Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Triskele. A Symbol Related In Three Parts

Many websites tell you that the triskele symbolises the three aspects of the Celtic Triple Goddess: the maiden, mother and crone or derivatives of.  Other sites relate that the motif reflects life, death and re-birth  or variations of this theme. Unfortunately many alleged ‘informative’ sites appear to be cut and paste repeats taken from unnamed sources. 

The symbol does pose a problem though and there are no easy answers. The problem is, lacking written sources that explain the symbol's meaning, where does someone begin? However, there are  a few threads and associations, and perhaps from these we can glean an overall notion of the triskele's rudimentary symbolism. 

So let's grip the curtains of time and pry them open. To view  the earliest known triskeles we have to peer back into the murky Neolithic era. Allegedly the earliest known sample comes from the little island of Malta, down there in the Med below Sicily and with Tunisia looming to the West, Libya to the South. 

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Malta and there is a museum in Valetta that holds some stunning samples of neolithic art. Malta is also home to several very ancient megalithic temples that date between 3600BC-2500BC. The triple spiral from Malta evidently predates the temples, but try as I might I can find no reference online as regards this object. I’m certain if it was stored in the Valetta museum I’d have taken a picture of it (as I did every other ancient carved rock in the collection).

Next  we move thousands of miles north-west to another island, to Newgrange in Ireland with its famous megalithic tumulus and these amazing triskeles. The impressive chamber dates from 3200BC though different cultures added to the site through the centuries.

The Triskeles from Newgrange, Ireland.

The Newgrange carvings appear in fluid, evocative forms. There are a triple spiral on the front portal, which flows from a series of other spirals, while the interior spiral is a self-contained image; a sort of double 'S'  with an outreaching spiral arm. Neither are geometrically precise (though the form is not so easy to mimic freehand... I know because I've carved replicas). The designs flow  almost dreamily and the straying arm (of the lower sample) seems to guide the eye in toward the tighter double cluster. Here I sense the notion of regeneration, of forms merging, the idea of transition and change (this of course being my interpretation of this particular image). 

The placing of these designs in a site of burial, and the fact that special attention was made in the chamber's design, so that the midwinter sun illuminates the inner triskele (bottom), points to the design's early involvement in the cycle of death and life (for the midwinter solstice heralds the return of the sun).

Early versions of the symbol also appear in Mycenaean artwork, like this golden cup. It was found in a grave shaft at Mycenae and dates to 1600-1500BC. It is now housed in the National Museum in Athens (though the upper spirals stems from a fourfold cross the lower series are triskeles).

Mycenaean gold cup.

Again the symbol crops up in Sicily and is used as their national flag - clay representations of this image can still be found across the island and it is still a source of national identity for many Sicilians. Sicily was known as Trinacria to the Greeks (it was once a Greek colony) because the shape of the island is roughly triangular. However the myth associated to the design revolves around the tale of the Gorgon, whose face grins from the centre of the design (see pic).

Triskele of Sicily still in use

The Gorgon was the daughter of two sea gods and was one three daughters - Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. They had boar tusks, hands of bronze, golden wings, snakes on their heads and round their waists (interestingly they were said to have originated from the garden of Hesperides as three goddesses of the sunset, who guarded the garden's sacred golden apples. This garden was way out West, where the sun slinks below the horizon. Ladon, the hundred-headed snake guarded their tree of golden apples). 

The same legged triskelion symbol is found throughout the Mediterranean basin, from ancient Lycia to Spain, hinting at a once widespread, maritime influence. It is also used on the Isle Of Man,  and has an obvious association with Celtic finds in the British Isles. However it appears that the Manx symbol, in its heraldic function, was exported to the island in the mid-medieval period (1200AD).

Studying the interlocked triskeles on the above piece of Mycenaean gold, doesn’t it invoke the image of the spread of ocean waves? Could this and the myth of the gorgon - being born of maritime deities - bear some relevance to the design’s symbolism? There are references in Celtic spheres of  Manannan, the Celtic god of the sea, being associated with the design. 

Others associate the triskele with Brigid and, of course, the triple goddess - citing the regenerative aspects of a nature goddess, the idea of movement, the threefold aspect of life, demise and re-birth. The Celts believed that there existed many worlds, that life was merely a way-point along the journey of forms.  Death was a transit point. Surely some of their art must reflect such deep  ideas.


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