I realize that this title is a little, shall we say, provocative. I do confess, right now, that I don't have the definitive line on ancient meanings. As a designer of Celtic jewelry for many years, I have several thoughts on how the meaning of these designs can be reconciled, in the present time, with regard to the history of Celtic jewelry symbols.
Perhaps now more than ever, people are searching for meaning in all aspects of their lives.
The first question one usually hears about Celtic jewelry is, "What does it mean?"
To even begin to answer that question you must ask one of your own; "From what era would you prefer your meaning?"
It's wise to remember that, as with all things, meanings change over time. Gold and silver Celtic jewelry dates back to 2000 B.C.E., so it is highly likely that their meanings have evolved over time. The ancestral meaning ascribed to Celtic interlace, or other symbols, is likely to differ from those inferred by modern interpreters of Celtic designs due to the time frames and context of their assessments.
Celtic art is unique in the sense that it is a living tradition that also allows us to connect with our distant past. Trying to find a single meaning in a piece of Celtic jewelry ignores much of its history, and is probably impossible in any event. The fact that this is a living tradition that can veer from original meaning, means it need not wait for official interpretation of what it all means before new designs are created. If a new artist claims that his heart shaped pendant design with knotwork stands for endless love, then it does.
The new designs may not meet with academic appreciation, but when there is no real evidence to the contrary, the Celtic symbol meanings of today's creations should merit some validity in our modern context.
There is solid evidence of Celtic spirals and other symbols used in ancient days, but little evidence of them predates the first Christian Celtic art which appeared in about 450 C.E.
Monks transcribing sacred texts in 7th century have documented Celtic interlace, also known as knotwork, in their illustrated manuscripts. The greatest examples of high Celtic art that gave growth to Celtic design today are The Book of Kells, Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Book of Durrow. All three are exquisitely adorned books. Even these manuscripts tell us little directly, leaving each reader to interpret them for themselves.
The definitive original meaning of many Celtic symbols remain unclear in the thoughts of many historians and scholars, as there are few hard facts pertaining to their time line and origin. (Note: The meaning that we have found to be most believable, and most often repeated is "The interconnectedness of all things".)
Celtic jewelry and art appreciators do not have to stick to academics for the meanings of Celtic jewelry. The creative and emotional appeal of these designs attract us. Their importance is in how they reflect our individuality and how they make us feel.
The potential revelation of a secret significance ,contained within the shape of Celtic symbols, adds to their mystery. And a manuscript may be interpreted correctly some day, once and for all, to reveal all the mysteries.
I recommend that until that day, we accept that the meanings of Celtic symbols in jewelry are those that we currently hold in our hearts and in our minds. Celtic jewelry will probably gain new meanings in the future thanks to the continuing evolution of consensus among those of us who care, so, perhaps those in the distant future looking for meaning will have more to go on.