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Neolithic triple-spiral symbol Triple-Spiral-Symbol.svg
Neolithic triple-spiral symbol

A triskelion or triskeles is an ancient motif consisting either of a triple spiral exhibiting rotational symmetry or of other patterns in triplicate that emanate from a common center. The spiral design can be based on interlocking Archimedean spirals, or represent three bent human legs. It occurs in artifacts of the European Neolithic and Bronze Ages with continuation into the Iron Age – especially in the context of the La Tène culture [ citation needed ] and of related Celtic traditions. The actual triskeles symbol of three human legs is found especially in Greek antiquity, beginning in archaic pottery and continued in coinage of the classical period.


In the Hellenistic period, the symbol became associated with the island of Sicily, appearing on coins minted under Dionysius I of Syracuse beginning in c.382 BCE. [1] It later appears in heraldry, and, other than in the flag of Sicily, came into use in the arms and flags of the Isle of Man (known in Manx as ny tree cassyn 'the three legs'). [2]

Greek τρισκελής (triskelḗs) means 'three-legged'. [3] While the Greek adjective τρισκελής 'three-legged (e.g., of a table)' is ancient, use of the term for the symbol is modern, introduced in 1835 by Honoré Théodoric d'Albert de Luynes as French triskèle, [4] and adopted in the spelling triskeles following Otto Olshausen (1886). [5] The form triskelion (as it were Greek τρισκέλιον [6] ) is a diminutive which entered English usage in numismatics in the late-19th century. [7] [8] The form consisting of three human legs (as opposed to the triple spiral) has also been called a "triquetra of legs", also triskelos or triskel. [9]

Use in European antiquity

Neolithic to Iron Age

5,000 year-old triskelion on an orthostat at Newgrange Celtic spiral.jpg
5,000 year-old triskelion on an orthostat at Newgrange

The triple spiral symbol, or three spiral volute, appears in many early cultures, the first in Malta (4400–3600 BCE) and in the astronomical calendar at the famous megalithic tomb of Newgrange in Ireland built around 3200 BCE, [10] as well as on Mycenaean vessels. The Neolithic era symbol of three conjoined spirals may have had triple significance similar to the imagery that lies behind the triskelion. [11] It is carved into the rock of a stone lozenge near the main entrance of the prehistoric Newgrange monument in County Meath, Ireland. [10] It also appears on a 1st-century BC dolmen tomb in Rathkenny, County Meath. [12]

There is also an example of a Triskele on a stone fragment that was discovered in Gloucestershire, currently held by the British museum thought to date from the period from the Neolithic period up to Bronze Age. [13]

The triskelion was a motif in the art of the Iron Age Celtic La Tène culture. [14]

Classical Antiquity

Silver Drachma from Sicily, minted during the reign of Agathocles (361-289 BCE), Greek tyrant of Syracuse (317-289 BCE) and king of Sicily (304-289 BCE). Inscription: SURAKOSION ("Syrakosion") Laureate head of the youthful Ares to left; behind, Palladion. Reverse: Triskeles of three human legs with winged feet; at the center, Gorgoneion 001-syracuse-Triskeles.jpg
Silver Drachma from Sicily, minted during the reign of Agathocles (361–289 BCE), Greek tyrant of Syracuse (317–289 BCE) and king of Sicily (304–289 BCE). Inscription: ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ ("Syrakosion") Laureate head of the youthful Ares to left; behind, Palladion. Reverse: Triskeles of three human legs with winged feet; at the center, Gorgoneion

The triskeles proper, composed of three human legs, is younger than the triple spiral, found in decorations on Greek pottery especially as a design shown on hoplite shields, and later also minted on Greek and Anatolian coinage. An early example is found on the shield of Achilles in an Attic hydria of the late 6th century BCE. [15] It is found on coinage in Lycia, and on staters of Pamphylia (at Aspendos, 370–333 BCE) and Pisidia. The meaning of the Greek triskeles is not recorded directly. The Duc de Luynes in his 1835 study noted the co-occurrence of the symbol with the eagle, the cockerel, the head of Medusa, Perseus, three crescent moons, three ears of corn, and three grains of corn.[ citation needed ] From this, he reconstructed feminine divine triad which he identified with the "triple goddess" Hecate. [4] [16]

The triskeles was adopted as emblem by the rulers of Syracuse. It is possible that this usage is related with the Greek name of the island of Sicily, Trinacria (Τρινακρία 'having three headlands'). [17] The Sicilian triskeles is shown with the head of Medusa at the center. [18] The ancient symbol has been re-introduced in modern flags of Sicily since 1848. The oldest find of a triskeles in Sicily is a vase dated to the late 7th century BCE, for which researchers speculated about a Minoan-Mycenaean origin, for which no proof has been given. [19]

Roman period and Late Antiquity

Late examples of the triple spiral symbols are found in Iron Age Europe, e.g. carved in rock in Castro Culture settlement in Galicia, Asturias and Northern Portugal. In Ireland before the 5th century, in Celtic Christianity the symbol took on new meaning, as a symbol of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).[ citation needed ]

Medieval use

The triple spiral design is found as a decorative element in Gothic architecture. The three legs (triskeles) symbol is rarely found as a charge in late medieval heraldry, notably as the arms of the King of Mann (Armorial Wijnbergen, c.1280), and as canting arms in the city seal of the Bavarian city of Füssen (dated 1317).

