The triskele and the ternary
Typical design of the Celtic art, the triskele (or triskell) became notably the emblem of the Isle of Man, Brittany and Ireland (after the shamrock and the harp). Its drawing, inscribed within a circle, remains unchanged after a third turn rotation to the right or to the left.
The coat of arms of the Isle of Man flag is identical on both sides and represents a first type of triskele (from the Greek “triskeles”, which means “has three legs”): three legs, encased in armour, joined at the hip and the circle centre, revolve clockwise. It is a figure that will always fall on its feet as testified by the island motto: “Stabit quocumque jeceris” (He will stand up wherever he will be thrown). This representation type also exists under other forms oriented in the same or opposite direction. 1
One of the most current forms of a second type of triskele consists of three double spirals, the poles of which are coinciding two by two and equidistant from the centre of the circle in which they are inscribed.
It clearly appears that the triskele refers to the number 3. An important number in all traditions and even more significant in the Celtic tradition.
The ternary in the Celtic tradition
1. The Celtic society is completely organized around the sacred and has three functions fulfilled by the representatives of three classes:
- The sacerdotal class, the function of which is precisely to administer the sacred. In charge of the relationship between the human societies and the divine powers, it organizes and checks the activities of the two other classes;
- The warrior class, the function of which is to resort to war and magic to defend the society;
- The hand-crafted and producer class, the function of which is to practise the hand-crafted, agricultural, breeding and commercial activities to ensure the abundance within the society.
The religious function is forbidden to warrior and producer classes. However, the warrior and to a greater extent the producer function is accessible to the members of the sacerdotal class.
The colours attached to these three classes show the undoubted pre-eminence of the religious authority over the Celtic society members, including the King:
- White is the sacerdotal colour because it contains the whole spectrum of the rainbow colours representative of the rest of the society;
- Red, the “upper arch” colour of the rainbow, is the King and warrior colour;
- Blue (green) and yellow belong to the “lower” or “medium” rainbow colours and represent the producer class. 2
2. The sacerdotal class is itself subdivided in three categories:
- The Druid, generic term applied to all members of the sacerdotal class independently of their specialty. They are the “very scholars” in the triple meaning of the word (Wisdom, Sacred Science and Knowledge);
- The Bard or “poet” who sings praises or criticisms;
- The Ovate in charge of the practical part of the worship; in particular prediction, divination and medicine.
3. The Irish pantheon is composed of three Gods:
- The supreme multi-functional God, in a class of his own, Lug and his two “brothers”:
- The druid God of friendship and contracts, Dagda;
- The champion God of war, violence and magic, Ogme.
The World Unity, symbolized by the sovereign divinity Lug, is manifested through the appearance of opposite facets:
- Dagda representing all what is clear, regulated, ordered and appealing;
- Ogme covering all what is dark, disrupted, chaotic and sinister.
Nevertheless, Dagda, the God of the contracts, can also resort to the most perfidious tricks and not respect his commitments for, being God, he can do anything in his domain.
Similarly Ogme, God of force and violence, can be cowardly and fearful. 3
So, the opposites do not only exist between polarities, but within the polarities themselves as well. The manifestation is rich of the whole variety contained in the World Unity. The opposite facets evoke both black (yin) and white (yang) halves of the famous yin-yang symbol containing themselves white and black spots respectively. As the Chinese tradition underlines it, there is no yin without yang or yang without yin.
Consequently, the result of the relationships between both opposite facets must not necessarily be purely contractual or conflicting. In fact, it can equally be neutral if perceived as “alchemy” between two complementary principles balancing each other. As an illustration, it is sufficient to evoke a Celtic practice to maintain peace between enemy camps. Each camp kept in hostage, for long periods, volunteers of the adverse camp who were often completely integrated into their new society in the end.
In addition, the similarity between the boundary line of the black and white halves of the yin-yang symbol and the double spiral shows that these parallels have nothing to do with chance.
