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Symbolism of the Celtic Cross

Symbolism of the Celtic Cross

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by Derek Bryce

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Traces the pagan-Christian link of the symbolism of the axis-mundi from standing stones and market crosses to the inscribed slabs and free-standing crosses of the Celtic-Christian era. Examines the ornamented Celtic crosses from such places as Brittany, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Ireland, and Cornwall.


Traces the pagan-Christian link of the symbolism of the axis-mundi from standing stones and market crosses to the inscribed slabs and free-standing crosses of the Celtic-Christian era. Examines the ornamented Celtic crosses from such places as Brittany, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Ireland, and Cornwall.

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Red Wheel Weiser & Conari Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.31(d)

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Symbolism of the Celtic Cross

By Derek Bryce

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1989 Derek Bryce
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-654-8



Long before the days of Christianity, in the Celtic West there were sacred stones. Whilst it is not within the scope of this book to discuss stone circles and alignments, standing stones or pillar stones are very relevant, for they symbolize the Axis Mundi or world-axis, the pole or link between heaven and earth. The oldest symbol of the world-axis is the sacred tree, best known as the Tree of Life. Pillar stones began to replace sacred trees when nomadic peoples settled and cleared the land for agriculture.

In Britain, pillar stones are generally of modest proportions; the one illustrated from Lampeter in Wales measures 13'6" high above the ground. However, in Brittany they are sometimes gigantic. For example, the Menhir of Kerloaz, illustrated here, stands some 40 feet above the ground. It is said to have lost its upper part through having been struck by lightning.

In Britain, a stone some 22 feet high and shaped like a giant phallus, stood in the centre of the Avebury stone circle. It was broken up for building material in the eighteenth century.

Although many standing stones have survived in remote places untouched, some have been given a Christian modification or addition. Thus the Menhir of Kerloaz was surmounted by a wooden cross, replaced later by an iron crucifix. Neath cross in Wales appears to be a pagan standing stone which has had a cross inscribed on it, and there are other similar examples to be found. These modifications imply that some early Christians saw the symbolism of these ancient sacred stones as not incompatible with Christianity. This is, of course, because the symbol of the world-axis is universal. Similarly, the old Roman emperors and the popes have the title of Pontifex or bridge-maker between heaven and earth, which again shows continuity between pagan and Christian traditions.

Standing stones can also be found with incised symbols which are not specifically Christian, as in the example below with a fish (salmon) and Pictish symbols:

Pillar stone at Edderton, Ross, Scotland.



Some of the late Victorian writers, such as J. W. Small, assumed that our stone market crosses had replaced wooden ecclesiastical crosses erected by saints in the early days of Christianity, and that they had gradually lost their Christian symbolism and become secular or civic monuments. If this were true, they would have no distinctive Celtic connection.

A modern writer, John Irwin, has pointed out that early in the nineteenth century, when amateur archaeologists began to explore the remoter parts of the west of Britain, they found sculptured stones which were obviously pagan, and some of which were clearly phallic in shape. They also found that in some places the local people still had customs associated with them. Although the purpose of archaeology should be to record and preserve, these objects were too embarrassing for nineteenth-century gentlemen to report in the literature, and most of them were quietly made to disappear; broken and/or buried. One of the few to escape seems to have been the Clackmannan stone, situated to the east of Stirling. We reproduce J. W. Small's drawing of it, with a typical mediaeval market cross nearby. Small made no comment on the phallic shape of this stone; perhaps he did not wish to draw attention which could have been detrimental to it, and in any case he was primarily interested in the market cross. The antiquity of this stone is underlind by the name Clackmannan itself, which implies the place of the stone. No one knows how many of these stones, which bridge the gap between the ancient standing stones and Christian monuments, were made to disappear. We have already mentioned the great stone that once stood in the centre of the Avebury circle, and which was broken up for building material. The fact that stones of this kind survived through many centuries of the Christian era may indicate that they were not seen as offensive or embarrassing until the nineteenth century. In India where phallic stones are still venerated, they represent the world-axis under its aspect of fertility, and have nothing to do with sex in any vulgar modern sense, nor with the idea of worshipping a sex organ. In terms of the ancient Chinese tradition, they symbolize the action of Heaven on Earth.... Another stone which was dug up by road workers about 25 years after its disappearance, is the Langholm Mercat, or market cross. It was unearthed near its original site, which was the cross-roads at Langholm in Dumfriesshire. Our photograph shows that its shaft is chamfered near the bottom, leaving a square base, and on top there is a depressed sphere. Its form is clearly pagan, and a cross inscribed on top is without doubt a later Christian addition. The shape of the stone is important in establishing a link between pagan market crosses and those of the Christian era. Another possible pagan survival, which may have survived because it was just a block of natural stone, is the so-called market cross in the ancient village of Minigaff, about a mile from Newton Stewart in Kirkcudbrightshire. We illustrate it below; if it really is a market cross, it poses the question why they were ever called crosses at all, and we shall return to this point later.