Modern usage

The triskeles was included in the design of the Army Gold Medal awarded to British Army majors and above who had taken a key part in the Battle of Maida (1806). [20] An early flag of Sicily, proposed in 1848, included the Sicilian triskeles or "Trinacria symbol". Later versions of Sicilian flags have retained the emblem, including the one officially adopted in 2000. The Flag of the Isle of Man (1932) shows a heraldic design of a triskeles of three armoured legs.

In the Bavarian town of Füssen, Germany the flag and coat of arms of the town contains a triskele, [21] [22] as does the flag of the Russian autonomous region of Ust-Orda Buryat Okrug. [23]

In Ireland, the triskelion is displayed in hospitals and care centres to indicate that a patient is dying or has died. [24] [25] It is based on the historical use of the triskele in Celtic Ireland and it is used as an alternative to religious imagery. In this context, the three spirals represent the cycle of birth, life and death. [25]

The spiral is used by some polytheistic reconstructionist or neopagan groups. As a "Celtic symbol", it is used primarily by groups with a Celtic cultural orientation and, less frequently, can also be found in use by various eclectic or syncretic traditions such as Neopaganism. The spiral triskele is one of the primary symbols of Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, used to represent a variety of triplicities in cosmology and theology; it is also a favored symbol due to its association with the god Manannán mac Lir. [26]

Other uses of triskelion-like emblems include the logo for the Trisquel Linux distribution and the seal of the United States Department of Transportation. [27]

A specific version of the triskele comprising three sevens has been adopted by neo-nazis. In South Africa the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), an Afrikaner nationalist, neo-Nazi organization and political party (founded 1973), uses it as its symbol in place of a swastika. [28] The Blood & Honour neo-Nazi group also uses it. [29] The 27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck's shoulder strap cipher was a triskele (though not involving sevens). [30] Use of the triskele can be a prosecutable offence under German law, depending on the context in which it is used. [30]

Occurrence in nature

The boric acid molecule is triskelion-shaped as seen in the image. The molecular point group of triskelion-shaped molecules is C3h. [31] [32] The endocytic protein, clathrin, is triskelion-shaped, as well as the Ediacaran organism Tribrachidium. [33]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sicily</span> Island in the Mediterranean, region of Italy

Sicily is the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. It is one of the five Italian autonomous regions and is officially referred to as Regione Siciliana. The island has 4.8 million inhabitants. Its capital city is Palermo. It is named after the Sicels, who inhabited the eastern part of the island during the Iron Age.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swastika</span> Transcultural religious symbol

The swastika is an ancient religious and cultural symbol, predominantly found in various Eurasian cultures, as well as some African and American ones. In the West it is more widely recognized as a symbol of the German Nazi Party who appropriated it from Asian cultures starting in the early 20th century. The appropriation continues with its use by neo-Nazis around the world. The swastika never stopped being used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It generally takes the form of a cross, the arms of which are of equal length and perpendicular to the adjacent arms, each bent midway at a right angle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spiral</span> Curve that winds around a central point

In mathematics, a spiral is a curve which emanates from a point, moving farther away as it revolves around the point. It is a subtype of whorled patterns, a broad group that also includes concentric objects.

The spatha was a type of straight and long sword, measuring between 0.5 and 1 m, with a handle length of between 18 and 20 cm, in use in the territory of the Roman Empire during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. Later swords, from the 7th to 10th centuries, like the Viking swords, are recognizable derivatives and sometimes subsumed under the term spatha.

A tripod is a portable three-legged frame or stand, used as a platform for supporting the weight and maintaining the stability of some other object. The three-legged design provides good stability against gravitational loads as well as horizontal shear forces, and better leverage for resisting tipping over due to lateral forces can be achieved by spreading the legs away from the vertical centre. Variations with one, two, and four legs are termed monopod, bipod, and quadripod.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pentagram</span> Five-pointed star polygon

A pentagram is a regular five-pointed star polygon, formed from the diagonal line segments of a convex regular pentagon. Drawing a circle around the five points creates a similar symbol referred to as the pentacle, which is used widely by Wiccans and in paganism, or as a sign of life and connections. The word "pentagram" refers only to the five-pointed star, not the surrounding circle of a pentacle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marionette</span> Puppet controlled from above using wires or strings

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flag of the Isle of Man</span> National flag

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Trinacria may refer to:


