Celtic Triskelion: analysis of an Ancient Symbol

Often associated in France with Brittany, talking about a Breton triskele is not in itself false... but still incomplete.

You will discover it in this article: it is a pre-Celtic symbol that is found in many places around the world.

It is of course obvious that as direct descendants of the Celts, the Britons and the Irish have a special relationship with this lucky charm.

Its first uses date back to the Neolithic era. Numerous archaeological traces bear witness to this, among which the site of Newgrange in Ireland is one of the most remarkable.

However, it was around the year 500 BCE that the triskele really became popular and its use became widespread.

Contents :

Introduction: triskelion, triskelion or triskelion?

The meaning of the triskele: several points of view

Different forms of triskele around the world

But in fact, why so many forms and meanings?

A very special site: Newgrange in Ireland

The use of Triskel in jewelry

Story of a personal anecdote

Conclusion

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A ring, a bracelet and a pendant, all three with a triskele on them

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Introduction: triskelion, triskelion or triskelion?

An important point to raise when we talk about the triskele is the different names it can have and the different ways it is spelled.

Some variants do not exactly represent the Celtic symbol we were talking about, and are therefore used wrongly!

In fact, you should know that the word “triskel” comes from the Greek term “Triskeles” which means “three legs”.

In short, there are several spellings… but which share the same etymology. We can therefore think that the multitude of shapes results more from a “regionalization” than from a desire to describe a different lucky symbol.

Here is a list of the main ways of designating it in writing:

  • Triskel (or Triskell) : written in Breton, Gaelic… in short, Celtic!
  • Triscele : French form relatively little used
  • Triskele : intermediate form originally cloudy but nevertheless widely used
  • Triskelion : encompasses a broader family of symbols

We can clearly see that each way of writing the word means more or less the same thing... except in the case of the triskelion!

This is in fact (by definition) a “symbol presenting three protuberances, threefold symmetry and a rotational movement”.

Thus, there are a whole bunch of symbols that vary from the original pattern (like typically those present on the flags of Sicily or the Isle of Man, which we will tell you about later in the article) which will not be triskelions, without even though they are triskelions.

The opposite, however, is not true: a triskelion will always be included in the triskelion group.

Collections of books and books containing information on the Celtic triskele

The meaning of the triskele: several points of view

Let us also point out that this archaic symbol is one of the most complicated to decipher. Indeed, specialists believe that it can reflect many areas of the culture of the time.

Celtic culture is a vast and fascinating subject. Anyone who shares a love of the roots of the peoples of Europe will no doubt be interested in the history of our Celtic lucky charms.

In short, in turn, let’s look at the meaning of triske l…

1st meaning: the spiral

First of all, the triskelion can be used to represent a form of perpetual motion because its three arms are positioned in a way that evokes a spiral, a sort of siphon.

This movement from the center outwards is to be associated with a whole bunch of cycles: that of life, of civilizations, etc.

More particularly, this Celtic symbol should be compared with the course and inexorable progression of time, with the great forward movement of history.

In this sense, the triskelion is a powerful indicator: it shows us evolution, revolution and the constant reinvention of humanity and societies. From day to night, from season to season, from life to death... the symbol of the triskelion has within it everything that is changeable.

2nd meaning: the three arms

Another way to interpret the Celtic triskelion is to focus on its three arms as three separate entities. Depending on the times, cultures and peoples, very different meanings have been given to it.

The ancient Celts in particular had many symbols that revolved around the number three. The meanings of the triskele as a Celtic symbol based on its three arms are also multiple.

For example, we could cite:

  • Life, death and rebirth
  • Spirit, soul and body
  • Mother, father and child
  • Past, present and future
  • Strength, intelligence and wisdom
  • Creation, perseverance and destruction

The symbol of the triskele is therefore one of those in the camp of meaning is vast and diverse. With so much depth, it is no wonder that it was so predominant among the Celtic people.

If you are looking to understand this lucky charm, here are some good ideas which can all serve as a starting point for your quest for meaning.

3rd meaning: the world according to the Celts

The Celtic people had a very particular view of the world. For them, various independent but connected layers were superimposed to form reality.

(Let us be clear, they were not the only ones throughout history to adopt this kind of way of thinking where different parts would meet to form what exists.)

Thus, the meaning of the Celtic triskele would be to link their cosmogony, that of three worlds which agree in a certain harmony. Here are these three worlds we are talking about =

  • The other world : where spirits, gods and goddesses live.
  • The mortal world : where you and I live, with the plants and animals.
  • The celestial world : where invisible energies live and move, such as the elemental forces of the sun, moon, wind and water.

