One of the most intriguing aspects of the history of human existence we have inherited from our ancestors is the language of symbols. Found all over the world and in all cultures, symbols link us to our common past but often pose more questions than they answer. The Triskelion or triskele is the perfect example.
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The Origins of the Triskele/Triskelion
It is fascinating to imagine how an individual who lived untold millennia ago would have combined three separate spirals into the shape we know as the triskelion today.
Did they realize they were creating a shape that would endure so far into the future? Was it just pure artistic creativity that drove him or her? Was it a deeper understanding of the way of the Universe, a fragment of knowledge that we have lost to the veil of our prehistoric past?
Regardless of the nature of the personal drive that fueled that origin, it is fairly clear that the symbol gained widespread popularity across both geography and time.
The Triskelion on Ancient Relics
Although commonly known today as a symbol of Celtic origin, ancient monuments show that the triskelion actually predates the Celts by a considerable period. Experts have located archaeological sites that tell us that the shape was around as far back as the Neolithic Period.
That’s right, the triskelion dates back to the Stone Age. The oldest surviving triskele that we have been able to locate is in Malta; it is around 6,500 years old.
However, the best known illustrations of the triskelion that have survived today are perhaps those found on the massive Sí an Ḃrú burial mound in Newgrange, Ireland. They form part of the design of an astronomical calendar carved into the rock and have been dated to 3200 B.C.
The link between this ancient structure and the triskelion is probably the basis of the strong association between the symbol and Celtic culture that is so widespread today.
(It must be noted, though, that the native inhabitants of Ireland at the time were not Celts, a people who moved there at a later stage. However, the triskele consistently appears in Celt art for thousands of years, especially after 500 B.C.)
Other ancient artifacts that bear this symbol are vessels from Mycenaean Greece (circa 1600 B.C. – 1100 B.C.), and coins and ‘staters’ from the state of Lycia (1250 B.C. – 546 B.C.) and other minor city states in the region from that period.
Variations in Triskelion Designs
The only element of the triskele that is really integral to the design is its three branches. Apart from that, the size, orientation and structure of the three branches can show considerable deviation.
Why Three Branches?
The number ‘3’ seems to always have held a special appeal for those who contemplate a Higher Power and the Meaning of Life.
This is evident from the consistent recurrence of that number not just in the holy books of the world’s major religions, but also in myths, legends and even fairy tales from around the planet.
The branches of a triskelion are most commonly depicted as they appear on the most ancient remaining relics of which we spoke earlier – as three whorls or spirals emerging from a shared point of origin.
This symbology has immense appeal for a variety of reasons and is crucial to understanding how and why the triskele has managed to transition across boundaries of race, religion, culture and geography with such ease.
In Christian tradition, the Holy Trinity of the father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the three unsuccessful attempts by the Devil to tempt Christ in the desert; and the three days after which Jesus was resurrected all hint at a godly aspect, and paint a positive aura around the number.
In the Hindu pantheon, there are three aspects of God: Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. Norse mythology speaks of the three states of matter before Creation, the three goddesses of Destiny, and the three deities – Odin, Vili and Ve – who created mankind.
The three planes of existence as Heaven, Hell and Earth transcend religion and culture.
Neopaganism and Wicca speak of The Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother and Crone) and The Rule of Threes (your deeds are revisited upon you threefold).
More widely, the number three comes to us in the concept of body, mind and spirit; and the sense of time as Past, Present and Future.
As a result of this virtually endless ways of association between aspects of our lives and beliefs with the number ‘3’, the triskelion has held a unique appeal for people from around the world.
Adaptations of the Triskele
The earliest deviation from the spirals at the ends of the triskelion of which we know come from the island of Sicily.
The Sicilians regarded the Gorgon, Medusa, to be the protector of their island and her head is depicted at the center of their crest; three legs emerge from the center behind it to form a triskelion.
The Castro culture line of Celts who made their way to what is now the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal fashioned their triskelions as crescent shapes emerging from the center. The design is similar to what we see in the blades of table fans.
That particular variation seems to have also traveled further eastwards, becoming the basis of some of the most important and well-known symbols of eastern religions like Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. The Hidari Gomon from Japan and the Korean Taegeuk are the most prominent examples.
Church windows, especially those designed in medieval times in Europe often feature a stylized triskelion.
In a more modern adaptation, the triskelion without the whorls but simply a gently curving shape is used by the United States Department of Transportation on its seal.
Certain depictions, particularly those associated with Neopaganism, use a unicursal (drawn with a single line) pattern that creates three large whorls of an almost hypnotic pattern.
The Triskelion in Your Life
Our first introduction to the magic of three often happens in the classic fairy tales like those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears all prod us in the subconscious with this intriguing number.
The triskelion, created out of thought driven by a quest for deeper meaning in life alludes to both that innocence and to the gravity of the number ‘3’ as it appears in discussions of philosophy and tales of Creation by God.
Embrace both, for you never know from where the answers you seek may come.