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The Origins And Influence Of The Celtic Cross

Photo: John Trainor

Image by John Trainor via Flickr

By Rob Mabry

The Celtic cross is a cross whose four “arms” are intersected by a central, circular ring – a function of both structural form and symbolism. While the roots of the Celtic Cross are likely in Paganism with the ring symbolizing the sun and “renewal,” it has become a potent symbol of Christianity and Irish heritage. The roots of the Celtic Cross can be traced back to Prehistoric Europe where the “sun cross” – a circle with an “x” or cross shape scratched inside began to appear on cave drawings and burial sites. The image persisted through the Bronze and Iron ages evolving into the Celtic Cross. It’s likely that the “cross” symbolized North, South, East and West.

Irish folklore tells the story of how Saint Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the “sun” to emphasize the importance of the cross to the Pagan followers, giving birth to the Celtic Cross. Though there is likely little truth to the tale. Around the 7th Century, Irish monks in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Great Britian began to erect upright or “high” crosses, many incorporating the Celtic Cross’ characteristic ringed structure. Many of these crosses survive today in Cornwall, Wales and on the island of Iona along with many others in Ireland.

Early Celtic Crosses often bore zoomorphic, or animal imagery, carved in the stone due to the influence of the animal style common in the Iron age. Not surprising given that warrior-herdsmen were so dependent on wildlife for food and clothing. This influence died off after the Iron Age as art in Ireland and Britian moved into the “Insular Period.” Artists during the Insular Art period produced many Celtic Crosses throughout Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the Hiberno-Saxon style. The “Insular Art” movement takes its name from the Latin word “Insula” which means “island.” This applied to the Isles of Britian and Ireland, and spoke to the shared nature of the artwork between the two regions that were vastly different than what was being produced throughout the rest of Europe. The Celtic crosses of this time were ornate and often bore spiraling geometric patterns that likely symbolized man’s “twisting” journey through life.

English: Photo of Muiredach's High Cross, loca...

Photo of Muiredach’s High Cross, located at Monasterboice, County Louth, in the Republic of Ireland. -Wikipedia

Around the 15th century, interest in the Celtic Cross and its influence as an art form waned. In the mid-19th century, a Celtic Revivial began that resulted in increased display and use of Celtic crosses in Ireland. The Celtic cross became fashionable as a cemetary marker in Victorian Dublin around the 1860s. This revival continued to spread across the whole of Irland and beyond and the symbol began to take on importance as a symbol of Irish heritage in addition to its religious conotation.

Today, the Celtic cross is commonly used as a gravemarker, though this is a departure from both medieval and Celtic revival periods when the symbol was used mainly as a monument and had little association with grave markings. The imagery of the Celtic cross has expanded its influence even in modern times, often spotted in jewelry as an expression of Irish pride and Christianity. The symbol is also seen in everything from T-shirts to tattoos. The Northern Ireland national football team use the Celtic Cross imagery in their logo and branding. The symbol has had some unfortunate attention as well and was recently banned from display in Germany when a prohibited neo-Nazi party co-opted the image as a symbol of their movement.

Famous Celtic Crosses that can still be seen today are at the Cross of Kells, County Meath, Ireland; Ardboe Auld Cross, Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; the crosses at Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland; and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Ireland.

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About the Author

Rob Mabry is a former Army journalist, screenwriter and technologist. He is owner of Balance Bikes 4 Kids, specializing in bikes and scooters to help your child learn to ride.

Since this article was first published, there have been changes to The original links have been left intact. 

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DVD Review – Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend

Reality Films

Title: Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend
Genre: Documentary, Robin Hood, Action and Adventure
Production Company: Reality Films

Robin Hood: The Truth Behind Hollywood’s Most Filmed Legend is a documentary by Philip Gardiner. The film opens with contemporary actors playing Robin Hood and his band of noble rebels, with enchanting scenes of Sherwood Forest and some medieval ruins and artifacts.

Within this authentic setting, Robin Hood digs into historical records, folkloric possibilities and mythological parallels around the legend of Robin Hood, the pervasive culture hero who “steals from the rich and gives to the poor.”

The film is rich and informative and the recreation atmosphere is convincing. While the actors portraying the outlaw community are obviously modern, they seem to resonate nicely with the Robin Hood myth, probably because most are local forestry workers who volunteered for the film.

The first half of Robin Hood covers all the proverbial bases. Then the film shifts to advance the filmmaker’s Gnostic leanings, which closely resemble those of the Swiss psychiatrist, C. G. Jung. At least, this seems to be the case. I’ve never met Philip Gardiner and am assuming that Gnosticism reflects his own beliefs. This seems a reasonable guess because many of his films depict Gnosticism as a shining counterpoint to a tarnished old Christian Church.

Christians who see the New Testament as a theological work containing elements of fact, myth and exaggeration, might balk at Robin Hood’s claim that Jesus Christ and John the Baptist are equals.

Consider the New Testament:

John replied to all of them, “I am baptizing you with water, but one is coming who is more powerful than I, and I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps. It is he who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

Despite what the New Testament story pretty clearly says, Robin Hood suggests that the archetypal pair of Jesus and John also manifests in the images of Robin Hood and Little John, the Graeco-Roman twins Castor and Pollux, and in countless other mythic exemplars and cosmological models.

Carl Jung, who devised the modern idea of the archetype, also made liberal use of analogy in world religion and myth. Jung claimed that the basic truths underlying diverse archetypal imagery were discernible through his own brand of “analytical” psychology.

Some scholars, however, have little sympathy for Jung’s approach, maintaining that the extensive use of analogy is usually too loose and not connected to actual historical and cultural contexts. Unrestrained analogizing, they say, yields specious arguments and ultimately detracts from a given study’s credibility.

Scholars like this say that contemporary scholarship is quickly falling into a kind of black hole where any pseudo-historical truth claim is passed off as fact—as long as it sells. Meanwhile, other authors and researchers promote the liberal use of analogy, equating it with seeing “The Big Picture.”

Does the unrestrained use of analogy really give us the Big Picture. Or does it just seem to, if we don’t know any better?

Enter the Christian theologians, particularly Catholics, who say the contemporary Church doesn’t mindlessly bash Gnostic and Pagan elements but ennobles their worthwhile aspects within the higher, more comprehensive perspective afforded  by Christian belief. That’s why, they’ll argue, we find various artworks depicting Pagan themes within the Vatican museums.

Not a few Protestants, of course, object to this scenario. Some even pejoratively call the Catholic Church the “Whore of Babylon.” But this isn’t the place to delve into the complexities of religious rivalry.

Robin Hood has something for everyone. It brings to life the timeless tale of a notorious sinner-saint who, like many before him, takes refuge in the woods while seeking justice in the face of an ignoble ruler.  Even the most discerning of scholars might learn from this film, lest they get lost in the minutiae and miss the forest for the trees.

Special features include more commentaries and Gnostic/Pagan pop music videos.