If we look at a large number of market crosses, although they vary in form, a general pattern emerges: A square base in the form of a stepped pyramid, although the 'steps' are not always proportioned to be used as such; an octagonal shaft; and a ball or sphere on top. Of course there are many exceptions, but perhaps this common form corresponds with a pagan prototype which has not always been adhered to when crosses have been reconstructed or made in later times. The market cross at Milton, Ross-shire, is a typical example; likewise the one illustrated from Clackmannan above.

The market cross at Findhorn, Elginshire, shows an exception to our general type, in that the stepped base is circular instead of square. Other variants include hexagonal or octagonal stepped bases, and square or round-section shafts.

The cross at Bromboro in Cheshire stands on a stepped pyramid base, the steps of which are clearly not intended for treading. We reproduce a wood engraving of it from Rimmer's Ancient Stone Crosses of England, 1874. This engraving shows the cross surmounted by a sphere and sun-dial, which have since been replaced by a Latin cross.

The market cross at Wigton has a fircone above a sun-dial on top. John Irwin points out that fir cones occur on some market crosses in Belgium, and that they represent the link between the stone axis-symbol and the sacred tree, the cone being the fruit of a tree.

The basic symbolism of these market crosses, like the ancient pillar stones, is once again of the world axis, the link between heaven and earth, but elaborated. The ancient traditional world-view recognizes three worlds, spiritual (heavenly), psychic, and corporeal. The spiritual can be symbolized by the sky, with the sun as symbol of divine light, the corporeal by earth, and the psychic or intermediate world by air or the space between heaven and earth. Thus the sphere on top of the cross can represent heaven, or the angelic states, a sphere being the most perfect 'fluid' form; it can also represent the sun. The shaft itself represents the world-axis, pole, or spiritual bridge between heaven and earth; the octagonal exterior of the shaft, however, representing the directions of space, air, the intermediate space between heaven and earth, corresponds with the psychic states. The square base represents the fixed earth, the corporeal state. The stepped base forming a pyramid no doubt represents the ancient sacred earth mounds known from many traditions throughout the world. On the next page we illustrate a cross-slab from Fishguard churchyard, Pembrokeshire, where a Latin cross has been inscribed with a stepped mound, indicating that the stone mason may have considered the base an important piece of symbolism.... We have already indicated that some market crosses incorporate a sun-dial near the top, and there is some evidence that the sphere or ball on top of some of these crosses was originally gilded. All of this adds up to a pagan Celtic prototype being a world-axis associated with a solar symbolism.... The maypole, which continued in use as a children's dance within living memory, has something in common with the form of the market cross, the pole being surmounted by two hoops at right angles to one another and thereby representing a sphere. Those performing the maypole dance are, in effect, dancing in a circle around the world-axis.

Much of the symbolism we have mentioned is universal. Thus the ancient Chinese sages wore a round hat to represent Heaven, and square shoes representing Earth. Islamic mosques have a domed roof and a square base (and the famous Taj Mahal is octagonal on the inside). Readers should note that the symbolism we have described of earth, air, and sky for the corporeal, psychic and spiritual states is not the only one; there is also the well-known symbolism from Genesis of the separation of the upper waters (spiritual) from the lower waters (psychic and corporeal).

If the market cross thus symbolises the world-axis, the link between heaven and earth, but in a more elaborate way than the older pillar stones, why, it may be asked, are they called crosses at all. A possible answer could be that they eventually came to have an ecclesiastical cross stuck on top, or replacing the top. On the continent, when the Church found that the people clung to the worship of these stones even after edicts to destroy them, their broken shafts were repaired by iron collars, and they were surmounted by a cross. In Britain many such crosses were broken off during the Cromwellian period; some were replaced in late Victorian times.... It is more likely, however, that they became known as market crosses through being situated at cross-roads, meeting places which eventually grew into our market towns. This leads us to a consideration of the vertical symbolism of the cross:

The Hindus have a theory of three gunas or tendencies: sattvas, an upward tendency, spiritual, corresponding with knowledge, light, and the colour white; rajas, an outward or expansive tendency, corresponding with human activity, and the colour red; tamas, a downward tendency, corresponding with ignorance, obscurity, darkness, and the colour black. Note that where the Hindus speak of knowledge and ignorance, Christians would speak of good and evil; these are different points of view relating to the same symbolism. If we imagine a pillar stone or market cross situated at a cross-roads, we have a three-dimensional cross, the stone itself representing the upwards tendency, the cross-roads representing human activity in the horizontal plane, and the prolongation beneath the stone monument down into the earth representing the downwards tendency, towards the infernal regions. This summarizes the vertical symbolism of the cross; it is applicable to the well-known Latin form of the cross (but we shall see later that many Celtic crosses have a different, centrepetal instead of vertical symbolism, that of the wheel-cross).

