The enduring symbol of the triskeles

In Plato's symposium, the guests are invited to speak on the nature of love. The playwright Aristophanes describes how humans were at first more perfect beings, two conjoined as one, with four arms and four legs. They could travel quickly, propelled like running balls with their four legs. Although the triskeles has only three legs it reminds me of the image of Aristophanes' people. The rest of Aristophanes' story is that the gods were jealous of men who were truly happy conjoined to their other halves, so the gods split each human into two lesser beings and that love was a human's quest through life to find and rejoin to their missing halves.

Triple spirals linked in the center is a design motif going back to the late Neolithic period and, in various forms, remains a popular Celtic design to the present day. Although these geometric motifs are sometimes referred to as triskelions, to me they are far less interesting than the one with conjoined human legs (anatomical forms). Above is a photo taken in the museum at Agrigento, Sicily. It is the oldest known representation of a true triskeles (late 7th century BCE)*. I don't think there is reason to suppose that geometric forms directly led to the anatomical forms, although that is possible.

Circa 1200 BCE Agrigento plate

This triskeles from Agrigento predates the common use of coinage, and regarding coinage, it is the anatomical form of the triskeles that is generally of most interest. However, some early form of the triskeles appears on coins from Lycia, a client state of Persia. Beginning in the beginning in the late 6th century BCE, the coins of the kings of Lycia have a sort of intermediate form of the triskeles. On these coins, three bent bars extend from a circle in the center, without any details that suggest human limbs.

465-430 BCE Aspendos, Pamphylia, Stater
380-350 BCE Aspendos, Pamphylia. Wrestlers & Triskeles AR Stater.

The earliest coins that I am aware of that display an anatomical triskeles come from the city of Aspendos, in Pamphylia on the south coast of Anatolia. At times, Pamphylia was also a client kingdom of the Persian Empire, but during the time when nugget-like Stater with the full sized triskeles was minted, Pamphylia, was part of the Delian league. Pamphylia is adjacent to Lycia and so it is quite possible the Aspendos triskeles was "fleshed out" from the more abstract Lycian form or vice versa.

380-362 BCE Lycian King Perikles "Lion & Triskeles"
305-295 BCE Sicily, Syracuse, Agathokles Tetradrachm

Occasionally, the triskeles will dominate the entire surface of a coin, as with the older coin from Aspendos. Often though, the triskeles will be present just as a small symbol, as in the newer coin from Aspendos, where it is there perhaps just to make a connection to the city and their earlier coins. In other cases, such as on coins for Corinth or Lucania, small triskeles may just serve as sorts of mint marks. Alternatively, they may reference some connection to the city of Syracuse in Sicily, as Syracuse was colony of Corinth and Lucania was sometimes allied with Syracuse against Rome.

The triskeles has an especially strong association with the Island of Sicily and it is said that this may in part be due to the triangular shape of the island. The Greeks used the symbol, but I believe it is likely that its association with the island may be older than that and date back to the Bronze age peoples who inhabited the island before the Greeks. As noted above, the oldest representation of an anatomical triskeles comes from Sicily.

300-280 BCE Lucania, Velia. Didrachm
221-200 BCE Sicily. Iaitos or Ietas. Roman Rule. Gorgoneion on center of triskeles.
150-20 BCE Celtiberian Spain. Iliberri (Granada)

The form of the triskeles most specifically associated with Sicily is the Trinacria. Trinacria is actually an ancient name for Sicily, meaning three-sided. The Trinacria appears on the modern flag of Sicily. It has a Gorgon (Medusa) head in the center of the three running legs and shafts of barley sprout from between the legs. The barley presumably represents Sicily's ancient role as one of the breadbaskets to Rome.

The Trinacria, a uniquely Sicilian form, probably developed over time from the basic anatomical triskeles. Triskeles appear frequently on coins from Syracuse, particularly coins associated with the tyrant Agathocles. I have seen photos of coins of Agathocles on which the triskeles takes up an entire surface; however, more commonly, there are just smaller triskeles, probably just representing Agathocles' person sigil. Occasionally, as on Agathocles's larger triskeles, the feet have wings at the ankles.

