During my years as a communication designer in Palermo, several companies have asked me to design brands based on the Sicilian Trinacria. If you have ever been to Sicily, you have seen it depicted almost everywhere, especially on tourist products, restaurants and attractions. Its distinctive shape makes it one of the most powerful symbols ever designed in human history. In this article, I re-propose some research on this particular kind of triskelion, which has a history as ancient, complex and cosmopolitan as the island it represents.
The Triskele: history and meanings of the graphic symbol
We cannot talk about the Sicilian Trinacria without speaking of the triskelion, the family of symbols to which it belongs. The triskele is a representation comprising three legs, spirals, or intertwined arms. The history of the symbol’s origin is still a mystery, but we know it had esoteric and propitiatory meanings in different cultures. Prehistoric people have depicted this symbol since the fourth millennium BC in Malta, in megalithic tombs in Ireland and even on Mycenaean boats.
To Sicily, the symbol probably came from the East, where we find it on coins minted in Lycia, in the Persian Empire and various ancient Greek cities. In Central Europe, we find it as one of the most important symbols of Celtic culture. The Celts designed it on many artefacts until the Romans finally defeated them around 50 BC. The Sicilian Trinacria is the only variant of the triskele that survived the Roman Empire. While the Celtic triskelion was no longer used when Augustus banned Druidic cults and the use of Celtic religious symbolism, the Romans promoted the use of the Trinacria. Its spread doesn’t stop in Sicily and reaches the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, where, according to local legend, the Normans used it as the island’s symbol.
Trinacria, the logo of Sicily
The name Trinacria has its etymological roots from “trikeles”, a compound Greek word meaning three promontories, mother of the Latin term “triquetra”, meaning “three vertices”. In the Homeric verses of the Odyssey, we also find the term “Thrinakie”, which refers to Sicily and derives from “Thrinax” or better “with three points”.
Sicily adopted the current symbol with the regional law of 1990 on the proposal of the parliamentarian and historian Giuseppe Tricoli. It shows a woman’s head with three legs rotating counterclockwise and three ears of wheat developing centrifugally from the centre. It’s interesting to report a statement by Prof. Giuseppe Tricoli:
“The symbol of the triskelion wants to represent a cosmic conception: The three legs would express cosmic movement, life, becoming. It’s linked to analogous symbols of the Indo-European civilisation, of which it’s a Mediterranean interpretation. The Gorgoneion, which is depicted in the middle of the three legs and is a representation of Medusa, appears at a later date.”
The elements of the Sicilian logo: The gorgoneion
By Gorgoneion, we mean the face of the Gorgon Medusa, a mythological creature of Greek tradition, representing a woman’s face with hair made of snakes. The serpent is a figure we often find in mythology, with meanings associated with sin and deception, as the Judeo-Christian tradition has handed down to us. But in ancient Sicilian culture, in particular, the snake gains positive values and becomes, for example, one of the three symbols of Palermo: besides the famous eagle, which expresses the city’s pride, two other allegories characterise the city: the dog, which stands for loyalty, and the snake, which represents prudence and wisdom and is thus no longer a symbol of evil, but a sign associated with the qualities of the gods.
Elements of the Sicilian symbol: The legs
The Sicilian triskelion comprises 3 human legs rotating counterclockwise. The legs represent the three outermost headlands of Sicily: Capo Lilibeo in the west, near Marsala; Capo Passero in the south behind Syracuse; Capo Peloro near Messina in the northeast.
The elements of the Sicilian logo: The wheat ears
Many have discussed wheat ears in the past. Some say that they represent the fertility of the island. Others remember the Romans added them when they applied the death penalty to peasants who didn’t cut down the trees to turn the forests into wheat fields. The ears of wheat were also used to symbolise Sicily’s status as a non-Roman nation. It was the first province and “granary” of Rome. The two wings on the sides of the face indicated the eternity of time in which its history moves.
The origin of the Sicilian Trinacria: the 3 hypotheses
Considering that the same figure was common in antiquity in other countries such as Lycia, Crete, Rhodes, Macedonia, Thrace, Spain and the Celtic lands to which geographical isomorphisms didn’t tie it, what’s its true meaning, or at least the native one? There are three hypotheses (Maccarrone, 1990):
The hypothesis of the Phoenician origin of the Sicilian Trinacria
We base the Phoenician hypothesis on a Numidian monument found in Vega, now the Tunisian city of Beja, on which stands a triskelion with gorgoneion above the sacred bull of Baal: the greatest deity of the Semitic pantheon. On the base of the monument, there is an inscription in Phoenician characters dedicated to Baal himself. For the particular figural composition, the triquetra expresses the idea of a perpetual, cyclical movement, made clear by the three legs bent as if to walk, referring to Baal, the god of eternally flowing time, and his triune image.
The hypothesis of the Greek origin of the Sicilian Trinacria, 5th century BC.
The Greek hypothesis is based on a monograph by the German philosopher K. W. Goettling on ancient Greek art, in which he devotes several pages to our symbol, which is considered to represent the shields of Greek warriors as painted on ancient vases. This monograph, published in Munich in 1863, has also kept its validity because it originally intervenes in the symbol’s interpretation by relying on the terrifying function that the Medusa gives to the entire image. It focuses on the function of the triskelion as a symbol of recognition of certain warriors.
Thus, we can relate it to a modern interpretation first presented by a distinguished Sicilian scholar, Biagio Pace. He shows, through historical citations that coincide with the period covered by the present work, that we should consider the mark as a heraldic symbol with all its implications. The triskelion would thus arise from the image of a single leg bent at the knee, depicted in white against the dark background of the shields of the Lacedaemonian warriors, better known as Spartans.
The hypothesis of the Minoan origin of the Sicilian Trinacria, – VII century BC.
In 1957, archaeologists in Sicily excavating on the hill of Castellazzo di Palma near Agrigento brought to light archaic pottery: a particularly beautiful “dinos” made of reddish clay, on the bottom of which was the humanised triskelion without a gorgoneion. The find immediately interested archaeologists, not only because of its origin but above all because it’s the oldest image of a triskelion made of human limbs ever found in Sicily.
They traced the vase’s manufacture to the seventh century BC, before any other specimens. The archaeologists connected the find with other finds made in Crete in the years before but dating from a period further back than the one in Sicily. From this, they concluded that the origin of these finds could be from trade contacts or Mycenaean settlements on the coast of Sicily. This leads to the hypothesis of the Minoan-Mycenaean origin of the symbol, which is currently the most accepted.
- Biedermann, H., 1989. Knaurs Lexikon der Symbole. Weltbild-Verlag, Munchen.
- Cooper, J.C., 1982. An illustrated encyclopaedia of traditional symbols. Thames & Hudson, London.
- Maccarrone, C., E., 1990. Il sentimento religioso dei Siciliani, Centro Studi Storico Sociali Siciliani, Catania, Italy.