Every ancient Celtic symbol has a unique and intriguing story behind it. The triskele is no different! It contains enormous mystery, variations, and diverse applications. Let us discover its meaning and importance in Irish heritage and culture.
Ancient Celts have several signs and symbols, and many of them revolved around a three-fold theme. The Celts believed that three was a sacred form since many vital things in the world existed in the form of triads. As such, the triskele also revolves around the three-fold theme. Also known as triskelion or the triple spiral, this symbol appears in many cultures across Asia and Europe but mostly connected to Celtic and Irish art and design. Therefore, what does the triskele symbol represent?
What does the triskelion symbol mean?
Triskele or triskelion originates from the Greek word ‘tri’ and ‘Skelos’ to mean three legs. It is a triple spiral motif with three symmetrical bent shapes or swirls emanating from a single point. Many modern symbols of triskele depict an image of three human legs revolving around a fixed centerpiece, as seen in the Sicilian flag.
Regarded as one of the oldest Irish symbols in existence, the triskele represents three worlds; the celestial, spiritual, and physical, or the three realms of material existence; water, earth, and sky and how they all share a connection. Other triad connections related to the triskele include past, present, and future; creation, protection, and destruction; and life, death, and rebirth. Consequently, many cultures around the world have adopted the triskele symbol due to its versatile and intrinsic meanings.
Each of these trinity connections associated with the triskele Celtic symbol relates to some aspect of human development, personal growth, and spiritual progress. One theory provides that the triskele revolves around reincarnation since it contains one continuous line translated to symbolize the whole movement of time. According to this particular context, it shows the process of constant development in a bid to reach a state of understanding and enlightenment in life
Other theories suggest that the triskele is a Newgrange monument that represents pregnancy. It contains a Neolithic structure with a unique womb-like structure, and the sun revolves in its movements every three months. As a result, the symbol’s three spirals signify nine months once tallied.
Similarly, the triskele may also symbolize motion as all the three arms in the symbol appear to move outward from its center. With this particular Celtic symbol, motion, or movement signifies various energies that we experience in life. Whether it is the motion of cycles, action, competition, revolution, or progress, they all apply to this symbol.
Essentially, the triskele Celtic symbol has two significant components; the passive and the active. The imagery of the symbol itself appears to be in motion, portraying its active component. As a matter of fact, the Coat of Arms for the Isle man (Manx) is a triskelion with the spirals depicted as legs. The action part of this symbol is when we use this symbol, and the response we obtain from the universe. The passive side comes in when we trust and believe that our path will be revealed to us in due time.
Therefore, the symbol reveals that it takes a harmonious balance of conscious employment of the passive and active energies to accomplish impeccable things in life. It tells a conclusive story of forward motion in life’s endeavors by reaching full understanding and enlightenment. The triskele has profound depth and meaning in various cultures, especially among the Celts. Due to its versatile application, this symbol is one of the most predominantly featured symbols among the Celtic people.
This Celtic symbol dates back before ancient Celts arrived in the British Isles. The oldest surviving triskele symbol is in Malta, and it is approximately 6,500 years old. Other ancient artifacts with this symbol include ‘staters’ and coins from Lycia (1250BC-546BC), and vessels from Mycenaean, Greece, dated circa 1600BC-1100BC.
The design of the symbol mainly features Irish Neolithic art, notably on the Sí an Ḃrú burial mound at Newgrange, which is a prehistoric passage tomb located in Boyne Valley, County Meath. This particular monument is said to have been built circa 3200BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
Newgrange refers to a massive circular mound, featuring a large retaining wall mainly constructed with white quartz and topped with grass. It is set on top of a hill, allowing its white exterior to contrast the surrounding green environment beautifully. The monument also features a long inner passage with miniature chambers, where there were many discoveries of burial offerings and human remains.
The entrance of this remarkable monument sits a large stone with several carvings of the triskelion symbol and other spiral patterns. The original purpose of this tomb is highly debated, with many archaeologists and historians suggesting that it held a tremendous amount of religious significance. They argue that the evidence of human remains, as found in the tomb, shows the existence of various cult rituals to the dead. Others argue that it was a worship place for a faith-based in astronomy.
When Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century, the Christian church adopted the symbol as a teaching tool to lay a foundation for the Christian faith and the Holy Trinity. The three arms of the symbol represented the father, son, and the Holy Spirit, while in some Christian teachings, it symbolized the three attempts of the devil while tempting Jesus in the desert. Other missionaries used it to depict the three days after which Jesus resurrected.
As a result, the triskelion began appearing in early Christian art (Insular), as well as Celtic crosses and Celtic knots. Illuminated Celtic manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, have multiple triskelion designs. The three whorls, which is a typical decoration found on gothic cathedrals’ round windows, as seen all over Europe, is another example of the triskelion as adopted by Christianity.
However, it is worth noting that the earliest variation of the spirals at the end of the symbol, as it is known today, originate from Sicily. Sicilians regarded Medusa, Gorgon, as the protector of their island. In relation to the symbol, her head is at the crest’s center, and the three legs emerge from the center to form a triskelion.
Sicily was part of the Magna Graecia, a name given to the colonial territory of Greece after Aegean. Pliny, the Elder, associates the origin of Sicily’s triskele to the triangular shape of the island. The island consists of the akra, referring to the three equidistant large capes that point in different directions, and the ancient trinacria. The three-pointed directions of the capes were named Lilybæum, Pachynus, and Pelorus.
The triskelion symbol has made plenty of appearances in modern-day designs. For instance, it is the seal of the United States Department of Transportation, and the basis for the roundel of the Irish Air Corps. The symbol is also on the Flag of the Isle of Man and is also the design used in RCA’s ‘Spider’ 45 rpm adapter, a well-known plastic adapter for vinyl records. Popular television shows, like Merlin and Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also use the triskelion symbol.
The triskele is a timeless symbol whose meaning has changed from one century to the next. It holds wondrous thoughts and deep meanings, all of which are grounded to a strong spiritual belief. You can use the triskelion for spiritual growth as well as personal development as it expands your heart and mind, allowing you to continue down your path of life more meaningfully and joyously.
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