"Always remember to draw the swastika turning to the right": Some thoughts on swastika directionality in Early Medieval Irish Art

Swastikas are, for a number of reasons, endlessly fascinating symbols. Like all symbols, they are only invested with the meanings we give them. Otherwise they are just little shapes and drawings that mean nothing in and of themselves. Owing to its long history and brief (if traumatic) association with Nazism, the swastika probably has a stronger resonance than most. You won’t spend long on the internet attempting to discuss the swastika before someone, trying to be helpful, notes that the Nazi version rotated counter-clockwise (elbows pointing left) and was bad, but the good Buddhist/Hindu version rotated clockwise. They may be trying to be helpful, but they are invariably wrong. It’s true that the version Adolf Hitler designed for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei only went one direction: counter-clockwise. What’s wrong is that not all other (i.e. non-Nazi) swastikas turn the opposite direction (elbows pointing right).

Rather than dutifully plod through a debunking of this easily-researched falsehood, I want to look at directionality in Irish swastikas, a topic that has not been previously discussed. According to my research, there are 34 ‘items’ in, or of Irish manufacture, that bear some form of swastika. I use the term ‘items’ as it encompasses everything from small artefacts up to large pieces such as high crosses and one megalithic orthostat. Some of these are decorated with a single swastika, while others have up to 37. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine myself to the 17 Early Medieval items, in or of Ireland, that are, in one form or another, adorned with swastikas.

Aglish, Co. Kerry. (Source: Left | Right)
The largest single group within this corpus are eight cross-inscribed pillars, half of which are found in Kerry. Arguably the most famous of these is the Aglish pillar stone. It has a distinctive equal-armed cross with expanded terminals, set within a circle, at its head and a line of ogham script running down each side. The late Etienne Rynne dated this example to the 5th or 6th centuries, but more recent work by Swift suggests a date in the 6th to 7th centuries. Just below the cross there are two swastikas, one on either side of a gnomon or spear. Both are anti-clockwise versions.

Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry (Source)

Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry (Cuppage 1986)
The next pillar stone is from Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry, and similarly dates from the 6th to 7th centuries. Three faces of the stone are decorated with variants of the Latin cross. Two are composed of simple, incised lines, while the third has terminals decorate with equilateral triangles and a square at the junction of the shaft and cross-beam. The fourth side bears the swastika (rotating anticlockwise), composed of simple incised lines with an open square at the junction of the shaft and cross-beam. It is clear from the context that this should not be viewed as a symbol apart from the three crosses, but as another form of christian cross, no different to the others. The central point here is that swastikas appearing in christian art cannot be seen as anything other than christian in inspiration and intent. In the same way that saltires, taus, along with Greek and Latin varieties are all variations on the cross theme, so too is the swastika in these contexts.

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Rynne 1990)

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source)

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source)
Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source: O'Sullivan & Sheehan 1996)
At Cloon West in Co Kerry there are two pillar stones standing near each other that, between them bear five swastikas. The first of these has two swastikas on one side and one on the other. All three swastikas, though differing in form, are clearly anticlockwise. One side has a Latin cross with triangular terminals and a pelta above a curving, sinuous swastika. The other side has a similar swastika at the bottom, enhanced by an incised outline. Above this is rectilinear swastika, composed of incised lines and, again, enhanced by an incised, square outline. This latter symbol is connected by a single vertical line to a Greek cross with expanded terminals, inside a decorative border. The second tone has plain Latin crosses on each of its wider faces, both with expanded terminals. One of these crosses sits on circular design, reminiscent of the circle of decoration on the previous slab, and the ornamental patterns on each of its sides. On this example, the swastikas are placed one on each of the narrower sides. Stylistically, they are the same as the one on the previous stone – simple incised rectilinear lines inside a squared outline. The major difference here is that both swastikas are of the clockwise variety.

