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Celtic Primer


The Tree of Life is an ancient motif. Used in the illuminated manuscripts of the Celtic gospels, it does not have its origins in Christianity. Nor in Judaism. The Tree of Life for many cultures and peoples became a "psychic model for the universe" -  the World Tree - after they had lived since time immemorial in the presence of the forests and their great trees. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is in the Book of Genesis " the tree of life" and the "tree of knowledge" (perhaps the same tree?). In the Celtic art and design, the Tree of Life is often found emerging from the 'pot' that is the 'womb' of life. It is often found bearing the fruit that is the treasure that many set out to find but which very few obtain - that of fully realized identity.

Celtic Knotwork:  It might be said that the early Celtic peoples held that everything -  animal, vegetable, mineral - is, in spirit, a strand off the universal thread of life. A thread from the fabric of the universe where the weaver and the woven are one. This is represented in the knotwork and 'knotty-bits' of Celtic design. The knotwork also symbolizes our spiritual life journey - a path of many twists and turns that leads eventually to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or universal oneness.
The three cornered Celtic knot is called a triquetra or tri-knot. In Celtic Christianity it came to symbolize the Holy Trinity - the totality of God. Its use, however predates Christianity when it still had significance in its describing of the universe.

Spirals go back a long way. It has been suggested that the circle may be considered humankind's first step into art. The spiral applies its construction methods. Those that are precursors to the Celtic spiral are more than seven thousand years old. But spirals are not the sole possession of the Celts. Held as sacred and magical, they have symbolized "life" to so many peoples of the Old World. Because of this, they have been described as a "pan-continental symbol". When we look at a spiral, we are immediately caught up in its movement. A spiral 'moves' sunrise (to the right) or anti-sunrise (to the left). Most of nature's spirals - and there are many - are to the right.

Key or Maze Patterns: When we think of a maze we most likely call to mind a winding path that turns inward while branching off into 'false' paths and 'dead' ends. The challenge here is to choose the right path and reach the centre. Celtic mazes do not fit this description. Yes, a Celtic maze is more or less a spiral drawn with straight lines. However the path of a Celtic maze does not turn to a central goal and is not full of dead ends and false turns. The Celtic maze is a multi-choice maze with each choice leading one a right path no more or less right than any other path - just different. And here we are perhaps given a glimpse of their way of seeing the journey through life.

The traditional Celtic Cross stands as one of the most beautiful and arresting crossed. The cross in the wheel takes us to the origins of the cross as a religious/spiritual symbol. Those origins predate Christianity by a long time. The cross was derived by quartering the circle of the compass, and symbolized the four roads. The cross has been used by Christianity as a symbol for Christ's place at the centre and for Christ's rule over all things.
Not all crosses rendered by the Celts were crosses in circles, however. Some were just plain crosses formed from knotwork and maze patterns.

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