This design of endlessly looping and interlacing ribbons is found throughout Celtic art, adorning High Crosses and filling the pages of illuminated manuscripts.
The motif is of pre-Christian origin and likely symbolized the endless cycle of existence.
In the Christian era it became a symbol of eternity and also of protection, for the Celts believed that evil forces were frustrated by anything that went on forever and didn’t have a definitive beginning and end. (This was one reason why the Celts considered the constantly moving waters of springs and rivers as holy spots.)
The Celtic knot has another feature, a clearly defined border than encloses the spiral within. Bradley writes that the combination of constant movement within the knot, and the sense of boundary and protection given by the border, makes it an apt metaphor for the appeal of Celtic spirituality.
Writes Bradley: “We too can both lose and find ourselves as pilgrims within the twists and turns of the Celtic knot … If it seems a mass of detours and diversions, false trails and cul de sacs, then that is the way that the Lord marked out for his pilgrim people Israel when he led them out of Egypt not on the most direct track but by a roundabout route. If it offers endless opportunities along the way, it is also the path of waiting and suffering, disappointments and frustrations, the via dolorosa which leads to the Cross. In the end it brings us back to where we began, to the one who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of our journey.”
And so from these early Celtic Christians we are reminded that our entire lives are to be spent on pilgrimage. We may at times seem to wander aimlessly, looping and circling back upon ourselves, lost in frustration and disappointments, but all of our journeys are contained within the protective embrace of God.
In the words of a traditional Celtic blessing:
Be each saint in heaven,
Each sainted woman in heaven,
Each angel in heaven
Stretching their arms for you,
Smoothing the way for you,
When you go thither
Over the river hard to see;
Oh when you go thither home
Over the river hard to see.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.