The cross is, of course, an immediately recognisable symbol within both secular and religious groups. However, not many of us are familiar with the fascinating history of the mysterious and evocative Tau Cross, nor of the myths and legends that surround it.
From the dawn of civilisation, the cross has stood as both ornament and religious symbol. Various cross or cross-like artefacts that date from long before Christian times have been discovered in almost every region of the ancient world. Persia, Egypt, Syria and India have all given up numerous examples, while Europe has yielded countless examples that date from the latter part of the Stone Age at their oldest. Using a cross in a religious context in the pre-Christian era is likely to have been almost universal, and in a lot of cases it would have associated with the worship of nature in some form. Later, the Tau Cross (or Crux Commissa) would come closely associated with St Anthony as well as St Francis and his Franciscans.
Cross of Many Names
One of the most notable forms of these pre-Christian crosses is the tau cross. Taking their name from its similarity to the Greek letter ‘T’, these crosses were often used by the ancient Egyptians. In Hebrew, this letter is written as an ‘x’ but is pronounced in the same way. This sort of cross may also be referred to as ‘the Cross of St Francis’ (founder of the Franciscans), ‘the Cross of St Anthony’, the ‘Crux Commissa’ and ‘the Old Testament cross’.
Egyptian Origins of the Tau Cross
The Tau Cross started life in Egypt as a pagan symbol and was later adopted by Christians (Copts). Various designs of this cross were employed by nominal Christians living in Egypt. The Egyptian hieroglyph representing life is called the ankh. The ankh has the appearance of a tau-type cross topped with a loop, a design used extensively on Coptic Christian gravestones.
In its extensive history, this type of cross was also once representative of Mithras, a Roman god, and Attis, a Greek god. In Norse mythology, Thor’s hammer is shaped like a tau cross. In astrology, Taurus the Bull takes his name from ‘tau’, and even the ancient druids made use of the symbol, scrawling it into their sacred oak bark. In terms of Christianity, the first reference to a tau-shaped cross can be found in the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament).
As Christianity grew in popularity, this originally pagan symbol started to take on Christian meaning. Christ’s first disciples adopted it as their talisman, and it is thought by many experts that the crucifixion cross was, in fact, T-shaped rather than the classic cross that we see depicted today. The Egyptian monk St. Anthony is said to have leaned on a tau-shaped crutch, and when he went to visit a fellow monk, he would leave it outside their cave, thus using it to symbolize communication with God.
These crosses are associated with several Christian saints. St Antony, during his lifetime, is thought to have carried a cross of this type about his person. He is said to have appeared in 1095 to a French nobleman who was desperately seeking a cure for his sick son. After following the divine instruction to plant a tau-shaped cross, the boy was miraculously healed. This led to crosses of this type being used as amulets to ward off disease during the Middle Ages. However, it was St Francis who really embraced the use of the cross.
Francis was familiar with St. Anthony’s community of followers, as they were still present in Assisi during his lifetime. It seems likely that this is where he first came across the cross. He went on to adopt it as a personal representation of his strong faith. He used it extensively – painting it on the doors and walls of places that he stayed, referring to it in his writing and using it as his signature. He is said to have stretched his arms out wide to demonstrate to his friars that the habits that they wore embodied the symbol – that is, that they were walking crucifixes.
Because of St. Francis’s prolific use of the Tau Cross, it is now indelibly associated with his order – the Franciscans. It is worn or used by many of his followers, whether secular or religious.
Ireland’s Tau Crosses
There are just ten examples of the Tau Cross (Crux Commissa) left in Ireland. They are located at Roughan Hill in County Clare (this one is a replica; the original is in the Clare Heritage Centre in Corofin), Tory Island, Tawnagh in County Sligo, Kilmalkedar Monastic Settlement near Dingle (there are two here in the graveyard), St Begnet’s Church Dalkey, Carrownaseer North in Galway, Killegar in Wicklow, Ballypatrick, County Tipperary and one that originally stood on Church Island, Lough Currane, Waterville in County Kerry and is currently displayed in the Municipal Museum in Cork.
In addition to these there is also what appears to be a small Tau Cross cemented into the wall as you enter Clonabreaney Cemetary, County Meath on the right hand side alongside some cross slabs.