There are many symbols that are associated with the ancient world of celtic paganism. Beautiful and curious forms and shapes that appear on everything from recovered weapons and armour, to clothing and even carved upon the very stones of the land. Yet there is one that is so widely recognised yet still misunderstood and that is the Triskelion, spiral of Irish Paganism.
The Nature of the Triskelion
One of the world’s oldest recognisable symbols, the triskelion is formed from three spirals moving away from a central point of connection. These spirals each rotate outwards to three separate endpoints and the symmetry of these spiralling arms conform to a mathematical formula known as an Archimedean spiral.
The appearance of triskelion, also called triskeles, can be dated to the neolithic period, first recorded in Malta but later carved upon the internal rock of one of Ireland’s oldest passage tombs. Constructed around 3200 BCE the Newgrange monument in Bru na Boinne has a whole series of large stones carved with a variety of neolithic art forms, and was created to align with the rising of the sun on the winter solstice. Designed to capture the first rays of dawn to illuminate the passage tomb, a feat that it still performs each year to this day. The famous Triskelion of Newgrange is found on the tall upright stones at the very back of the tomb in the last place the light touches. These tall upright stones are arrayed around what could only be considered a site of particular significance to the culture that constructed it. As such the importance of the symbol and its location at this place can be inferred, but it is not the only occurrence of the symbol at this site. Another large triple spiral is seen before one even enters the tomb on an impressive carved monolith known as kerbstone one. This large beautifully carved stone sits across the front of the entrance. Measuring three and a half meters long it’s believed that the stone was carved in situ by these early stone workers in ancient Ireland.
The Meaning of the Triskelion
Interpreting the symbolism of our ancient ancestors is in many was an impossible task. Though we can of course study these shapes, track their use through archaeology as they appear across the world, we will always be at a loss to claim complete knowledge or understanding of their original meaning. The lack of cultural context, documented explanations, or even oral histories means that we will almost always be wrong in any interpretation.
So in the absence of direct cultural context we need to take this symbol and look at it in an inferred context. Considering how it is created, and where it is placed. Looking at Newgrange we have a clear picture of not just the cultural importance of interring the dead, but of the significance of a solar event to these ancient people. Why else would a task which would have taken generations of effort be undertaken in the first place? Placing the triskelion at the rear of the chamber overlooking the spot where the dawn’s rays on the winter solstice come to rest means that this symbol must have had some significance.
For many it is considered that the triskelion is representing the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
There have been claims that the symbol has a connection to nature, to some form of ‘Triple Goddess’ or the eternal flow of energy, but for all that we can speculate, it might be most honest of us to say that we will never truly know the meaning of the triskelion.
My Use of the Triskelion
Though the real truth of the triskelion is lost to antiquity, that doesn’t mean that we cannot explore this symbol and its significance in a personal spiritual context. I will never claim to ‘know the true meaning’ of this ancient symbol, but I will speak on occasion of what it means to me.
The fact that this image was laboriously carved upon the stones of my island, using nothing other than other stones and a willful dedication to persevere in its creation means a lot to me. It tells me that even if the sole purpose of the symbol was not some mystic key to an ancient spirituality but instead an artistic expression of craft and creativity, it would still be beautiful. Not just for its form, but for the investment of intent and energy that went into its crafting.
When we add to that the location specific elements of Newgrange, a truly amazing investment of resources over a number of generations of neolithic farmers, things begin to feel less like casual creativity, and more like intentional design. Aligning the stones of the opening and ‘window box’ to the winter solstice would not have occurred by ‘accident’. It showed that there was a detailed cultural awareness of this time of the year and aligning that with a place of internment and possibly ritual, we can see a connection of the triskelion to the cycle of life and death, and the supposed rebirth that forms the core of many solar based beliefs.
For me the symbol has become less about these broad terms and more a personal tool for visualisation. In life we are all of us progressing towards an ending and the possibility of rebirth, renewal or some altered state of energy after we die. When I look at the triskelion it is not the beginning and the end I look to, but the journey itself. The progression along the spiral moving away from the centre in three different directions. When I consider the whole I consider my life in its entirety, but much like the triskelion I am a thing made up of different aspects or processes. I am a being of physicality, emotion / intellect and of spirit / energy. I use the triskelion to try to focus my intent on one of these three aspects as they spiral out from me in my personal journey of growth and change.
As a child I had a mind that needed to learn to think and feel, I had a body that needed to learn to grow and move. The progression of these two aspects of the human condition occur instinctively and are shaped, supported and encouraged by our families, communities and the world we exist in. So what then of the growth of our spirit or energy?
Personally I believe that we are more than just the random occurrence of consciousness created out of a chaos of biomechanical reactions. I believe in the transmigration of spirit as part of my Irish pagan pathway and so the third arm spiral of the triskelion comes into focus when I consider the growth of that energy which currently exists within my physical form and engages with my mind and emotion.
For me the triskelion is a reminder that we need to move along a path of exploration and growth, in each of the aspects of our lives, but that growth always comes from and lends back to a central core of being that is the Self, the unique expression of humanity that is each and everyone of us.
The triskelion was carved in stone thousands of years ago. An act that required a lot of intent and energy, all focused towards a change to create upon the very rocks something that would endure. If we consider ‘magic’ as an act of intentional energy directed towards a change, then could we not consider the triskelion a magical symbol?
This is how I view the triskelion. This is the manner in which I explore its meaning and visualise its use in my own personal practice. Not as a representation of something else, God Goddess or other, but as a representation of Self, and the journey of growth in many aspects that each of us go through in our lives.
Where To Now?
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