Celtic Tattoos and Tattoo Designs - Meaning and Symbolism

Thursday 29th of January 2009 01:22:16 PM [Add To This Article]

Celtic Tattoo Designs:
An Old Path With New Traditions

"The tree remains, but not the hand that planted it."
Old Celtic Proverb

A lot of people confuse the word Celtic with the word Irish, but in fact, the two terms are quite different. It's kind of like those SAT questions we faced in high school: If some Irish are Celtic, but not all Celtic are Irish, then what the heck IS Celtic? And what distinguishes a Celtic tattoo design from an Irish one?

The world Celtic has a few different meanings. On definition of Celtic is as follows: Of or for the old subfamily of the Indo-European language family comprised of the peoples of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and some Teutonic lands. Another definition for Celtic is this: A tradition based on the practices of the pre-Christian Celtic world (Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Gaul), and associated with druids. It includes the use of runes, is earth based and has strong elements of the Craft.

The Celtic tradition has survived over 2700 years! And it remains due to its fluid, changeable nature that allows the people to develop and progress with the times. They were first altered by the Druids, then by the Romans who conquered them, and finally by Christianity. And, as much as the Celtics have changed, they've also influenced the people who have changed them. For instance, many ancient pagan Celtic aspects and traditions were later adapted by Christians who lived in the area. Examples of this include Cerridwyn's Cauldron becoming the Holy Grail, and the goddess Brigit becoming the Saint Bride.

Some great tattoo design ideas that have been inspired by Celtic Christianity include:

Celtic Crosses
Intricate Celtic Knot-word (either alone or in conjunction with crosses or other designs)
Holy Grail or Chalice designs
Celtic blessings

The Role of the Druids
As mentioned earlier, the Celtic people were also strongly influence by the emergence of the powerful "priesthood" known as the Druids. This was an ancient priesthood that appears in Irish and Welsh sagas and legends, and in Christian legends has been identified as magicians and wizards (Merlin would be a prime example.)

Druidism was the religion favored by many in pre-Christian Britain and some people it is the proto-religion of all times. The Druids were priests (though they preferred to be known as philosophers) whose religion and daily life was based on nature-worship. However, this earth based religion had its own dark side, based on the knowledge that they included human sacrifice as did the Aztecs of Mesoamerica. But, aside from this horrifying aspect, the Druids provided the local people with three very important (and different) roles: that of Bard, Ovate and Master Druid.

The Bards, at the lower level of the social ladder, spent many years training. They spent this time learning songs, sagas, legends and tales by heart. They entertained in the courts of kings and set out on long journeys to share their amazing skills with neighboring villages and towns. The traditional color of the Bards was blue, and their sacred tree was the birch.

The Ovate, on the second level, had a wide and nearly all-encompassing job. It was the Ovate who learned the secrets of death and rebirth. They were seers, accomplished at fortune-telling and prophecy. It was also their responsibility to learn of new medicines, cures, herbs and preventative measures to keep their people safe. Their traditional color was green, and their sacred tree was the yew.

At the top of the list ranked the Master Druids, who had spent so many years learning and training that they were usually old and white haired before they had accomplished their education. It was the Master Druids who would serve as advisors to kings, as both judges and teachers. They would also take on the role of leader of worship and ceremony. These men preferred to be known as philosophers as opposed to priests, due to the fact that their role included more than just the aspects of worship and master of ceremony. Their traditional color was white and their sacred tree was the most sacred of all, the oak.

All three of the divisions of druids would more than likely bear one, if not several, tattoos. The tattoos of druids were created by the use of blue wode, and were often swirling and somehow otherworldly. They were known as honor marks, and stood as a testimony to others that you were in training to become a Druid of some sort, be it Bard, Ovate or Master.

The Life and Magic of the Celts
The Celtic people had a rich and powerful belief in the world of magic. In their lives, magic was a ruling force, which seeped its way into everything, from the sacred to the mundane. It was threaded through their tattoos and honor marks, it flowed through their jewelry and art, and even simple everyday items like their clothing and cooking utensils.

Another thing that sets the Celtic people apart from several of the other European clans was their deep respect for "the wee folk". The Celtic people showed an avid and active belief and respect for faeries, elves, pixies and gnomes. They would appease the wee folk by leaving out milk on their doorstep, or butter. Before throwing a basin of water (or waste) out of doors or windows, the Celtic people would shout a warning, so that any nearby faeries or elves had a chance to get out of the line of fire. As much as we have romanticized the wee folk, sometimes, it is our horror stories that star them (like Leprechaun, etc) that are closer to the truth. The wee folk could be quite dangerous, stealing human babies and replacing them with misshapen creatures referred to as "changelings". They could lead you astray in the woods or capture you into some underworld or underworld prison.

The Celtic people were also distinguished from their neighbors by their ceremonies and preparation of and for the dead. Whereas the rest of the world was burying their dead, the Celts had a tradition of burning the dead on funeral pyres, both on land and on the water. This tradition was widespread through Brittany, and even extended to the Vikings.

Ancient Celts looked much the same as those today who carry their blood in their veins (as a matter of fact, if you have the basic blood group of "O", whether positive or negative, you probably hail from the Celts). It is generally agreed that they were:

Powerfully built
Had blue or grey eyes
Blond or reddish hair
Men favored mustaches over beards
And, to some degree, both sexes were a little bit vain

The people of these lands were happy and gay much of the time and loved lyres and harps, song and music and tales of legends and epics. Bards were busy folk in the land, and much sought after for their entertaining and enlightening tales.

Celts were also fond of their food and drink, and drank their ales, meads and liquors in large droughts from metal-crafted or real animal horns, decorated to the max with beads, gold, and precious stones.

The Celts can also claim a heritage of cleanliness, as they were using soap to wash their bodies long before the Romans.

All of these little facts (and the huge number of people who can claim Celtic heritage) have made Celtic inspired tribal tattoo designs incredibly popular. Whether of fairies, goblins or elves; or even the sacred animals of the Celtic people: the raven, the wolf, the owl, the goose, the salmon, cat, otter, bee, adder, bear, seal, crane or stag- the great majority of Celtic tattoo designs have been inspired by the natural world that surrounded them. Trees, animals and the intricate knotted patters are all testaments to the lives that these people led. Keep all of these things in mind as you search for your own traditional Celtic tattoo designs.

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