At the heart of symbolism

The triskele and the ternary


The two types of triskele

The triskele pattern goes far back in time and has covered a large geographical zone; we can find it in Japan as well as among the Amerindians. Nevertheless, it found and is still finding its widest spreading in the Western European regions. Pattern par excellence of the Celtic art, the triskele is associated with a tripartition of the circle that remains unchanged after a rotation of a third of turn in one direction or the other.

Briefly, the pattern consists of three points, equidistant between each other as regards the circle centre in which it is inscribed. It is nevertheless of two types whether the three points are linked up to the circle centre or between each other.

1. The first type of figure corresponds to a development movement from the Centre into three facets and an envelopment movement of these facets around the Centre, the unitary Principle containing them. These three facets can only be of the same order during their manifestation, i.e. none of them can play a privileged role in comparison with the two others.

A rotation around the centre does not impair at all the pattern, which puts into relation the motionless Principle and the manifestation of three of its facets. As an example of the first type, we can evoke the Indian triple manifestation (“Trimurti”) composed of three Gods: Brahm the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Transformer. All three are manifested aspects of the “Supreme” God, Brahma, beyond all distinctions and occupying the Centre.

Schematic form of the first type of triskeleSchematic form of the second type of triskeleInverse schematic form of the second type of triskeleDetail of Hoher Dom at Paderborm (Westphalia-Germany)2. Conversely, a rotation of the second type pattern leads to a figure where one of the three poles is comparatively above or under the two others. This pole plays a privileged role that differs according to its relatively superior or inferior position:

The superior pole represents the unitary Principle and the two others, the polarity of the Principle according to two opposed facets. As an example, let us mention the Wise men. The first is offering gold to the “King-child”; the second gives incense to the “Priest” and the third is presenting myrtle to the “Prophet”. The “Prophet” holds the power of the two other functions (sacerdotal and royal), considered in their primeval Unity and manifested separately into the “Priest” and “King”. For more details on this subject, see the Wise men.

The inferior pole characterizes the result of the union of the two apparently opposed facets into a third pole, reflection of the unitary Principle at the level of this polarity only. As an example, let us signal Osiris, Isis and Horus ternary or, more generally, father, mother and child, fruit of the two parents.

The opposite stained-glass window detail of the Hoher Dom at Paderborm (Westphalia-Germany) offers an interesting Christian example of the second type of triskele showing three hares linked through their ears 1. It is often wrongly interpreted as a Trinity representation. Indeed, the Holy Spirit could in no way be compared to the mother.

As a figuration mode of the ternary, the triskele affects various traditions. It is the object of further developments in the framework of the most significant tradition in this respect, the Celtic tradition.

1 back The hare's ears draw a triskele of the second type as underlined by the following riddle: Drei Hasen und Löffel drei und doch hat jeder Hase zwei! (Three hares and three ears, but nevertheless each hare has two ears!).
The illustration of the triskele based on the big ears of the hare echoes the words of Saint Matthew's Gospel (13-9): “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”, i.e. only the being opened to the divine Word can understand it.

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