  1. Arthur Bernard Cook, Zeus: a study in ancient religion, Volume 3, Part 2 (1940), p. 1074.
  2. Officially adopted in 1932, the flag of the Isle of Man derives from the arms of the King of Mann recorded in the 13th century.
  3. τρισκελής, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library; from τρι- (tri-), "three times" (τρι- Archived 2012-10-04 at the Wayback Machine , Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library) and "σκέλος" (skelos), "leg" (σκέλος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library)
  4. 1 2 Honore-Theodoric-Paul-Joseph d'Albert de Luynes, Etudes numismatiques sur quelques types relatifs au culte d'Hecate (1835), 83f.
  5. Johannes Maringer, "Das Triskeles in der vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Kunst", Anthropos 74.3/4 (1979), pp. 566-576
  6. Classical Greek does not have *τρισκέλιον, but the form τρισκελίδιον 'small tripod' is on record as the diminutive of τρισκελίς 'three-pronged'. The form τρισκέλιον does exist in Katharevousa, however, as the term for a small three-legged chair or table (and also of the "Rule of Three" in elementary arithmetic or generally of an analogy). Adamantios Korais, Atakta (Modern Greek Dictionary), vol. 5 (1835), p. 54.
  7. Barclay Vincent Head, A Guide to the Principal Gold and Silver Coins of the Ancients: From Circ. B.C. 700 to A.D. 1, British Museum. Department of Coins and Medals , The Trustees, 1881, pp. 23, 67f.
  8. English triskelion is recorded in 1880 (; the form triskele in English is occasionally found beginning in c. 1885 (e.g. in Proceedings of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool 39, 1885, p. 220), presumably as a direct representation of the French form triskèle.
  9. Samuel Birch, Charles Thomas Newton, A Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan Vases in the British Museum vol. 1 (1851), p. 61. Samuel Birch, History of Ancient Pottery vol. 1 (1858), p. 164. Birch's use of triskelos is informed by the Duc de Luynes' triskèle, and it continues to see some use alongside the better-formed triskeles into the 20th century in both English and German, e.g. in a 1932 lecture by C. G. Jung (lecture of 26 October, edited in The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932. 1996, 43ff.).
  10. 1 2 "Newgrange Ireland - Megalithic Passage Tomb - World Heritage Site". 2007-12-21. Retrieved 2013-08-16.
  11. Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore, Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers, 2nd ed., Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2008, pp. 168–169
  12. Raftery, Joseph (1939). "Early Iron Age Decoration on the Dolmen at Rathkenny, Co. Meath". Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society. 9 (3): 258–261. doi:10.2307/27728510. JSTOR   27728510.
  13. "artefact | British Museum". The British Museum. Retrieved 2023-01-31.
  14. Harding, D.W. (2007). The Archaeology of Celtic Art. Taylor & Francis. p. 15.
  15. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, illustrated in John Boardman, Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray, Greece and the Hellenistic World (Oxford History of the Classical World) vol. I (1988), p. 50.
  16. azim24 (2021-06-19). "Study : Other Religious Symbols in Islamic Art and Architecture Part 3 : The Triskelion". Stars in Symmetry. Retrieved 2022-06-09.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  17. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (A Lexicon Abridged from), Oxford, 1944, p.27, Cassell's Latin Dictionary, Marchant, J.R.V, & Charles, Joseph F., (Eds.), Revised Edition, 1928
  18. Matthews, Jeff (2005) Symbols of Naples Archived 2009-10-30 at the Wayback Machine
  19. "Trinacria: meaning and history of the Sicilian Triskele". 12 January 2022.
  20. Charles Norton Elvin, A Dictionary of Heraldry (1889), p. 126.
  21. Shoham, Schlomo Giora (2020). An Existentialist Theory of the Human Spirit (Volume 1). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 460.
  22. Chwalkowski, Farrin (2016). Symbols in Arts, Religion and Culture The Soul of Nature. Cambridge Scholarly Publishing. p. 105.
  23. Rogerson, Barnaby (2013). Rogerson's Book of Numbers The Culture of Numbers from 1001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. Profile Books. p. 253.
  24. Hiliard, Carol (2023-09-13). "End of Life Care Committee" (PDF). Children's Health Ireland. Retrieved 2023-09-13.
  25. 1 2 Foundation, Hospice (2023-09-13). "End of Life Care Resources". Irish Hospice Foundation. Retrieved 2023-09-13.
  26. Bonewits, Isaac (2006) Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism. New York, Kensington Publishing Group ISBN   0-8065-2710-2. p. 132: [Among Celtic Reconstructionists] "...An Thríbhís Mhòr (the great triple spiral) came into common use to refer to the three realms." Also p. 134: [On CRs] "Using Celtic symbols such as triskeles and spirals"
  27. Kane, Robert M. (1 January 2019). Air Transportation. Kendall Hunt. ISBN   9780787288815 via Google Books.
  28. Vikings and the Vikings Essays on Television's History Channel Series. McFarland. 2019. p. 216.
  29. Right-wing extremism: Symbols, signs and banned organisations (PDF). Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. p. 30.
  30. 1 2 Right-wing extremism: Symbols, signs and banned organisations (PDF). Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. p. 83.
  31. Greenwood, Norman N.; Earnshaw, Alan (1997). Chemistry of the Elements (2nd ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 1291. ISBN   978-0-08-037941-8.
  32. Housecroft, C. E.; Sharpe, A. G. (2008). Inorganic Chemistry (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall. pp. 94–99. ISBN   978-0-13-175553-6.
  33. "InterPro".