Fuerty, Co. Roscommon (Source: Courtesy of Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh, Roscommon 3D project)

Fuerty, Co. Roscommon (Source: Courtesy of Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh, Roscommon 3D project)

Next, we come to the partial swastika from Fuerty, Co Roscommon. It is thought to date to the 9th to 11th centuries and is executed in false relied. Although only partially preserved, it is clear that the swastika here was conceived as quite similar to the previous example, with an incised outline running around a central swastika figure. It is also clear that the swastika is of the anticlockwise type.

Cliffoney, Co. Sligo (Source: Left | Right)

At Cliffoney, Co. Sligo, a slab at Brigid’s Well is decorated with a long Latin cross. The lower shaft of the cross and arms are decorated with a series of saltires. The head of the cross is roughly square and contains an anticlockwise rotating swastika. The junction of the arms and head is taken up with a series of concentric circles while the top of the cross is covered with a curly-ended pelta shape.

Termons, Church Island, Co. Cork (Source)

There are two more stones to add to this collection. The first is from Termons, Church Island, Co. Cork. It is described as incorporating a debased form of the swastika at the junction of the shaft and arms. I’ve never been particularly convinced by this example as a true swastika, and the only image I can find doesn’t give any clear impression of directionality. The other stone is from Killaraght, Co. Sligo. The only description I have of it is the following: “A piece of Old Red Sandstone, probably of Early Christian date, can be seen in the old section of the graveyard. It has four D-shaped projections, the top of each is decorated with a swastika” (M B Timony: Killaraght Early Christian Cross Slab). Unfortunately, I do not possess a photograph or drawing of this stone and do not know any more about it.

Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny (Source)

Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny (Source: Photograph of drawing on information board by Chris McClintock)

While the symbol is relatively popular in the cross-inscribed stone tradition, it is almost completely absent from the corpus of High Crosses. That is, except for the example from Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny. The cross is part of the ‘Ahenny Group’ and dates to the 8th or 9th centuries, making it contemporary with some of the examples mentioned above and among the earlier High Crosses. What I can make out from the available imagery is that the arms of the cross were each decorated with a rectilinear, if slightly disjointed, swastika, one going in each direction. The head of the cross appears to have had a form of swastika composed of curvilinear lines, going in a clockwise direction. There are two further areas of decoration that – in the right light – might be interpreted as swastikas, but are just too indistinct to be sure. For the purposes of this research, I’m reluctant to even include them as ‘possibles’.

Lindisfarne, England (Source)

Although Lindisfarne is on the east coast of England, it is considered to have been an Irish monastery, having been founded by Irish monks from Iona. The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels is in the Insular style and dates to around 700 AD. Folio 210v is a ‘carpet page’, a characteristic feature of the Insular manuscript tradition where the page is given over to elaborate ornamentation. In this example, prefacing the Gospel of John, the central decorative item is an equal-armed Greek cross. At the cardinal points, there are T-shaped or ‘Tau’ crosses, and the four angles are decorated with L-shaped pieces. In each of four gaps between the ends of the L-shaped pieces and the tau crosses there is a square block, each of which contains a swastika. The top two turn to the left (anticlockwise), while the lower pair turn clockwise.

Cathedral Hill, Co Armagh (Source: Top: Gaskell-Brown & Harper 1984 | Bottom: Edwards 1990)
At Cathedral Hill, Co Armagh, excavation by Cynthia Gaskell Brown and A.E.T. Harper in 1968 recovered a bone knife handle from a dump of material, pushed into a ditch. Judging by the associated material, it would appear to date to the broad period from the 5th to 10th centuries. It is also decorated with four swastikas, each one composed of simple, incised lines, enhanced by an incised outline, giving the whole the form of a small square. As far as I can ascertain from both the published drawing and photograph, two swastikas turn anticlockwise, while one turns the opposite direction. Unfortunately, I cannot be sure of the direction of the other example and while I suspect that it would turn clockwise (giving two of each type), I cannot be certain and have assigned this to my ‘Unclear’ category.

