was not originally a ring at all. Some researchers speculate that the very first crosses which were constructed of wood needed supporting struts to strengthen the overall structure.
This came in the shape of four smaller wooden pieces placed diagonally between the four spokes formed by the main horizontal and vertical beams. It is thought that this shape eventually evolved into the circular halo which we see in the Celtic Cross.
It may very well also be that the circular shape was much preferred to the straight lines of the original supporting bars because Christian iconography so often depicted Christ and other revered individuals with a similar halo.
Adorning the Irish Cross
A discovery of Irish Christian history is particularly fascinating because of the amazing art that often accompanies it.
Known as Insular Art – referring to both Ireland as an ‘island’ and the art form’s character which is distinct from that of the rest of Europe – its intricate detail and characteristic beauty have perhaps made it more popular today than it was at any time in the past.
Irish Crosses are rarely unadorned, particularly when they appear on headstones and other objects within the compounds of Irish Christian institutions. Large stone high crosses are possibly both the best and the most well-known examples of this.
While the oldest high crosses like Muiredach’s High Cross in Monasterboice often feature depictions of people, illustrations of more distinctly-Celtic designs like Celtic knots and the Celtic Tree of Life have found widespread favor today. The latter is popularly designed as a knot as well.
The Celtic Cross Today
It is a remarkable fact how widespread the distinct shape of the Irish Cross is in the modern era. The beauty of its form, accompanied by the exquisite and intricate designs that are its constant companions, give it an appeal that transcend the bounds of religion, race, creed and geography.