Although by no means is the triskeles a universal, or even a very common symbol on Greek coins from Sicily, for the Romans it became very emblematic of the island. In Roman images of Sicily as a Goddess, or an allegorical figure, the figure has a triskeles headdress. Also, consistent with a pre-Greek origin for the trinacria, one of the first coins with a clear Gorgon head at the center of the triskeles comes from the city of Iaitos, a city believed to be populated by people native to the island; although the coin itself is from the Roman period. A similar image appears on a coin attributed to the city of Panormus (Palermo) on Sicily, with what appears to be the head of Augustus on the obverse. Another curious Celtic form, a sort of hybrid of the trinacria and a simple anatomical triskeles comes from Celtiberian Spain. The Celtiberians themselves were a sort of hybrid people, a mixture of Celts from western coastal regions and native Iberians. The coin came from the period during the Roman conquest of the territory which was only fully pacified and incorporated into Roman Hispania during the reign of Augustus (circa 19 BCE).

50 BCE Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus Sicily Treskiles Denarius
49 BCE Roman Republic. L. Lentulus C. Marecos AR Denarius / Triskeles
1 BCE Augustus of Panormus, Medusa Reverse

Sicily itself became a Roman province after the Second Punic war, with the culminating conquest of Syracuse in 212 BCE by the forces of Marcus Claudius Marcellus. In 50 BCE, his descendent, Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, as mint magistrate, issued Denarii with his ancestor's image and displaying a triskeles to affirm the association with the conquest of Sicily. The next year the Consuls Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus and C. Claudius Marcellus, supporters of Pompey in the impending Civil war, minted denarii specially to support the payment of Pompey's new recruits. These coins had the first complete composite of the Sicilian Trinacria, as we know it today, with the Medusa head and shafts of barley. Wings sprout, not from the ankles, but from behind the gorgon's head. I do not know why this image was chosen for this special issue. They are rare coins today and extremely expensive when they are in excellent condition, far above prices I can afford. You can at least make out all the features of the Trinacria in the coin shown. As far as I can tell, this coin's design is the source for the Trinacria on the flag of Sicily today.

Sicily had a complicated history after the Romans, and the Trinacria lost its significance to the island for several centuries. The Kingdom of Sicily was passed back and forth between various Europeans ruling houses. In 1282 there was an insurrection against the hated rulers from the French Angevin house. During the revolt, known as the Sicilian Vespers, an estimated 13,000 French men and women were killed. Subsequently, the island became the Kingdom of Trinacria and rule reverted to Frederick III of the house of Aragon.

However, by the time that Sicily would re-adopt the Trinacria, the triskeles, in a somewhat different form was already being adopted as the symbol for another island. In 1266, under the Treaty of Perth, the Isle of Man became part of Scotland, having formerly been a possession of Norway. Alexander III, King of Scotland, assigned the island a coat of Arms in the form of an anatomical triskeles in which the three legs join to form a simple triangle in the center. Each leg was cased in armor and wore spurs. The symbol is called the "three legs of Mann" (Manx: Tree Cassyn Vannin). The associated motto is, Quocunque jeceris stabit, which translates into English as "whichever way you throw, it will stand". People have tried to rationalize a connection between the Lords of Man under the Scottish King, and the rulers of Sicily to suggest a relationship between the Trinacria and the "Tree Cassyn Vannin,", but there is almost certainly no direct connection.

