This is a question that comes up a lot – what are some Pagan Symbols used by the (Celtic) Irish?
It’s kind of a tough one to answer, as we don’t have an extant [surviving through the ages] Irish Pagan tradition, per se. We have a whole lot of Irish mythology, of course, and even more Irish folklore… but no complete system for what it all means, or how to use it.
In modern Irish Paganism, we use many of the same Pagan Symbols as do those in other communities, all over the world. Some of the general Pagan symbols you’ll see at any Irish Wiccan coven meeting or Druid convention include:
- Pentacle – a 5 pointed star, or pentagram, contained within a circle.
- Triple Moon – the image of a circular full moon, with a crescent on either side.
- Eye of Horus – an egyptian stylised eye.
- Ankh – the looped cross of ancient egypt, symbolising life.
- Spiral Goddess – the image of a female formed silhouette, arms raised, with a spiral over the womb.
- Labyrinth – pattern of a pathway that can be followed between worlds.
- Wiccan Symbols for Air, Earth, Fire, Water – these are based off an equilateral triangle.
- Horned God – a circle with crescent horns on top of the ‘head’.
- Tree of Life – common to many cultures, this is the image of a world tree connecting worlds.
- Mandala – can take many forms, but commonly a square with four gates, containing a circle with a center point within.
- Rod of Asclepius – a staff with a snake coiled around it, representing healing… often confused with the Caduceus
- Ouroboros – a serpent eating it’s own tail, representing eternal cycles of death and rebirth.
- Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir) – representing the hammer of the Norse God of thunder and storms.
Any or all of these symbols can be (and are!) used by modern Irish Pagans.
Historical Irish Pagan Symbols
When we look back a little further into our tradition and lore, we have 2 main sources for native Irish Pagan symbols – stone carvings and manuscripts.
Now, either of those may have been influenced by Christianity, and so not count as truly Pagan, perhaps. It depends on the context for them.
That being said though, everything in Ireland is a little bit Pagan, even still… so we can put that one aside, now that we’re aware of it, and look at the sources.
The best example of this, I’d say, is the Ogham alphabet – our Celtic writing system (and I use Celtic here, and through this post, because much of what we have in Ireland on this topic is common across other Celtic cultures).
Ogham appears both carved in stone, and in multiple manuscripts, so it’s ticking both boxes there. With regard to how old this Celtic alphabet might be: we know it existed as a monument script (there’s that early stone carving), in the 400s CE [Common Era].
It was designed for the Irish language, so we can place in at pre Christian times, probably, through that – if it was just made for the monks, they would more like have designed it through Latin.
What other Pagan Symbols were used in ancient Ireland?
It’s back to the stone carving folks, and this time, let’s look at our monuments. One of the more famous ones is Brú na Bóinne, with the 3 great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Built by the Dagda, so they say (and you can read some fascinating stories on that guy right here), these monuments have stood in Ireland for over 5,000 years, and when they were being built, symbolic artwork was a big part of their construction.
Some of it is spectacular: wonderful combinations of spirals, lozenges, chevrons, triangles and arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. It occurs particularly on the structural stones of the tombs but also occurs on some artefacts that have been found within and around them.
Knowth alone has about 45% of all the art known from Irish tombs and nearly 30% of all the megalithic art in Europe.
[Images courtesy of World Heritage Ireland, © 2010 Dept. Environment, Heritage & Local Government.]
What do these Irish Pagan Symbols Mean?
In short, we don’t know. Great answer, right?
We do have theories, of course.
- The spiral and concentric circles may represent the movement of the sun and stars, a fascination with the changing seasons and how the cycles related to the lives of those who carved them.
- They might be maps: maps of the area, maps of the otherworld, maps of the stars… or ‘maps’ of music, or energy lines.
- A strong theory is that the art represents images seen by shamans during rituals, as they are common across many different cultures who most likely wouldn’t have had any contact.
- These Pagan symbols may well have been used as meditation devices, to guide seekers on Journeys.
Whatever their original purpose, we can utilise them now for any of these reasons as fits with our personal practice. The Irish Pagan symbols that remain to us are an incredibly valuable connection to our ancestors, and the wisdom of ancient Ireland.
I’d love to learn what Pagan symbols call to you, or which ones you make use of? Let me know in the comments below!
If you want to get some focused guidance on where (or how) to start exploring an authentic Irish spiritual practice, I’ve just released 2 Beginners’ Classes on the Irish Pagan School…
- A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality – How to Begin? – from the 3 Worlds of Irish Cosmology, through Ancestry, Ancient Places, Sacred Cycles…. and More (just €17, $20).
- Introduction to Irish Pagan Spirituality – Learn about Irish Paganism, Magic and Spirituality from a practicing Draoí, a Native Irish Priestess of Ireland (just €17, $20).
Hopefully, those options give you something solid to be getting going with. If there’s anything else I can do for you, let me know?