4th meaning: Christianity

In the fifth century, when Ireland and the British Isles were the last bastions of Celtic culture, Christianity began to spread throughout the region.

Inevitably, the triskelion was already popular and, without much surprise, it was integrated into Christian iconography.

The symbol of the triskele therefore appeared in the art of Christians of Celtic culture alongside other symbols such as the knot or the Celtic cross.

Many of these were therefore found decorating the pages of manuscripts in illuminations as well as the walls and altars of Christian churches.

In fact, as soon as the Christian religion found fertile ground in the lands of Ireland, the Celtic triskelion was used to symbolize the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).

For some, the number three evokes the number of times Jesus had to resist temptation in the desert. Additionally, according to the books of the Gospels, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. So there are a whole bunch of Christian explanations for the meaning of the triskelion.

This perspective carries with it a notion of eternity and totality. In this, common points can be found with more pagan interpretations of the thing.

Today's Irish and Bretons undoubtedly share more with their Celtic ancestors than history books are willing to teach us.

It's a safe bet that this Celtic lucky charm that is the triskelion evokes the same thing in the hearts of their descendants as in that of their ancestors.

A personal interpretation above all…

Each of these meanings deserves an article on its own. The good thing here is that everyone can choose to give their lucky charm the meaning that best suits them. It is not for nothing that this type of triskelion pendant is one of the most appreciated jewelry in our community.

It’s clear: the meanings of the triskele are diverse, varied and offer many possibilities.

This Celtic symbol is much more complex than most others and still holds a special place in many European cultures today.

The meaning of the Celtic triskelion is therefore obviously broader than that of three simple legs.

When we see the different opinions on the issue, confront some and combine others, profound messages can be revealed to us.

…but a common basis!

The combination of all its elements therefore leads us to give meaning to the Celtic triskelion which is personal to us. However, as our opinions are all based on the same reality, this basis remains common!

Most of the time, the meaning of the triskele will carry a positive message of change, evolution, forward movement. Many important ideas and concepts can germinate in our minds thanks to it. It is then up to us to meditate on it.

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Different forms of triskele around the world

As we specified in the introduction, the symbol of the triskelion dates from before the Celtic era, and has been found on sites all over the world (mainly in Europe, but also sometimes in Asia and America).

We are going to cite (in a non-exhaustive manner of course) a few elements which should help you understand the almost universal nature of the triskele.

Flag of the Isle of Man with its three legs forming the triskele symbol

The flag of the Isle of Man

The flag of the Isle of Man (sometimes also called Manx) shows us a triskele consisting of three chain-mail armored legs, running clockwise and joined in the center of the flag to form a triangle.

The island's motto "Whatever way you throw me, I stand" is undoubtedly linked to these three legs.

The origins of the Manx flag are unclear. Legend has it that one day, the Celtic sea god and leader of the island, Mannanan transformed himself into a three-legged wheel so that he could roll down the mountain and defeat the Norse invaders.

More palatable to historians, Alexander III of Scotland is said to have adopted the symbol in 1265, when he recaptured the Isle of Man from Norse warriors.

As this is not really the subject today, we will not elaborate further. However, here is a link to a site which presents this flag to you.

Sicilian flag with all its ancient symbols

The Sicilian flag

The origin of this flag of Sicily dates back to 1282, during the “Sicilian vespers”, that is to say the rebellion of the Sicilians against the Angevins.

Having a banner to stand under was very important because it offered or revolted a common symbol of unity in the face of foreigners.

The symbol in the middle of this new flag is, as you have already noticed, formed from the superposition of two triskelions in the center of which is the head of Medusa.

The colors of the banner, red and yellow, are the colors of Palermo and Corleone, the two cities in which the revolt first broke out.

Medusa is a creature from Greek mythology and, as such, it is not surprising to find her in Sicily. In fact, the island was populated by Greek settlers for several centuries.

The ears of corn represent the fertility of the island (in Roman times, Sicily was seen as the breadbasket of the empire).

The three legs will instead represent the three “corners” of the island of Sicily, namely Cape Peloro, Cape Passero and Cape Lilibeo.

Let us also point out that the Greeks sometimes called the island “Trinacria”, which tells us a lot about its relationship with symbols with a triple character.

Côtes de Bretagne, region of France which loves Breton triskelion the most.

The Breton triskele

We are entitled to ask ourselves a question: is it right to speak of Breton triskelion?

When we take an interest, the Breton world and its culture have something to amaze us. This northwestern French province on the map has long been independent.

Even today, many of its inhabitants demand, if not independence, at least a certain autonomy.

