Although admirers of Celtic art have often noted that the triquetra (Latin tri quetrus for three-cornered) is an endless and eternal knot, somewhat akin to the great circle of life or the path that comes back to its own beginning, there is actually very little that is known about the origin or meaning of the symbol.
From Funbo, in the Swedish province of Uppland, comes a group of four stones carved with a runic script in the 11th century. Designated U937, one of the stones also bears a triquetra symbol. This particular stone was discovered in 1875 in the walls of a Franciscan monastery but was likely part of the original group with the other three stones (that remained in their original location). The runes around the edge translate as follows: “Thane and Gunnar raised this stone after Vedr, their brother.” The meaning of the central triquetra symbol is unknown, although it is unlikely that it was associated with Christianity in this context, since the religion had not yet spread to this part of Sweden.
However, its more modern and popular interpretation is one related to Christianity. The Book of Kells is one of the finest illustrated manuscripts ever produced by the Celtic monasteries. Created ca. 800 CE, it contains the four Gospels in Latin, along with many rich and ornate portraits, capital letters, and ornamentations of all types. A small decorative triqueta makes its appearance on page 66 (recto or front side), off to the left, and it may be one of the earlier uses of the symbol in a Christian context, if not with overt Christian symbolism. However, the Holy Trinity and the triple knot seem like an ideal fit and many interpretations now make this association. Even the Book of Kells web site uses the triquetra as a navigational icon.
In more recent times, the triquetra has been co-opted even further, standing now as a symbol for some Neopagan or Wiccan groups where it represents triplicates such as virgin – mother – crone or earth – air – water. It has even made an appearance in the television show Charmed (actually, the triquetra is combined with a circle) where it stands for the ‘power of three’, i.e., the three ‘good witch’ sisters who regularly combine their powers to accomplish their magic.
All of these interpretations of the triquetra work equally well when it comes to tattoo artwork. While some tattoo devotees admire its ancient Celtic roots, others its Christian or pagan symbolism, and still others its beauty of form, there is no denying that the triquetra has become a quintessentially Celtic tattoo.