The Curious Case of the Trinacria Connection
As well as being a keen traveller, I am a collector of World Bank Notes. So it was with some interest that I noticed the imagery on a consecutive pair of Isle of Man £1 bank notes that I hold. They depict the same symbol as that we had seen so often on our travels throughout Sicily. What, I wondered, was the connection?
The symbol is known as the trinacria, or triscele in Italian (but also triquetra or triskelion depending on the usage and contexts). Formed of three legs bent at the knees (or three intertwined spirals according to other traditions) and starting from a common centre point, the Sicilian version has a Medusa head at its centre.
The figure has roots in ancient history, with the trinacria even appearing on Syracusan (Sicily) coins from the fourth century BC. In the case of Sicily, the three legs are said to represent the distinct triangular shape of the island as marked by its three most prominent points (before the age of satellite mapping): Messina (North-East), Syracuse (South-East) and Marsala (West).
Much has been written (and argued) about the symbol’s origins – but most agree it has Grecian roots. The symbol can be found on the shields of Spartan warriors depicted in Grecian vase decoration. It has, apparently, long been applied as a symbol of protection, like a sort of amulet.
The symbol has also taken on many fanciful transformations since then.
So how, I wondered, how did this unusual symbol come to be used in the Isle of Man? The Isle of Man, after all, is a long way from Sicily or Greece, sitting between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea and could hardly be called ‘triangular’ in shape. Intrigued, I sought the answer – but found that nobody really knows. However, the following rings true: The connection with Sicily probably comes about through the Norse people (the Vikings).
Occupying the Isle of Man from about 979 to 1265 AD, these traders and explorers sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea and knew Sicily well. It was probably these seafarers who brought the emblem to the northern and western parts of Europe. A further connection with Sicily was that the Scottish King Alexander III, who ruled over Mann in 1266, was the brother-in-law of Prince Edmund. The Pope had promised Edmund the title of King of Sicily in return for his military aid in a dispute.
The earliest use (which can be dated) of the Three Legs within the Isle of Man is in 1310 when they appeared on the shield of Henry de Bello Monte, Governor of the Island for King Edward II of England. They also appear on the Manx Sword of State which is thought to date from around 1230. Another early occurrence is on the market cross in the village of Maughold, which is probably late 14th century.
Curiously, the Latin motto, “Quocunque Jeceris Stabit” surrounding the legs on my Isle of Man bank notes translates as “Whichever way you throw, it will stand”, which claim must surely only lead to more conjecture and speculation – go ahead. Feel free.