Renowned during Antiquity for being a major place for salt production (a very precious commodity at the time), what was then called “Armorica” was invaded by the Romans. The culture of this region was therefore Gallic (i.e. Celtic) with some small influences from the Latin occupants.

It was only several centuries later that the regional identity, the one which gave such a place to the Breton triskele, became the one we know today.

With the fall of the Roman Empire and then the successive invasions of Germanic peoples, many Gauls, mainly from Belgium and England, left on an exodus to the last entirely Celtic countries.

These regions largely corresponded to present-day Brittany. The settlers named this land "Little Britain", and opposed to Great Britain on the other side of the Channel.

Due to its unique link in the world with Celtic culture, Brittany is undoubtedly the last guardian of many traditions. Among these, the symbol of the Breton triskele occupies a special place.

This heritage is fiercely defended by many men and women faithful to the customs of their country.

To answer the question above: if we consider (rightly) the Bretons as the heirs of the Celts… then, yes, it is right to speak of Breton triskelion.

If you are interested in the culture of Brittany and its traditions, you would do well to take a look at our collection dedicated to Breton lucky charms. Each of these objects is presented to you with a short description that may well tickle your curiosity.

Asian farmers working in front of a sunrise

A symbol that is not confined to Europe

In Japanese Shinto culture, the deity Hachiman is known as the god of war, or more precisely the god who inspires warriors.

If we are talking to you about it today, it is for a simple reason: its emblem is the triskele (called tomoe in Japanese). Three tomoe often decorate shrines dedicated to the god Hachiman. It is therefore obvious that it is linked to the number three.

One of the symbols of Tibetan Buddhism is the Gankyil, a triple spiral literally called “the wheel of joy”. This symbol represents a whole bunch of triplicities specific to the Asian imagination.

Korean Taegeuk is also sometimes of a similar design. It then has three intertwined semi-circles of different colors. This is a representation of the union between Korean Taoism and shamanism.

Cinema hall, emblem of pop culture which also gives pride of place to triskele

Some other uses

If there's one thing for sure, it's that the triskele symbol still holds a special place in popular culture today. In addition to decorating numerous flags and coats of arms throughout Europe, it notably serves as the seal of the United States Department of Transportation.

The triskelion inspired the logo of the Irish Air Corps, that of the Breton football club “En Avant de Guingamp” but also a whole bunch of official emblems in Brittany.

The image has been used by modern neopagan groups, who value it for its associations with ancient religions and the spirituality of people who once occupied a significant part of the European continent.

Science fiction and the world of pop culture also give pride of place to the Celtic triskelion. Here are some examples :

  • A 1968 episode of Star Trek is called "The Triskele Players".
  • In the Marvel Comics universe, the intelligence agency SHIELD uses a building named Triskel as its headquarters.
  • The television series Teen Wolf was inspired by Celtic tradition and used this symbol regularly.
  • In Merlin, a 2008 British fantasy series, he appeared as a symbol of the Druids.

Question mark of a person wondering about the history of the triskele symbol

But in fact, why so many forms and meanings?

Although the triskelion symbol is closely linked to the various Celtic peoples of Northern and Western Europe, the oldest representation found to date (around 6,500 years old) is found on the island of Malta..

Other artifacts bearing comparable symbols have been found on Lycian coins (1250BC-546BC) and on Mycenaean ships (1600BC-1100BC).

It therefore clearly appears that the Celtic triskelion was able to go beyond their simple cultural boundary to become a good luck charm common to several peoples. This says a lot about the exchanges and communications that were already taking place in Europe at the time. Therefore, the analysis of the meaning of the triskelion must take this historical reality into account.

The design of the symbol mainly presents Irish Neolithic art, notably on the burial mound of "Sí an Ḃrú" at Newgrange, a kind of tomb, serving as a "vessel" of passage to the other world located in the Boyne Valley, in County Meath.

This monument is believed to have been built around 3200 BC, making it an even older site than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

Several lucky charms linked to paganism and ancient religions

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A very special site: Newgrange in Ireland

The name Newgrange refers to an impressive circular mound, which has a large retaining wall constructed mainly of white quartz.

It is located on top of a hill, allowing its white exterior to contrast beautifully with the green of the Irish countryside.

The monument also has a long interior corridor joined by a whole bunch of miniature chambers, in which there are numerous offerings and funerary urns.

The entrance to this remarkable monument rests on a gigantic stone on which several Celtic triskelions are engraved.

The primary role of this tomb is very controversial.

Many archaeologists and historians suggest that it primarily had a religious function. They argue that the human remains found show the existence of various rituals linked to a cult of the dead.