In the ancient world there was not the clear distinction made today between sacred, and secular or profane, and many human activities were carried out at the market crosses, and continued to be so even when the sacred nature of these crosses had become largely forgotten. Official proclamations were read out, rules for commerce such as weights and measures were laid down, justice and punishment were dispensed, and oaths were witnessed. Even last century, sailors from Cornwall would swear oaths on board ship on an axe, an ancient portable symbol of the world-axis. Some people may be surprised that punishments were carried out at a sacred site, but it must be remembered that in the ancient world the treatment of criminals was intended to be curative as well as punitive; in the sense that the punishment of man could alter the criminal's karma and save him or her from something more severe after death. Thus the Celts used the birch for corporal punishment because they believed this tree to have the property of driving out evil. The following extract from Joceline's Life of St. Kentigern, concerning a cross erected at Glasgow, may help to clarify this point: "... the cross was very large, and never from that time lacked great virtue, seeing that many maniacs and those vexed with unclean spirits used to be tied of a Sunday night to that cross, and in the morning they are found restored, freed, and cleansed, though of times they are found found dead or at the point of death." Although Joceline's account does not directly refer to all criminals, it does give us some insight into what was believed. We illustrate the market cross of Old Rayne, Aberdeenshire, with an arrow indicating the point of attachment of the chain which once held wrong-doers by means of an iron collar; also the stocks and cross at the market place, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire:

We end this chapter with another reproduction of a wood engraving from Rimmer's Ancient Stone Crosses of England, the lower part of Lydney Cross in Gloucestershire. The upper part probably consisted of an octagonal shaft supporting a cross; it was dismantled during the civil war. The base is a fine example of a stepped pyramid.



There is every reason to believe that a Celtic British Church existed nearly three centuries before St. Augustine landed on the shores of Kent in 597 A.D. Those who believe the Arimathean legend, think that Christianity was brought to these islands during the first century by Joseph of Arimathea, and that he founded the first Christian community at Glastonbury. The legend of St. Alban, a Roman soldier, likewise implies Christianity in Britain before the end of the Roman occupation. The earliest historical record of a Church in Britain is that in 314 A.D., three British bishops were present at the Council held at Aries in France. St. Chrysostom, writing in 367 A.D., described the British Islands as possessing churches and altars. Gildas, who wrote around 564 A.D., asserts that churches existed generally in Britain before the departure of the Romans; and Bede confirms his statements.

There were probably some Christians in Ireland before St. patrick, but he is undoubtedly responsible for the main dissemination of Christianity there. He landed in Ireland around 440 A.D., and according to the Annals of the Four Masters, died in 493. The first attempt to convert the southern Picts was by St. Ninian, who landed at Whithorn early in the fifth century. He dedicated his stone church there to St. Martin of Tours, whom he had visited in Gaul. The Picts, however, were only fully converted more than a century later when St. Columba established himself at Iona; he landed there in 563 A.D. Soon after, St. Kentigern completed the conversion of the northern Welsh-speaking kingdom of Strathclyde/Cumbria, the southern Welsh being already Christian. Northumbria received its Christianity indirectly from Ireland, through Iona, when Aidan was made first Bishop of Lindisfarne by king Oswald in 653 A.D.

Thus the Celtic Church had an origin earlier and entirely independent of the Roman form of Christianity introduced by St. Augustine. The chief points of difference were the time of celebrating Easter and the shape of the monks' tonsure, but there were also differences in the rite of baptism, the ordination of bishops, and the consecration of churches. The role of monasticism seems to have been more central and paramount in the Celtic than in the Roman church.

The Celtic calculation of Easter corresponded with that of the Roman church before the council of Nice (325 A.D.) when it was changed not on theological, but on astronomical grounds. The Celtic church, isolated from the rest of Christendom, adhered to the old calculation until the Synod of Whitby in the seventh century, when the Celts were persuaded to agree to the Roman usage.

In central England the Celtic church became extinct around the end of the fifth century, due to the Saxon invasions; the Welsh conformed to the customs of the Anglo-Saxon church at the end of the eighth century, but the supremacy of the See of Canterbury was not fully established until the twelfth century; the British church in Cornwall became subject to the See of Canterbury in the time of king Athelstan (925-940); the Celtic church of Northumberland conformed to Roman usage after the Synod of Whitby in 644 A.D., and the church of Iona in 772 A.D. Some customs peculiar to the ancient Celtic church survived, however, until the eleventh century.

Excerpted from Symbolism of the Celtic Cross by Derek Bryce. Copyright © 1989 Derek Bryce. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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