Many people today are getting Celtic tattoos. These ancient symbols have awakened some real sense of meaning. Perhaps this is because the modern world does not have much to do with tradition and symbols and there is a human need for these things. This is what writers like Joseph Campbell have said. Although he wasn’t talking about tattoos, that is definitely one way that people are reclaiming ancient practices.
What is the origin of Celtic symbols such as knotwork, spirals, animal forms and crosses? In some cases, it goes back hundreds of years to books like the Book of Kells. The original version of this beautiful illuminated manuscript is now in Dublin, at Trinity College. It contains many of the Celtic style spirals, knotwork and zoomorphic (animal) images that have become so popular as tattoos.
Some Celtic symbols, however, go back even further in time. The Celts can be traced as far back as around 500 B.C. They did not keep written records, so much of what we know about them comes from either oral tradition or from what their enemies, such as the Romans, wrote about them. Historians believe that the Celts at some point moved to lands such as Britain and Ireland that were originally occupied by earlier, unknown people. These earlier tribes created some of the early symbols, such as triple spirals, and certain types of crosses, that the Celts would later adapt as their own.
There is no doubt, however, that the Celts developed an artistic style of their own.
The fact that they took some of their images from earlier civilizations is not unusual.
Every culture in history has done this –the Romans, for example, borrowed from the Greeks, who borrowed from the Egyptians, and so on.
Perhaps what is most distinctive about Celtic artwork is the focus on symbols that have to do with infinity, or the ever-repeating cycles of life. This can be seen most clearly in Celtic knots, which beautifully illustrate the connected and never-ending movement of all things. Spirals also convey this kind of idea. Today we see many people wearing tribal type Celtic tattoo designs based on knotwork or spirals.
More complex Celtic artwork, such as the zoomorphic animal images also use spiral designs and these are often rendered in modern Celtic tattoos. When it comes to tattoos, these images can be made even more striking by using vivid colors. Animals depicted in traditional Celtic designs include birds, reptiles, horses and dragons, all of which can make great tattoos. Other images that are popular as Celtic tattoos include harps, Celtic crosses and swords.
Some people get Celtic tattoos to express their heritage, but this isn’t always the case. In today’s multicultural world, you don’t have to be of Irish, Scottish or Welsh ancestry to appreciate Celtic art and people of all backgrounds get Celtic tattoos.
With such a rich and diverse wealth of material to choose from, it’s likely that Celtic tattoo designs will remain popular for a long time.