4. We could also mention, among many other examples, the 3 days that precede and follow the celebration day of the most important Celtic “festival”, the “festival” of all functions, Samain. For more details on this subject, see the Celtic “festivals”.
Rather than continuing with a long list, it seems more appropriate to establish the links between these examples and the triskele.
The symbolism of the triskele
The triskele of the first type
It is a gyratory symbol turning around a motionless centre representing the immutable Principle from which everything originates and to which everything returns.
The three legs symbolize at once the development, from the pole, of three facets of the Principle and their envelopment, around the pole, during their return towards the same Principle. The identical character of the three legs indicates that these three facets come within the same order in the hierarchy of manifested things and beings. It follows that the arrangement of the triskele has very little importance. Consequently, this triskele of the first type can only represent a tripartition such as the sacerdotal class, in which the three members are all druids, independently of their speciality.
The rotation in a direction or the other is only there to make a distinction between the development and envelopment movements around the principial centre. Considering a rotation movement rather than the other has no more sense than to privilege the clockwise in comparison with the counter clockwise swastika. For more details on this point, see the double spiral.
The triskele of the second type
This symbol reflects another interpretation of the number 3 as the superior pole stands on another plan than the two other poles, to which it is nevertheless linked up. We can put this triskele in relation to the three Gods of the Irish pantheon.
Lug represents the Principle, the One that produces 2 (polarity Dagda-Ogme), 2 produce 3 (One + polarity) and 3 produce everything. In fact, the rest can only be an indefinite variation on the theme of the One and its polarities. This is the reason why the Irish pantheon is restricted to the number 3.
In accordance with this second type of figure, the superior pole symbolizes the Principle and the two others describe opposite facets. It follows that:
The two inclined double spirals represent at once the descending movement from the Principle associated with Lug towards the manifestation of opposite poles, Dagda and Ogme, and the ascending movement of resorption of the opposite poles into Unity.
The horizontal double spiral depicts the back and forth movements between the two opposite poles looking for a state of balance. Despite the fact that Dagda is more important than Ogme in the Irish pantheon, the horizontal character of the double spiral indicates than neither of these Gods dominates over the other from the polarity standpoint that only counts here.
This indefinite play between opposites has only two exits, apart from the constant swinging between them:
- A resorption of the opposites into the Principle according to the preceding figure;
- The production of a neutral result, fruit of a mutation of the apparent opposites into complements that balance each other and which are represented by the inferior pole of the following figure.
Note that the last triskele is derived from the former through a sixth turn rotation in one direction or the other.
We could continue with other examples, but it clearly appears that the triskele constitutes a ternary representation, of which plenty of examples can be found within the Celtic tradition.
- René Guénon:
- “The Great Triad”. South Asia Books Publisher;
- Particularly, chapter II devoted to the different kinds of ternaries and chapter V dealing with the double spiral.
- Françoise Le Roux et Christian-J Guyonvarc'h:
- “The Celtic civilization”. Ouest-France Publisher, 1990;
- “Druids”. Ouest-France Publisher, 1986.
1 back The triskele of the first type looks like the swastika and can, similarly, take on both clockwise and counter clockwise forms.
2 back In all celtic languages, the word “glas” refers at the same time to the main colour in the sky (blue) and on earth (green).
The functions and colours described previously can be brought close to the Indian classes (distinct from castes):
- The Brahmans (white) or priests;
- The Kshatriyas (red) or warriors;
- The Vaishays (yellow) or craftsmen, farmers and merchants.
- A fourth category, the Shudras (black) is composed of beings with no specific function and unworthy to belong to the preceding classes. Add to that the class-less beings in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. the beings beyond classes (equally black). For more details on this point, see the rainbow colours.
3 back Note the complete correspondence between the couples Dagda-Ogme of the Celtic tradition and Mitra-Varuna of the Indian tradition: Mitra is the God of contracts and Varuna the God of war and magic.