Knotwork patterns are often associated with the Celts and many meanings have been attributed to these patterns. Today Celtic knotwork can be found everywhere, including in wedding rings and tattoos. However, many people may be surprised to learn the true origins of Celtic knotwork and the fact that they actually seem to have no meaning.
What are Celtic Knots?
Celtic knots are graphical representations of knots. They are often used for decoration and can be found ornamenting written works such as the eighth century Book of Kells. Though these Celtic knots are often associated with the ancient Celts, this type of decoration can be found on Ancient Egyptian artifacts as well, making it a much older art form than commonly thought.
In addition to evidence of Egyptian's using "Celtic" knots as decoration, the Norse are also known to have used knotwork as a form of decoration. However, Celtic knots did not become popularized until about the early centuries A.D. when they began to be adopted by Christian monks, who would use it to decorate manuscripts. The earliest example of a true Celtic style knotwork can be found in Durham Cathedral Library and comes from a seventh century gospel book.
While most Internet searches on Celtic knots will point to information on the meaning of Celtic knots such as the lover's knot or the eternity knot, these meanings appear to have been added later, probably during the Celtic Revival that occurred over the last 150 years. Archaeologists have been unable to uncover any artifact that actually deciphers the meaning of Celtic knots. In the case of the eternity knot, the meaning is attributed by George Bain, a twentieth-century Celtic art teacher, because the knot had a closed path with no beginning or end. However, any knot without a beginning or end can represent eternity.
The Eight Basic Knotwork Patterns
Despite the lack of meaning behind Celtic knotwork, art historians have been able to identify 8 basic knotwork patterns that form the basis of all interlaced patterns used in Celtic decoration. Two of the knots are based on a three-cord plait while the other six are patterns derived from a four-cord plait.
Ways to Draw Celtic Knots
There are generally two ways that you might create a Celtic knot pattern. You can draw the Celtic knots by hand using a grid technique, as was developed by George Bain, or by using a Celtic knot font. The Celtic knot font is a design font enabling the user to create Celtic knot designs through the use of simple word processing programs and a keyboard. Using a Celtic knot font, it is possible to create hundreds of Celtic knot patterns. The other method, of course, is for you to create a grid and draw diagonals, curves and breaks in order to create the knotwork pattern. Daniel Isdell has an excellent tutorial on both techniques (see Resources).