Oseberg, Norway (Source: Paul Parker via Flickr. Reproduced by kind permission)
The final group are all of metal, and represent both religious and secular prestige goods. The first of these is the so-called ‘buddha bucket’ from Oseberg, Norway. The bucket is thought to have been created in the late 7th century, making it quite the heirloom by the time it was deposited as part of the funeral offerings in the mid-9th century. The bucket is composed of yew wood staves, bound together with copper strips. The junction between the rim and the handle is decorated with a small figure in copper alloy, notable for his crossed legs position. He also has a centre-parted hairstyle that can be paralleled on the figure of St Matthew from the Book of Durrow, itself dating to the period from 650-700 AD. The figure’s chest bears a large Greek cross with millefiori decoration in the form of multiple small saltire crosses (50, by my count). Each of the angles of the Greek cross are filled by a four interlocking tau crosses in yellow enamel, composed in such a way as to create a swastika from the linear voids between them. However, the artist arranged the taus in such a way as to have the top left and bottom right swastikas rotate anticlockwise, while the remainder move in the opposite direction.

Løland, Norway (Source: Bruce-Mitford 2005)

At Løland, Norway, a hanging bowl escutcheon of possible Irish manufacture was recovered from a burial and is thought to date to the 8th or early 9th centuries. Here two human masks with ovoid eyes, long noses and wide mouths are placed on either side of a square. The square contains an arrangement of four T-shapes that, like the Oseberg example, create a swastika in the void between them. In this case the swastika is rotating in a clockwise direction.

Coolbuck crannog, Lough Eyes, Co Fermanagh (Source: Bourke, 2000)

A thin strip of decorated metal from Coolbuck crannog in Lough Eyes, Co Fermanagh, bears four square, stamped motifs. It is unclear what this item was originally part of, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was attached to a wooden or leather background of some kind, using the recessed nail holes. Although atypical of Irish metalwork, it has been suggested that it was created as a repair piece for a hanging bowl during the 8th century. Whatever its function, one of the square decorations bears a clearly stamped swastika, spinning in an anticlockwise direction.

Lagore, Co. Meath (Source: Lucas et al. 1961)

The list of archaeological acquisitions for the year 1959 includes an image of the ring portion of a penannular brooch from Lagore, Co. Meath, dating to the 6th or 7th century. The published description indicates that the right-hand terminal is decorated with three chequerboard plaques of millefiori set in a red enamel background. The decorative elements are completed by the addition of a fourth blue and white millefiori plaque, this time bearing four swastikas. The two on the left turn anti clockwise, while the two on the right turn in the opposite direction. Each swastika is set within the quadrants of a pair of lines intersecting in an x-shape. It may be pushing the evidence too far to describe this as a formal saltire cross. The opposite terminal appears to have been decorated in the same manner, but not enough survives to be sure of the swastika’s directionality.

Ardagh, Co Limerick (Source: Dr M Comber, NUIG)

The Ardagh hoard from Co Limerick is justly famous as one of the great metalwork accomplishments of this period. The central piece within the hoard, the great Ardagh Chalice, was created during the eighth century and bears a large amount of intricate and detailed decoration on its various elements. In particular, I want to note two curving panels on the underside of the foot-ring. Each panel bears 72 incised Tau shapes, arranged in 18 groups of four. Each group of four produces a swastika shape at their intersection. Thus, there are 36 swastikas between the two panels. I only have an image of one of these panels, so can’t be sure of the directionality of the entire set. The 18 swastikas currently visible to me are all rotating clockwise.

St Patrick’s Bell shrine (Source)
The final piece in my catalogue is the spectacular object known as St Patrick’s Bell shrine. The external shrine was commissioned by King Domnall Ua Lochlainn between 1091 and 1105. The front and sides, along with the entirety of crest show liberal use of ‘Urnes style’ serpentine forms, indicating a significant Viking artistic influence. Beautiful as these are, I’m only interested in the back panel. Here a rather wonderful 3D effect is conjured up through the use of a silver grille set over a sheet of gilded bronze. The first image that hits the observer is that of the repeated use of equal-armed Greek crosses formed in the voids of the silver grille. The border is completed through the inclusion of 10 tau crosses, along with two L-shapes. More difficult to perceive, however, are the 37 clockwise-spinning swastikas formed from solid silver areas between the Greek crosses.

