No one knows why Celtic Crosses have a circle. Guesses include pragmatic utilitarianism (to hold the arms up),1 the sun, Greek laurel wreath, Egyptian ankh, circle of creation,2 the Chi-Ro Greek monogram for Christ,3 the divine light that imbues all creation,4 the “Celestial Sphere” found in earlier Eastern Christianity,5 and a range of fanciful inventions based on modern imagination and pseudo-scholarship about Celtic “paganism.” [Leading scholars of pagan history agree that almost nothing is known about pre-Christian beliefs in Britain and Ireland. The few, conflicting descriptions we have, all come from highly tendentious, frequently incorrect foreigners (such as Julius Caesar, who also claimed that German forests were full of unicorns) or from Christian writers of later periods with strong agendas of their own (such as creating a native pagan history and mythology to rival their snobby Greek and Roman “Classical” neighbors).6] The circles on Celtic crosses remain a mystery.
With that in mind, I do not suggest an historical hypothesis here; rather, I offer a theological insight from a modern Feminist Christian perspective. I ask the invitational question: “What happens when modern Christians allow Celtic Crosses to symbolize the Compassing of the Divine Womb?”
Let’s begin with the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers, blessings, mythology, and folklore collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909. Carmichael’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into his interpretation of the worldview in that time and place. The frequent use of the word “caim” (Scottish Gaelic), translated into English as “compassing” particularly struck me:
‘Caim,’ encompassing, is a form of safeguarding common in the west… The encompassing of any of the Three Persons of the Trinity, or of the Blessed Virgin, or of any of the Apostles or of any of the saints may be invoked, according to the faith of the suppliant. In making the ‘caim ‘ the suppliant stretches out the right hand with the forefinger extended, and turns round sunwise as if on a pivot, describing a circle with the tip of the forefinger while invoking the desired protection. The circle encloses the suppliant and accompanies [her/]him as [she/]he walks onward, safe- guarded from all evil without or within. Protestant or Catholic, educated or illiterate, may make the ‘caim ‘ in fear, danger, or distress, as when some untoward noise is heard or some untoward object seen during the night…
The encompassing of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, of Mary, of the Holy Rood, of the Holy Rood and of the saints in heaven, of Michael, of the nine angels, of the saints and of the nine angels, of Columba; and to these may be added the customary epithets… the encompassing of the God of the creatures, of Michael militant the victorious, of Columba the kindly. It is also called ‘caim na corraig,’ the encompassing of the fore-finger, and ‘caim na còrach,’ the encompassing of righteousness…
May the compassing of the Three shield me in my means,
The compassing of the Three shield me this day,
The compassing of the Three shield me this night
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.
From hate, from harm, from act, from ill.7
If you read the Carmina Gadelica you will encounter these circles of protection, compassing, and three dimensional shielding repeatedly throughout its great length. Douglas Hyde records a similar invocation of shielding in nineteenth century Ireland, where people called out, “The Cross of Christ upon us!” in response to sudden trouble:
“People still believed that there was an invisible host around them, ready to hurt them if it had the chance. So they would use the cross as one would use a weapon.
May it be a strong fortress, the fortress in which we are,
May it be a blind host, this host that is coming to us.”8
The popular Irish invocation called “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” (recorded four centuries after Patrick’s death) expresses a similar request for protective compassing. It reads in part:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I bind to myself to-day,
The strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,
The faith of the Trinity in Unity
The Creator of the Elements…
Medieval Celtic Christians also believed that angels, saints, and the power of the Trinity surround us in a circle of friendly love and aid, both as an unseen presence and also visible in the natural world,9 such that medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym describes the birds and trees of the forest as a Eucharist purer even than one found inside a church:
The Woodland Mass
A pleasant place I was at today
Under the mantles of the worthy green hazel
Listening at day’s beginning
To the skilful cock thrush
Singing a splendid stanza…
Like green mantles, his chasuble
Was of the wings of the wind.
There was here, by the great God,
Nothing but gold in the altar’s canopy.
I heard, in polished language,
A long and faultless chanting,
An unhesitant reading to the people
Of a Gospel without mumbling;
The elevation, on the hill for us there,
Of a good leaf for a holy wafer…
The chalice of ecstasy and love.
The psalmody contents me;
It was bred of a birch-grove in the sweet woods.
The forest Eucharist symbolizes the bodily presence of Christ encircling us. Christ-presence in birdsong, trees, mist, and fertility thus surrounds us with all-encompassing divine power, energy, and healing love.
Protective, loving circling, encompassing, surrounding, etc., fills these prayers over and over, echoing and repeating in layer upon layer, various versions of the symbol of a circle or sphere of divine presence, within which we are safe, nourished, and loved. If you step into the world of old Celtic prayers and blessings, you step into a world in which the Divine is an encompassing, embracing orb of protective love.
Our modern world is full of fear and uncertainty, with a desperate need for spiritual traditions that bring us comfort, fortitude, and inspiration. In the next post, we will gaze at these ancient prayers through a feminist lens and discover how they deeply enrich our spiritual and devotional path. Beautiful Celtic invocations of the protective presence of powerful female saints will guide us to embrace these traditions that provide channels of emotional wellness in the face of griefs and brokenness. We will experience the Compassing of the Divine Womb birthing Christian feminist liberation in the very heart of the faith community.
1. Werner, Martin (1990). “On the Origin of the Form of the Irish High Cross”. Gesta. 29 (1): 98–110.
2. De Waal, Esther (1999). Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing., p112.
3. Bryce, Derek. Symbolism of the Celtic Cross. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 1989.
4. Newell, J. Philip (1997). Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. London: SPCK Publishing., p34-35.
5. Herren, Michael W.; Brown, Shirley Ann (2002). Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century. Boydell Press.
6. Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
7. Carmichael, Alexander (2020). Carmina Gadelica: hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
8. Hyde, Douglass (1906). Religious songs of Connacht. London, Dublin: Irish University Press, II., p287 c.f. DeWaal, Esther (1991), p.120.
9. De Waal, Esther (1999), p125-130.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir has taught courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.