Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Celtic Cross - sacred symbol whose designs are a mystery

I have seen many crosses in my life, but it was during my journey to Ireland that I first saw and touched a celtic cross. And from the 10th century no less.

It didn't hit me right away. As I walked through the ancient cemetery on the grounds of an old church in Gowran I was more amazed at first by the crumbling remains of the church and surrounding countryside than anything I was standing next to.  I walked slowly through the cemetery, hands resting lightly on the old crosses - without even thinking about what I was touching. What is it they say...You can't see the forest for the trees?

It was as I stood back to take this photo that I realized just what I had been carelessly touching and standing next to. 

I stepped back quickly - lest I desecrate a grave (as I've been raised not to step on graves in respect of the perpetual inhabitants) - and just stood there staring as it hit me. Holy cow. (Or in this case Holy Cross). How many people in the 900 plus years had stood and looked at this cross?

I found myself taking care around the crosses after I realized what I was seeing....and for the rest of my journey I found my eyes scouring the Irish countryside for signs of more Celtic crosses. I was captivated. And I started noticing things that I had never noticed before....

- More than the less ornate crosses of modern times, the Celtic crosses I saw in Ireland - ancient or not- were intricately carved with celtic knots and flowing designs. I could almost feel the reverence that the stone mason must have used in the carving.
- Never once did I see two crosses with the same celtic design. I knew I had to explore that further.
- Look closely at a Celtic cross. What do you notice besides the design? I almost missed this one....but the arms of the cross are shorter than our modern crosses. Why?
- Every Celtic Cross has a distinctive circle in the center. What does this mean?

The design origins of the Celtic cross are up for interpretation. LLike so many other symbols associated with ancient Ireland, whatever meaning spirals had for the Druids (ancient priests) remains an elusive mystery to us. 

We know very little about the meaning of Celtic symbols. Since the ancient Celts didn't keep written records, it's difficult to know for sure what the symbols meant to them. Most of what we believe any particular Celtic symbol means is just pure speculation, based upon what scholars know of their culture. 

So let's speculate.

Some feel that the four arms of the cross are interpreted as the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), the four directions of the compass (north, south, east, west) or the four parts of man (mind, soul, heart, body), in various cultures and traditions. These elements may explain some of the designs on the cross.

One source said the celtic designs are derived from the Chi Rho symbol, as popularised by the Roman emperor, Constantine. "Chi" and "Rho" are the first letters of the word "Christ" in the Greek alphabet, and when these letters are interlinked, they appear similar to the cross at the centre of a Celtic cross.

But where does the cross's distinctive circle come from? The truth is, no one knows for sure, but in ancient times, circles were used to represent the moon. If the circle was in a cross, this symbolized the sun.

Originally, from what we know, crosses were carved into horizontal slabs. Eventually the surrounding stone was cut away and elaborate, free-standing vertical crosses were made, and one standing cross was often composed of several pieces of stone. A large cross could have been made up of up to four pieces of stone; the base, the shaft, the head and the upper cross arm. These were held together by mortise and tenon joints carved into the stone.
 Actually this makes sense, because the Celtic crosses I saw that had fair wear-and-tear usually had clear breaks - meaning it must have been assembled.
I couldn't leave Ireland without purchasing a beautiful silver Celtic cross necklace. I'm also considering a small tattoo but as of yet have not taken that plunge. As a Christian with strong Irish roots I feel a real kinship toward this lovely symbol. It's probably fair to say I'm somewhat enchanted.

I leave you with an unexpected surprise that I experienced just a few days ago. I started this blog entry a few weeks ago, not realizing that the Celtic Cross that would touch my heart the most would not be found on ancient ground thousands of miles away, but right here on American soil. Which means it's not as old as the others -but it is not any less significant.

It's the cross that is found on the sacred and solumn ground at Gettysburg. The cross is a monument to the Irish Brigade out of New York. At the foot of the cross lies a beautiful carving of an Irish wolfhound. The monument overlooks the rolling hills of Gettysburg where over 4,000 Irishmen gave their life for the Union during the Civil war. 

So I leave you with this, the most beautiful of Celtic crosses - and encourage you to read up on the Irish brigade - they actually came from several states across the Union. I'll be posting on them soon. Truly, my Celtic Journey is like an onion...layers upon layers upon layers. Slainte.