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Celtic tattoos and body art (as well as other tribal tattoos) have been very popular for the past decade or so. Put it down to the graceful, timeless beauty of these designs which seem to lend themselves particularly well to tattoo art.
The Celts were an Indo-European group of people whose history goes back to the second century BC. They lived in tribes and roamed the territory of Western Europe.
Think of Celtic knots, crosses or spirals – or, more often than not, an intricate combination of several of these elements, which are often seen as black armband tattoos or as a sleeve tattoo.
Here's an overview of the various Celtic tattoo designs and their meaning. Some of these designs are very old, dating back several thousand years and they will give you aesthetic satisfaction for years to come.
Celtic Cross Tattoos
The Celtic cross (aka Irish cross) is the standard Christian cross, but with a circle around the intersection. Intricate knotwork adorns the cross, making it both simple (in its overall design) and complex at the same time.
The legend goes that the Celtic cross was "designed" by Saint Patrick who was trying to convert the pagan Irish people. The Celtic cross is a combination of the Christian cross and the sun, which was worshipped by the druids.
The Celtic cross is also used by neo-fascist movements, albeit in a very simple design and without ornamentations.
The meaning of Celtic crosses is not really clear and varies a lot:
- For Catholic people the circle is a symbol of eternity, for them the Celtic cross symbolizes the infinity of God's love.
- In the ancient world of the druids, the Celtic cross was a phallic symbol.
- For neo pagans the Celtic cross is the symbol for the sun.
A Celtic cross is a popular choice for the upper arm – a great spot in general to put a tattoo, as that location makes it easy to hide it and show it, as you wish.
Also popular (amongst neo pagans) is the ankh cross tattoo in the Celtic style. The ankh cross is Egyptian in origin and has many meanings as well.
Celtic Butterfly Tattoos
Celtic butterfly tattoos are quite popular nowadays as well. Butterflies have a similar symbolic meaning in many cultures:
- The butterfly is a symbol for rebirth and transformation. Just like a beautiful butterfly comes out of his cocoon, the person who wears a butterfly tattoo has gone through some difficult times and is ready to face the world again.
- In some cultures the butterfly is the personification of someone's soul.
The Celtic butterfly tattoo is often quite small and feminine looking, making it appropriate for the ankle or shoulder. The butterfly is also often seen as a lower back tattoo, adorned with Celtic swirls.
Celtic Knot Tattoos
Celtic knots (aka mystic knot, endless knot) work really well as a tattoo design or part of a tattoo. The symbolic meaning of Celtic knots is not really clear, although some people attribute magical powers to the knots.
For me, Celtic knot tattoos symbolize eternity because the lines of the knotwork form an endless loop, without a beginning or an end.
The Celtic trinity knot is a very simple, but powerful symbol and very suitable for a tattoo. It is a triangle knot, the 3 corners have various meanings:
- Christian: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Pagan: Mother, Crone and Maiden
- New age: Mind, body and spirit
The Celtic Shamrock
Nothing symbolizes Ireland (homeland of all Celtic design) more aptly than the shamrock (a three-leafed clover), the quintessential Celtic design.
The shamrock is the symbol for the Holy Trinity in the Irish Catholic church. It is often confused with the four-leaved clover, a very auspicious symbol to have on your body (the chances of finding a clover are 10.000 to 1)! Each leaf has a different symbolic meaning:
- The first leaf stands for hope
- The second means faith
- The third clover leaf stands for love
- The last leaf stands for luck
Celtic Heart Tattoo
A Celtic heart tattoo symbolizes the union of souls and is a good tattoo to express your devotion to your loved ones. They are also known as love knot tattoos.
The Irish Claddagh Tattoo
A Claddagh ring is a wedding or friendship ring, the symbol is also used as a tattoo design. It depicts a heart with a crown, held by two hands.
- The heart stands for love.
- The hands for friendship.
- The crown stands for loyalty.
Celtic Tree Of Life Tattoo
A Celtic tree of life tattoo is usually one of the bigger Celtic tattoo designs. The tree of life is not a traditional Celtic design, it first appeared in the Book of Kells (an illustrated manuscript made by Celtic monks around 800 AD).
The tree of life tattoo is a symbol for:
- The tree of life in the Garden of Eden.
- The axis mundi (centre of the world): the connecting line between the underworld, the earth and the sky.
Other Celtic Tattoo Art
Lots of animal images are included in traditional Celtic art:
- Dogs: a Celtic dog tattoo symbolizes loyalty and good luck.
- Eagle: eagles were linked to death in Celtic mythology.
- Horses: the horse was a sacred animal for the Celts. A horse tattoo is linked to mystery and magic.
- Ravens and other birds: are associated with death in Celtic mythology.
- Bear and bear claw: a Celtic bear tattoo is a symbol of power.
- Dragon: the Celtic dragon is associated with power and magic. Discover more about dragon tattoos
- Lion: a lion tattoo stands for strength and nobility. More about lion tattoos.
Other elements that are often incorporated into Celtic tattoos:
- The moon
- Angels (more about angel tattoos)
- The pentagram and other stars (more about star tattoos)
- The sun (more about sun tattoos)
- Flowers (more about flower tattoos)
If none of these possibilities appeal to you, there are still countless other Celtic tattoos that you can look at and choose from. Celtic tattoos are popular right now, and they are likely to remain so for some time.
Celebrities With Celtic Tattoos
Here's a list of celebrities with a Celtic tattoo:
- Melanie C: Spice Girl with a Celtic band tattoo.
- Robbie Williams: celebrity with a Celtic cross tattoo on his right hip.
- Jessica Lang: she has a Celtic knot tattoo on her left wrist.
- Eva Longoria: actress with a Celtic cross tattoo on her lower back.
- Maxwell: has a large Celtic tattoo on his right shoulder.
- Dave Gahan: singer from Depeche Mode, has got a green Celtic cross tattoo on his left upper arm.
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