Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Triskele. A Symbol Related In Three Parts

The Earliest Designs

Many websites tell you that the triskele symbolises the three aspects of the Celtic Triple Goddess: the maiden, mother and crone. Other sites relate that the motif reflects life, death and re-birth. Unfortunately many 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 do you begin? However, there are a few threads and associations, from which 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,  and Libya to the South. 

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Malta, and there's a museum in Valetta that holds some stunning samples of neolithic art. Malta is also home to several very ancient megalithic temples, dating from 3600BC-2500BC. The triple spiral from Malta evidently predates the temples.

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

The Triskeles from Newgrange, Ireland.

The Newgrange Spiral

The Newgrange carvings appear as fluid, evocative forms. There's a triple spiral on the front portal, flowing from a series of spirals, while the interior spiral is self-contained; a sort of double 'S' with an outreaching spiral arm. Neither are geometrically precise (that doesn't mean it's easy to replicate). The designs meander dreamily, and the straying arm (see the above picture) 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. 

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 symbol's significance concerning the cycle of death and life (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's now housed in the National Museum, in Athens.

Mycenaean gold cup.

A Gorgon's Grin

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 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 one of three daughters - Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. They had boar tusks, hands of bronze, golden wings, snakes on their heads and round their waists  - they were said to have originated from the garden of Hesperides, being three goddesses of the sunset, guarding magical golden apples. This garden was way out West, where the sun slinks below the horizon. Ladon, the hundred-headed snake, guarded the tree. 

Across the Inland Seas

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 and 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.

I sometimes carve Triskeles too - visit my shop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


So,  Hallo there folks

In its inception this blog was meant to serve my stone carving business but  I had little to comment on the business side of things. Because the business was a seasonal affair meant that I've lived a transitory and fractured lifestyle for much of the past fifteen years. Thus I felt unable to take the time and effort to dedicate myself to any sort of online presence. 

Now I find myself semi-settled. I thus seek to remedy the stark nature of this blog and begin posting, on a weekly basis, various notions and ideas, with a unifying theme of historical and symbolic content. As far as it goes this is the only guideline I have and where the content may drift is anyone’s guess. 

I’m also hoping to put up some of my art work, both that rendered onto/in stone and that which I am currently engaged upon with pencil and paper, graphics tablet and photoshop… hell I might even add a few poems and writing… who knows! 

So this is by way of introduction. I have deleted former posts in an attempt to tidy up the appearance. More items will follow soon. In the meantime here are some pictures of my stone carving from over the past 16 years.

Stone Mad Crafts

This design is based on the Bullion Stone design, a Pictish stone from Angus. Like many of my pieces the biggest 'sellers' are copies of original motifs. Over the two decades carving stone I've sourced a huge collection of obscure designs. 

Stone Mad Crafts

Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe this design is from the Book Of Kells, the ninth century manuscript. Though I could be wrong. I traced the design from George Bain's Celtic Art book ( a must for any artist, tattooist etc etc).  Such complex designs are always traced from reference material, but all small designs for the pendants are sketched freehand with a diamond file. 

Stone Mad Crafts

A number of years ago I carved a selection of work for an exhibition in a craft centre near Aberdeen. This griffon is my own creation, a spontaneous piece, no panning, I just had a hunch and went with it. 

Stone Mad Crafts

Detail of a Celtic Dog design, again another motif from the Book Of Kells. 

And to finish off this post I just want to say a big thanks to my friend Kim Ayres who is a veteran blogger who gave me some vital advice about the art of blogging. You can find Kim here