Others will instead argue that Newgrange was used for astronomical studies. It is indeed absolutely astonishing to see to what extent the site is aligned with the solstices, and how the central corridor is illuminated by an almost supernatural light on certain key dates.

The entrance to Newgrange was actually built to align with the rising sun on the winter solstice.

When light enters the roof box (an opening specially designed for this purpose), the light rays form an angle which allows Newgrange's central chamber to be immersed in a sparkle unique in the world.

Impressive in its size, the design of the tomb itself is rather common. Indeed, many comparable sites are found throughout Celtic Europe. The famous Gallic tumuli (plural of tumulus) which roam our countryside are almost based on the same model.

Could a common culture and beliefs have been transmitted over several thousand years? Possible…

Goldsmith working on jewelry in the shape of a triskele

The use of Triskel in jewelry

Due to the symmetry and harmonious appearance of the Breton triskelion symbol, many jewelers and goldsmiths choose to use it in the creation of their jewelry.

For those who love ancient lucky charms with a deeper meaning, the type of symbol that requires a little thought to grasp the full meaning, the triskele is undoubtedly a wise choice.

Concretely, during manufacturing, the metal branches will be manipulated and rolled up to form the branches. Sometimes, the technique chosen is that of a sculpture directly on the material, typically when it comes to wood.

An advantage of the triskele is that it is as well possible to create jewelry with a cold and Nordic appearance, almost solemn, as well as others with a more bohemian and light style if brighter colors are used.

A question often asked is whether the triskelion is a religious symbol. The answer is rather complex…

It is clear that this Breton lucky symbol has its roots in European Celtic culture, and therefore in a certain paganism. However, the triskelion cannot be associated with a single culture or religion.

As we said previously, traces of it have been found all around the Mediterranean. In addition, religions such as Christianity or Buddhism have already used it by giving it a meaning of their own.

In reality, the meaning of this Celtic symbol goes beyond this kind of consideration. The type of message it carries has the power to reach the hearts of men all over the world.

Library of an Ancient Scholar

Story of a personal anecdote

For me, avenues of reflection in the search for spiritual meaning can take several forms. Symbols are one of them, and as such the triskelion occupies a special place in my heart.

As a descendant of the Gauls, Celtic bards and Druids, it makes sense that this symbol arouses strong emotions in me.

I find that the symbol of the Breton triskele contains a stimulating energy. The message of forward movement, of progress (in the first sense of the term, it is not a question here of progressivism), the momentum of life that it transmits to us inspires me.

Anyone interested in the ancient history of Europe will sooner or later be confronted with this ancient symbol.

Engraved on the millennia-old stones of archaeological sites or drawn on the covers of old grimoires, this Celtic lucky charm is everywhere.

We are entitled to wonder how such a symbol was able to cross the ages and cultures with such disconcerting ease. I think I have the beginnings of an answer to this question.

A few years ago, on my first visit to the ancient Avebury stone circle, I was struck by an astonishing feeling of déjà vu, a kind of strange familiarity. However, to my knowledge, I had never been there.

On the way back to the car, I noticed a gift shop. I walked in to take a quick look, and right at the entrance was a shelf at face height. Inside was a rather primitive style triskele bracelet, similar to this one.

I then asked the saleswoman (in rather pitiful English I must admit) the meaning of this symbol.

A true well of science, the woman then told me a number of stories which provided an impressive number of avenues of research from which this article is based.

Man who, after reading this article, draws certain conclusions about his past and his traditions

Conclusion

So these are many different interpretations of the Celtic triskelion symbol. What they all have in common is that they are based on age-old beliefs, traditions and customs.

It is clear that the triskelion symbol has a strong Celtic connotation. This is also one of the main reasons why it is used today... even if there are many others!

The messages it carries are those of growth and spiritual development. By expanding the scope of what is possible for our hearts and minds, the Celtic triskelion can help us continue our journey with more joy, and more meaning.

History is something that fascinates the mind. In the past, people were perhaps, because they had fewer resources, more creative than today.

Humans believe in the things they see. Symbols, especially those engraved on stone, were used to represent a whole host of concepts and give meaning to the moral values ​​of the time.

Whether they help us understand man, nature or the divine, lucky symbols and charms have always influenced our way of thinking and understanding the world.

Those who were created in the past therefore certainly still influence people today.

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Lucky charms featured in this article

Triskele pendant

Triskele pendant

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Bracelet with a Triskelion amulet

Bracelet with a Triskelion amulet

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author picture(Cyril Gendarme)

Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.