Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Triskele: part two

Stone Mad Crafts
A copy of a design from 7th century Ireland carved by the author

The word Triskele comes from the Greek,  meaning three-legged. In general the design consists of curled or bent legs radiating from a  central point,  both clockwise or anti-clockwise. They appear on both weaponry and other functional items.  The whole design is indicative of movement. For antiquarians of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the symbol was often figured to be a relation to the swastika (minus a limb) and therefore associated with the sun.

Geometrically concise the basic construction method of a triskele originates with a hexagram - from which many images of the Celtic Iron Age take shape. The hexagon is composed of two equilateral triangles said to represent the equilibrium between male and female elements (in many cultures there exists a mythic triad e.g; the Trimurti of Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance and destruction are personified by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva*). It is also said to embody the golden ratio,  one of the core principles of Pythagorean mystic thought, with which the Celtic druids became acquainted with via Zamolxis, a follower of Pythagoras (as cited by Hippolytus in the Philosophumena XXII). However the  triple spirals of the infamous Newgrange tumulus surely predate these Iron Age conceptions (see the previous post).

The triskele could also represent the unification of the three Celtic kingdoms air, earth and water. Many Celtic coins have the solar symbol punched in their centre, binding them to the sun god perhaps… Often the legs of the triskele become the bodies or necks of animals, most notably and common are birds (see the samples below). 


The triskele also featured on a lot of Celtic military equipment across Europe and the Balkans.  Possibly in conjunction with some form of protective element.

celtic triskele

celtic sword

Over and over again in Celtic myths and legends the number three re-occurs; patterns or sets of three, triskeles, three dots marking the corners of triangles, three-faced deities **, three-headed gods and the triple aspect of the goddess Brigit. Over and over the sacredness of the number is reinforced. It is even possible that the number was reproduced in ritual and sacrifice (eg: the Lindow Man who was hung, had his throat slit and was pushed into a bog therefore sucuumbing to a threefold death). Indeed the number 3 permeated Celtic thought (as it did and does with other cultures). The triad was even used as a learning device. Still to this day the idea of a lucky shamrock bringing luck (the origins of this are Christianised, most likely the corruption of older traditions - remembering that St Patrick is supposed to have used the shamrock to explain the holy trinity***). No doubt the similarity or appropriation of cult symbolism would not have gone unnoticed by someone as astute an evangelist as Patrick. 

Perhaps the evident respect and reverence for the triad is as simple as forward, middle and back, or left, centre, right, past, now, future. And maybe the use of triads in Celtic stories helped reinforce concepts, adding weight and measure to heroes and their deeds. Images of deities were tripled to help intensify their power, and obviously the triskele’s visual, aesthetic power  worked at a deeper, psychological level too. Certainly the symbol reflects this preponderance with triads, which are not confined to a single explanation.

Of course there are the triple goddesses that are attested both in Celtic literary sources as well as archaeologically. Triadic goddesses (Matres or Matronae) appear as refinements or reflections of deities, reaching far back into the depths of time. These Matronae were widely worshipped across ancient Europe (at least 1100 shrines still exist) - the goddesses appear under various guises, names, shades and imagery indicating a complex of goddess worship spread across old Europe. Try this link  for extra information about the Matronae in the meantime: polytheist.com

The one thing that strikes me is I have seen no Matronae imagery from the Gallo-Romanic period portrayed alongside the triskele -  that does strike me as a little odd. We have numerous statues with quite realistic, classical style imagery but no symbols accompanying them. There again there exist Grecian spells and hymns referring to a triple Goddess (who includes Hecate, Persophone and Selene) with powerful 'triskele' evoking imagery: Triple pointed, triple-headed, triple voiced, triple-pointed, triple faced, triple necked, etc.

The triskele also shows up in a lot of Celtic-Christian and Catholic sculpture and artwork. Personally I feel that, as the Christian church appropriated the symbol for their own religious needs, so too earlier forms of paganism (that is sets of gods and goddesses arriving with the cultural interpolation of invaders or migrations) similarly utilised the triskele, warping its nature to suit their template. Perhaps in this endeavour the symbol has evolved, adopted fresh layers with each wave of migrants/invaders/movements. 

It is a ripe and rich tangle, there being no easy answer. Nothing as convenient as those cut and paste websites with 'one-hit answers'. Perhaps, as with any symbol, it is what feels right to you, how the symbol sits in your sights, for perhaps we superimpose our own templates of perception upon such devices, cut off, as we are from revealing literature of any source that dictates what this symbol means.  And the template that I keep harking to, it is formed by our nature, the way we are nurtured, by environment and the influence that forms the intricate mesh of our experience.

Sources used in this post:

1: Cross And Spiral - The Triskele In Early Christian Art - Brendan Mac Gonagle

2 The Power Of 3 - Some Observations On Eastern Celtic Helmets - Brendan Mac Gonagle
3; An Tríbhís Mhòr - On The Triskelion In Iron Age Celtic Culture -  Brendan Mac Gonagle
4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamrock

5: Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green

Check out this website to see methods of spiral and triskele construction using triangles and hexagons - HERE

* note the similarity here between the modern version of the trisklele reflecting the earth goddess and the idea of life, death rebirth… maintenance, destruction, creation. 

**three-faced god images appear in Gaul right up to Scotland. I wonder if such deities had the abilty to gaze into the different worlds or from the present into the future and the past.
*** the earliest reference to this appears on coins from the 1600’s.

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