At the heart of symbolism

The Celtic cross

(Detailed page)


The symbolism of the (Celtic) cross

Celtic crosses with equal and unequal branchesCircle in a cross, a symbol of the WorldIf we surround the intersection of the branches of a familiar cross with a circle, we obtain a Celtic cross. Its denomination mainly comes from its appearance in the British Celtic regions between the 7th and the 9th century, notably Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The circle can just as well trim a cross with equal or unequal branches.

The Celtic cross is related to the (Celtic) rowel with 4, 6 or 8 radiuses. In contrast to a number of affirmations, the rowel is not exclusively a solar symbol. Above all, it is a World symbol where the Centre extends up to the (circular) periphery. The rowel constitutes a symbol of the World in its Unity, its Principle (Centre) and its manifestation (cosmic wheel). It also describes the World in its alternate movement between the Centre and the periphery. Indeed, the Principle being the Whole, everything comes from It and everything goes back to It.

The rowel, especially in 6 or 8 radius form, is notably spread in Celtic and Hindu traditions:

  • The rowel with 4 (or 8) radiuses represents the development of the Principle in the plan of the compass (and intermediary) points;
  • The rowel with 6 radiuses corresponds to a plane representation of the development of the Principle in the space spotted by the four directions of the horizontal plane (compass points) and the two directions of the vertical axis (nadir, zenith).

The extension of the Celtic cross branches beyond the circle suggests the immense potential of the being's development beyond the human sphere:

  • The Celtic cross with equal branches represents the whole range of possibilities contained in the centre of a specific being's state that are equally extending in all directions of the horizontal plane;
  • The Celtic cross with unequal branches symbolizes at once the whole horizontal range of possibilities associated with the centre of a determined being's state and the vertical expansion of the centres of all being's states from the most ordinary to the most spiritual ones.

It follows that the intersection point of unequal branches of the (Celtic) cross represents the centre related to a specific being's state that is extending horizontally. The points of the vertical branch correspond to the centres associated with the indefinite multitude of the being's states. Concerning the vertical as such, it is generated by a unique point, the Centre or the Principle, which is impossible to specify. As René Guénon points out, in the “The Symbolism of the Cross”, the Centre is essentially “non-localized”. Unlike the formulation of Blaise Pascal, “the circumference is everywhere and the Centre nowhere ”.

For easier representations, the Centre is sometimes assimilated into the intersection point of the branches of the cross, i.e. the centre of any state (spiritual or not). It is nonetheless true that the being can rejoin such a state centre at any moment and from there reach the Centre.

Various representations of the (Celtic) cross

In various traditions, the four branches of the (Celtic) cross depict the four rivers flowing, according to the compass points, from the summit of the “White Mountain” 1 situated in the middle of the green land and symbolizing the Centre.

A superb illustration of this representation is offered by the patio of the lions in the Alhambra in Granada. Water flows according to the four compass directions from a central circular basin supported by twelve lions portraying the zodiac or the Cosmos belt. The extension of the Celtic cross branches beyond the zodiac belt suggests a development of the being beyond the cosmic World evoking a new World, a truly spiritual World, a supra-cosmic World. A similar drawing can be seen in the circular yard of the close by palace of Charles V.

Patio of the lions (Alhambra, Granada, 14th century) Circular yard of Charles V's palace (Alhambra, Granada)

Rowel of the Bronze ageThe drawing of the Celtic cross goes back in time as testified by the rowels of the Bronze Age (see the opposite drawing). It can be just as well found in the camp layout of the Vikings or Indian populations of Northern America.

Viking camp of Fyrkat in Denmark (11th century)The Viking camp mainly consisted of a mighty circular rampart surrounding a number of “barrack halls”, which in fact were castles. The Fyrkat camp in Denmark has sixteen halls equally distributed within four quarters separated by the branches of a cross. The vertical symbolizes the solstitial axis and the horizontal the equinoctial axis. North, at the “top”, corresponds to the winter solstice, the beginning of the sun ascent towards the Northern celestial pole, the motionless point around which stars and “wanderings” are turning, for the people living in the Northern hemisphere. South, at the “bottom”, is associated with the summer solstice, the start of the sun descent in the direction of the Southern celestial pole. East and west stand in the middle of both phases.

The ascent towards north, the “top”, corresponds to the access to the spiritual World. The descent towards south, the “bottom”, means going back to the human cosmic world if failing to reach the “top” World.

Flag of New MexicoJust as for the Viking camp, the cross was used as the basis for the camp of Indian tribes. The Sioux tepees were notably built in a circle around the central tepee of the fire guardian. Oriented according to the compass points, the cross symbolized the harmony of the being with the Cosmos. It was equally the inspiration for the dance ritual. Various crosses decorated clothing and potteries and one of them was even used as an emblem for the flag of New Mexico State.

The ancient cross of Ahenny (Ireland)Nevertheless, the most known shape these days remains the Celtic cross decorated with tracery. It strongly reminds the metal and coins work. In the tracery drawing, the “knots” correspond to as many states or state modes that the being has to go through before rejoining superior states or the Centre. In fact, the rope is linking the being's states and their modes together and to the Principle that unites them. It happens that the progression alongside this rope brings us back to a “knot” close to our departure point just as the progression in the labyrinths of our churches. The being thinks he has gone back to the point from which he started without considering all the way or states he has gone through so far. He can also rise alongside the vertical branch and be taken down suddenly or approach the centre of the cross and desperately move away from it. These comings and goings suggest that rejoining the Centre goes through a jump into the existence emptiness, through a sudden rupture in the being's wandering full of distracting peregrinations and events.

These various representations encourage us to gather the different aspects of the Celtic cross in a unique three dimensional drawing.

The three dimensional Celtic crossEverything, absolutely everything, in the universe is the manifestation of the Principle, the One, the Centre or the Whole. It is symbolized by the invisible point that generates all the points of the vertical of the three-dimensional cross. The points of the vertical represent the indefinite multitude of the being's states from the most ordinary (at the “bottom”) to the most spiritual (at the “top”). More precisely, these points constitute the centres associated with the different being's states, the possibilities of which are extending in a horizontal plane spotted by the four compass directions. The sphere enveloping a specific state symbolizes the cosmic sphere where the being can develop his physical and psychical possibilities. The extension of the branches beyond the sphere infers that the being may develop possibilities of another order, of a properly spiritual nature and coming within the supra-cosmic World. The being that does not pass through the gates opening on the World beyond rediscovers the cosmic world and must perpetually continue to go round in circles through a multitude of other states. That is our common lot we have to accept as long as we do not attain the Centre and jump into the complete emptiness, which frightens us so much. This emptiness is total in our eyes as it is empty of all what we know, but full of all what we do not know (yet).

The Celtic cross shows us that the true Centre is not the centre of the familiar cross (associated with the centre of a determined being's state), but this invisible point of the non-manifested World, which is nowhere. A World that we detect with the help of the cross circle, a symbol of the cosmic sphere proper to the visible or manifested world, which is everywhere, all around us, wherever we stand. Going from the outer world to the inner World, from the world surrounding us to the Heart of the World that we carry, without knowing it, within ourselves constitutes the ultimate issue of the being's existence.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The symbolism of the cross”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
  • This work deals in depth with the symbolism of the cross. Chapter 29 concerning “The Centre and the Circumference” deserves a particular attention.
  • “The King of the World”, Sophia Perennis Publisher;
  • In particular chapter 9 on the “omphalos” and the betyles.
  • Black Elk:
  • “The Sacred Pipe - Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux”. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

1 back The white colour represents the spiritual authority in various traditions.