The Celts or Gauls as referred to by the Romans of that time, originated from Eastern Europe. Their lands extended from Ireland to Hungary and as far south as Spain and Galatia in Asia Minor. In search of better grounds and by utilizing the Danube River, they spread into Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other regions in France, Scotland and Russia. Archaeological records reveal that many of their lands were densely inhabited and well farmed, dotted with settlements and gathering places, and often forts and shrines
Ancient Greek manuscripts dating back as far as the 4 th century A.D were the first documented proof of the Celts existence. By that time, according to Greek manuscripts, their numbers were so great; they were considered one of the greatest barbarian cultures of that era. The Celts inhabited huge areas in Europe, with each tribe maintaining its own individuality. They did share close similarities in religion, language and culture.
The Celts lived in large circular bungalows with wicker walls and thatched roofs. They dined and slept on the floor using wild animal hides to keep them warm. The fireplace was situated in the centre part of their home to allow enough space for all residents of the household to sit comfortably. The Greeks described the Celts as fairly tall people, with white skin and blonde hair. The Celtic people use to dye their bodies with extracts from Woad ( Isatis tinctoria , a hardy biennial plant native to northern Europe and the British Isles, which is a source of the blue dye chemical indigotin), and drew animal figures and swirl patterns on large portions of their skin. With time the Woad would turn blue and make the Celts look fierce in battle. These same patterns decorated clothing and many objects in the Celts daily lives.
Celtic Jewelry Inspiration
Most patterns of Celtic artwork found today, originate from stone carvings and jewelry objects, some dating back to around 3000BC. Some relics were excavated from burial sites, where jewelry made of precious and non precious metals and jars were all that remained. Celtic artwork consists of many different interlinked patterns, many of which are used today in gold and silver jewelry. One of the most inspiring Celtic sites is named Skara Brae, located in the Orkney Islands, in the Northeast coast of Scotland. Skara Brae was a rather large Celtic settlement and many of the patterns we know today, were taken from objects found there. Gold and sterling silver rings , pendants , earrings , bracelets , necklaces and anklets , have all been inspired by these ancient Celtic designs . Torque bangles have been found, dating back to the Stone Age, made with precious gold and silver alloys. The most common form of motif found in Celtic pattern art is the single spiral expansion, which most likely symbolizes prosperity. The Irish Celts used this pattern as a symbol of their sun, loosely joined symbolized summer and tightly joined was the symbol for winter. A double spiral in the form of an S shape, meant day and also night. The widely used three-piece spirals were the preliminary signs of Celtic Christianity , and were used by the early Celtic monks, most likely representing the 3 trinities, The Father, The Son & The Holy Ghost. The Celts not only used knot patterns in their art, they also used fierce animals portraits such as eagles, wolves, dogs and snakes. The animal patterns are called Zoomorphs and are very commonly combined with interlacing knots.
The interlacing knots, which are the core of Celtic art, represent everlasting continuance, as they show neither beginning nor end. Some of these distinctive patterns are extremely popular as wedding ring designs, representing everlasting love.
Borders knots are also popular and were used by monks to frame their artwork. Borders are usually shaped as intricate knots. The Greek key or Maze patterns are also inspired by Celtic art.
A Few Celtic Symbols
Much of the Celtic art is depicted with animals as the main theme. The Celts were full of admiration and respect for animals. Birds' portraits in particular, were used in silver and gold jewelry; mainly engraved in to silver necklaces , silver rings , silver bracelets cookware and wall paintings. The Celts seemed to think that by painting the figure of a certain animal on their belongings, they would miraculously be bestowed with its distinctive characteristics; like the bravery and cunningness of a wolf, the sharp eyesight of the Hawk, and speed of the horse. The Celts typically engraved animal symbols on their shields, a practice, which strengthened in medieval times and developed in to the Heraldry era, when certain clans were recognized by the unique symbols on their crests.
The earliest animal used by the Celts was the snake, clearly recognizable in the Celtic interlacing knot work. The body of the snake takes on a twist and its head showing either in the centre of the knot or around the outer edges of the pattern. Snakes are known to shed their skin, therefore were thought of as being reborn or immortal. Although many snake species are extremely poisonous, their venom was a symbol of healing. The sideways slithering of a snake symbolized a river, the sea and the connection between heaven and earth. Being phallic symbols, Snakes were also considered as protectors to the Celts many different gods.
Horses were popular with the nobility of the Celts and were a symbol of wealth. Their speed strength and elegance were admired and respected. The Celts also worshipped a horse goddess named Epona, between the 1st and the 4th century AD. Unfortunately, the horse was also the most sacrificed animal used by the Celts in their efforts to satisfy the gods. Centuries later, the horse was adapted with wings so that it had the gift of flight. This symbol eventually materialized in to Pegasus, A winged horse from the Greek Mythology.
Dogs are commonly featured in Celtic artwork. In most cases, the dogs were placed in a triangular shape, which symbolized divinity. As hunting animals, dogs were aggressive and served as watchdogs at home and the afterlife. Many graves that were excavated had the remains of at least one dog in them, implying that they were killed and buried with family members who perished, so that they may protect them on their journey to the afterlife.
Another holy animal that was cherished by the Celts was the Rooster. So much so that it was forbidden to eat the Rooster in some Celtic settlements. The call of the rooster marks the beginning of a new day. It is a bird of battle and was ornamented on warriors to give them courage. The rooster is still to this day and emblem on coat of arms in France.
The sword was another symbol used in Celtic artwork. Being warring people, the Celts developed extraordinary weapons making skills, particularly in making swords, lances and spears. They were very particular with the intricate patterns, showing superiority in metal work. The handles of swords were also brilliantly fashioned in to snakes and human forms, again showing quality craftsmanship.
The number 3 was very important in Celtic ideals. Not only was it to melt in to Christianity with the 3 trinities, but it also stood for the 3 transitions of life - birth life and death.