By my count, these 17 items bear 109 swastikas between them. These may be broken down as follows:

Clockwise:           67           61.5%
Anticlockwise:   18           16.5%
Unknown:           24           22%

From this it should be clear that anti-clockwise swastikas were a small-scale, but established, element of the Early Medieval artistic repertoire. As such they should not be seen as unusual or in any way anomalous. My only reservation in using these figures is that one single item (St Patrick’s Bell Shrine) makes up just over one-third of the examples (37 of 109), considerably skewing the data. Perhaps a fairer way of looking at the corpus is to restructure the data by a count of the occurrences by type. This means that an artefact with multiple swastikas would count as a single instance in each direction. Thus, St Patrick’s Bell Shrine is reweighted to count as 1 as all of its examples are clockwise. However, the four examples seen on the Lindisfarne carpet page count as 2, with examples rotating in each direction. Reweighted in this manner we see a more balanced account of swastika occurrences in Irish Early Medieval art:

Clockwise:           9              39%
Anticlockwise:   10           43.5%
Unknown:           4              17.5%

Seen in this way, anticlockwise swastika symbols make up approximately half of the recognised examples. However we chose to enumerate the examples within the Early Medieval art, the question remains as to the meaning of the swastika in such contexts. I have no difficulty in seeing the swastika as a sun symbol in other contexts – frequently associated with horses as the motive force – the evidence just doesn’t appear to be there to make the same case for the Irish examples. I believe that a competent case was put forward by Rynne that the swastika on the 15th century McMahon tomb in Ennis Friary may be viably interpreted as a symbol of Christian resurrection. Such an interpretation would be consistent with its use on the roughly 16th century grave slab at St James’ graveyard in Dingle, Co. Kerry. However, I simply do not see that as a conclusion that can be legitimately drawn directly from the earlier Irish material. Instead, I would look towards the association of the swastika with other symbols where it occurs. Of the 17 extant examples, 12 (70.5%) are associated with some form of christian cross, with some having more than one association. These include 5 with Greek crosses (29.4%), along with the same numbers of both Latin and Tau crosses. A further two (11.8%) are associated with Saltires. Thus, my argument is that the swastika symbol is (in these contexts) simply a variant form of christian cross, no different than any of the others. Implicit within that is the understanding that the swastika form embodies those aspects of christian teaching commonly associated with other cross forms, including teachings around the death and resurrection of Jesus and the claims of afterlife salvation. Thus, the directionality of the symbol is divorced from its older use as a sun symbol and of no real significance in this context. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' direction for an Irish swastika to spin - it just spins!

Should any reader have or know of one or more clear photographs or drawings of any of the examples mentioned above – especially of the Killaraght, Co Sligo, stone – they would be made very welcome here. By the same token, should you be aware of any other Irish swastikas that have eluded my searches, I would be particularly delighted to hear about them.

The first part of this post’s title is taken from Gwar's song ‘Slaughterama’, from the satirical shock rock band's 1990 album Scumdogs of the Universe. But, of course, you knew that.

Cited Works:
Bourke, C. 2000 A bronze mount from Lough Eyes, County Fermanagh. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 59.

Bruce-Mitford, R. 2005 The corpus of Late Celtic hanging bowls. With an account of the bowls found in Scandinavia by Sheila Raven. Oxford.

Cuppage, J. 1986 Corca Dhuibhne. Dingle Peninsula archaeological surveyBallyferriter.

Edwards, N. 1990 The archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London.

Gaskell-Brown, C. & Harper, A. E. T. 1984 Excavations on Cathedral Hill, Armagh, 1968 Ulster Journal of Archaeology 47.

Lucas, A. T., Ó Ríordáin, A. B., Rynne, E. Prendergast, E. Raftery, J. & O'Kelly, M. J. 1961 National Museum of Ireland Archaeological Acquisitions in the Year 1959 Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 91.1

O'Sullivan, A. & Sheehan, J. 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula: an archaeological survey of south Kerry. Cork.

Rynne, E. 1990 'The swastika at Ennis—symbol of the Resurrection' North Munster Antiquarian Journal 32.


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