“And it is well known that Plato is found perpetually celebrating the barbarians, remembering that both himself and Pythagoras learned the most and the noblest of their dogmas among the barbarians”.
(Clement of Alexandria: The Stromata. Book 1:XV)
Common to many Indo-European cultures, the triskelion, like the tetraskelion (swastika), is one of the most distinctive and common motifs in Iron Age Celtic art, not only as a symbol in itself, but forming the geometric basis for numerous artistic compositions.
Silver Celtic phalera from Manerbio sul Mella (Lombardy, Italy)
THE GOLDEN RATIO
Described by Celtic art experts as three arms or a ‘whirligig’ (Megaw J.V.S., Megaw R. Celtic Art From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. London 2001. P. 19), at first glance the triskele indeed appears to be simply three curved segments emanating from a central point, representing harmony and unification between the three kingdoms in Celtic mythology.
Bronze Celtic Triskele Chainmail Appliqués from Târgu Mureş, Romania
However, the triskele is a symbol of harmony and unification, not only in mythology, but also in geometry, its form and method of construction being a perfect example of the Golden Ratio (also called the golden section (Latin: sectio aurea), so central to the mathematical and religious movement called Pythagoreanism, with which the Celts were familiar:
“And the Celtic Druids investigated to the very highest point the Pythagorean philosophy, after Zamolxis, by birth a Thracian, a servant of Pythagoras, became to them the originator of this discipline. Now after the death of Pythagoras, Zamolxis, repairing thither, became to them the originator of this philosophy. The Celts esteem these as prophets and seers, on account of their foretelling to them certain (events), from calculations and numbers by the Pythagorean art”.
(Hippolytus. “Philosophumena” XXII)
Silver Triskele Appliqués from the Celtic Chariot Burial at Mezek, Bulgaria
(See ‘The Mezek Syndrome’ article)
In fact, from a geometric perspective the basic construction of the triskele derives from a regular hexagram, a form which plays an important role in the compositional structure of Celtic images during the Iron Age, and which had a particularly important religious significance for them. Of course, the hexagram itself is composed of two equilateral triangles, representing harmony between male and female elements (Mac Congail/Krusseva 2010).
The triskele is also a popular symbol on Celtic coinage across Europe, either as the central symbol (fig. 1), or as a core element in the overall composition (fig. 2-5). In fig. 1 the central axis of the triskele is the punched circle or ‘RA’ symbol (loc cit), an extremely frequent core element on Celtic coins and other artifacts from this period, representing the sun from which all energy is derived (see also ‘The Boxer Who Became A God’ and ‘Sacrificial Daggers’ articles).
Fig. 1 Obverse of Celtic Gold Stater (Rainbow Cup) 2nd c. BC. (from Hesse or the Rhineland)
Fig 2 – Drachm of the Celtic Scordisci from Thrace (Kugelwangen type)
Note the triskele on the cheek of the subject on the obverse, and the ‘punched sun’ (RA symbol) above the horse on the reverse.
The religious significance of the triskele in Celtic culture is perhaps best illustrated on the Celtic Paeonia model coinage, produced between the second half of the 4th c. BC and the 1st c. BC. These coins are packed with religious symbolism, giving us a rare insight into the core religious values of the pan-Celtic tribes.
In fig. 3 the image on the obverse remains fairly classical in nature, with one surprising twist – the eye of the subject has been replaced by an arrowhead, which is in fact the key to the geometric structure of the composition (Mac Congail/Krusseva op cit). The reverse is even more fascinating, with the inscription and the torso of the rider carefully arranged to conform to the circular nature of the image. The triskele below the horse completes the intrinsic balance of the composition which, although at first glance appears chaotic, is in fact very precisely geometrically centered. *
Fig. 3 Celtic Paeonia model tetradrachma (2nd c. BC)
*It should be borne in mind that during the minting/striking process the original artistic model is often not executed with complete precision.
In fig. 4 the reverse is similarly packed with religious symbolism – the beaked head of the Goddess/Badh Catha, accompanied by the raven/bird of prey schematically depicted behind her left shoulder (see ‘Birds of Prey’ article). In this case the triskele is positioned to the front of the image and, along with the inscription, shifts the balance of the composition to the fore, thus creating a sensation of forward motion.
Most fascinating of these triskele coins is fig. 4a/b, in which the obverse depicts the process of metamorphosis - the human head being transformed into that of a bird.
Fig. 5a (See also ‘Birds of Prey’ article)
On the reverse the Goddess/ Badh Catha is the ‘centre’ of the image, which is composed in such a fashion that the attention of the viewer is drawn simultaneously in conflicting directions. The symbols/inscription before the horse again shifts the balance of the composition and creates a sensation of forward motion, while the head/eye of the goddess and the triskele symbol represent separate, yet balanced, centers of focus. Thus, as with the obverse, the entire composition, although static, also simultaneously creates a sense of constant change and motion.