1733 CE Isle of Man Penny James Stanley, Tenth Earl of Derby
28.5 mm, 10.27g. Obverse: Stanley family crest of eagle over child in wicker basket, above the cap of maintenance, date below, legend with pellet stops, SANS CHANGER. Reverse: triskeles, I D and value 1 in each gap between legs, legend surrounding, QVOCVNQVE . GESSERIS . STABIT
1798 CE Great Britain, Isle of Man 1798 HALF PENNY King George III Triskeles
27 mm, 10.42g. Copper. Obverse: Laurate bust of King George III, Latin legend, King by the Grace of God. Reverse: Triskeles of human legs, Latin legend, QVOCVNQVE IECERIS STABIT, Translation: Whithersoever you throw it, it will stand. Engraver: Conrad Heinrich Küchler.
Map: Europe; Isle of Man

Possession of the Isle of Man went back and forth between England and Scotland a couple times before becoming a feudal lordship of the English Crown in 1399. In 1765, the Lordship of the island was permanently assigned to the reigning sovereign of England. Interestingly, the island never became officially incorporated into the Kingdom of Great Britain, or the present-day United Kingdom. Likewise, it is not a member of the Commonwealth. It has always retained its internal self-government, although as a dependency of the British crown.

The Isle of Man was never very heavily populated. In the early 1700's its population is estimated to have been about 15,000 and at present its population is only about 50,000. Therefore, although nominally self-governing, it only began issuing its own coinage in the early 1700's under James Stanley, 10th Earl of Derby. Prior to that time, British currency would have been used on the island, but forgeries were also abundant. The first official Isle of Man currency was issued in 1709, but this was of low relief and poor quality so that in 1733 the earlier coins were withdrawn for circulation and officially devalued. New currency of good quality was issued beginning in 1733, with the Stanley family crest of an eagle over child in wicker basket, and the Stanley motto (SANS CHANGER) on the obverse. The island's crest and motto appear on the reverse. The image on the crest presumably relates to a fanciful story about the Earl and his wife, who were childless, discovering a male foundling in an eagle's nest and adopting it. It was rumored that the child was in fact the Lord's illegitimate son and the scene with the eagle staged to give his wife some grounds to accept it as a miraculous event.

After 1765, when the dominion of the island reverted to the crown, coins of the island would feature the British monarch, as on the 1798 half penny with George II on the obverse. Of course, Queen Elizabeth is on the island's current coinage and in recent decades the island has discovered that it can make profit minting collectible special edition coins. While it was once the case that a coin had the intrinsic value of its precious metal that is certainly no longer the case. In Anglo Saxon times, a pound sterling was the value of a pound of silver. Today a pound of silver is worth about 170 British pounds, and the intrinsic value of a modern one-pound coin is practically nothing. For the Isle of Man to mint a lovely commemorative coin and sell it for its face value to a collector, who puts it aside in a cabinet, makes the island's treasury a nice profit. In 1984, the Isle of Man issued a lovely set of Olympic commemorative coins, and I particularly liked the one with a gymnast in a pose that resembles an actual human triskeles. As on ancient coins of Agathokles, on this coin the triskeles of the island appears only as a small miniature. The Triskeles remains a popular image today. In various form, often the simple geometric types, they are incorporated into the logos for numerous companies and foundation. The McDonald Institute of Archeology uses a classic anatomical form with wings on the ankles as their emblem. The article by R.J.A. Wilson, cited below, was written in part to provide a scholarly history of their symbol. To name just a few others, there is a Triskeles Philanthropic Foundation based in Pennsylvania, a Triskeles seafood restaurant in Milwaukee, and not surprisingly, a Triskeles Bed and Breakfast in Syracuse, Sicily.

1984 CE Isle of man 1984 one crown Olympic commemorative coin
38 mm, 28.54g. Obverse: Young Queen Elizabeth with crown, right, Elizabeth II Isle of Man. Reverse: Gymnast in triskeles-like pose, Twenty third Olympiad, Los Angeles, One Crown. Small triskeles in shield on boarder, Olympic mark. Knurled edge.
2017 CE 2017 Isle of Man Raven and Falcon £1
28.4 mm, 12.0g. Obverse: Queen Elizabeth II. Reverse: The coat of arms of the Isle of Man, granted by Elizabeth II, Lord of Mann, on 12 July 1996. In the coat of arms we can find Dexter and Sinister heraldry symbols of a peregrine falcon and a raven. Triskeles above.

*R.J.A. Wilson. On the trail of the triskeles from the McDonald Institute to Archaic Greek Sicily. 2000. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:1 (2000), 35–61