Ukrainian Trident's Symbolism Finally Established!
The "Tryzub" or Trident is as central a cultural symbol for Ukrainians as the Star of David is for Jews or the Fleur-de-lys is for Francophones1. There are all kinds of explanations as to the Trident's meaning, however.2 But a book published in 2008 by the Institute of Ukrainian Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine has now established the most probable meaning of this ancient emblem.
The authors of "The Ukrainian Trident", Alexander Belov and George Shapovalov, have produced a voluminous, academic work which relies heavily on direct archaeological evidence, much of which they have themselves unearthed throughout the Crimean region.
In the first part of their work, the authors critically review practically every known book and article on the Trident published in the last two hundred years. What was, for me, their most interesting finding was the accidental discovery in 1852 near Nizhyn, Ukraine of a cache of about 200 ancient coins.
Archaeologists then determined that those coins came from the time of Saint Volodymyr the Great and Saint Yaroslav the Wise, the era of Kyivan Rus'. What they found fascinating was the depiction of a trident on one side of the figure of St. Volodymyr, enthroned holding a Cross in his right hand. On the back of the coins was a composite image of both symbols, a trident with the cross in its centre.
Since the early part of the 19th century, academics in both Ukraine and Russia were fascinated by the trident emblem (so coined by Professor Karamzin in 1816). Even Leo Tolstoy wrote about his understanding of the trident symbol (which he, along with others, termed a "figure").
In the second part of their book, the authors go on to "reconstruct" the symbolism behind the trident which they immediately assert is a form of an anchor - a point that was hinted at before by students of this emblem.3
They discuss the great religious role of the anchor in pre-Christian practices. Anchors were venerated by sailors and when new anchors were constructed, incense was burned in their honour as they were set upon pagan altars. Sailors and others who lived by the seas wore anchor amulets and offered small anchors as votives at shrines. Such anchor votive offerings are still practiced among Hindus (such as Dharamsala).
The authors themselves found dozens of such pre-Christian anchors and anchor symbols carved into tiles and the walls of temples throughout Crimea and southern Ukraine.
There has been a tendency among students of the origins of the trident to see it as a direct borrowing from the Byzantine imperial tradition where emperors had tridents on the top of their sceptres as symbols of authority.
As the emblem of the Greek sea god, Poseidon, the trident is an all-powerful symbol of authority over both earth and sea. In Greek mythology, Poseidon uses his trident to cause earthquakes and tsunamis.
However, the coins discovered from the era of Kyivan-Rus' depict St. Volodymyr and St. Yaroslav with crosses, not tridents, on their sceptres, calling into question the idea that the trident was directly borrowed from Byzantium in this way.
The coins seem to indicate an equality between the cross and the trident in the way they are placed on either side of the sovereigns depicted on them.
The authors then move on to discuss Volodymyr's reception of Christian baptism in Kherson in the Crimea. Compiling written sources from chronicles of the time, they show that St. Volodymyr, while in Kherson in Crimea, came upon - and adopted - the Christian community there with their shrines and particular practices.
The central shrine of that community was that of Saint Clement, Hieromartyr and Pope of Rome. Sent to Crimea by the Emperor Trajan, Clement established a thriving church of zealous converts there. And his fame for miraculous cures in the Name of Christ was quickly growing. The Romans then ordered that Clement be thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor tied around his neck.
As his sorrowing followers prayed in vigil on the shore, petitioning God to indicate to them where the relics of their beloved Father in Christ were located, the waves of the Black Sea began to move back. Looking on in disbelief, some distance away was the body of St. Clement lying on an underwater rock with the anchor of his martyrdom still tied around his neck!
For years, this phenomenon of the waves of the Black Sea repeated itself in late November around the time of St. Clement's feast day. Christians then set up tents on the dry land and Divine Liturgies and prayers were celebrated in his honour. Of particular note is the fact that the anchor which came to symbolize St. Clement was miraculous and when people touched it with faith, they often experienced healing. Saint Clement's anchor, together with the Cross, became the twin symbols of the Christian Church of Kherson and Crimea!
Saints Cyril and Methodius took relics of Saint Clement to Rome where they are enshrined in the Basilica of San Clemente. The image of his anchor figures prominently at the front of the Basilica, behind the altar.
Chroniclers relate that when Saint Volodymyr came to Kherson, he received baptism and also the Christian tradition of the Church of Crimea. He took, it is written, the Head of St. Clement to Kyiv which was used during the mass baptism services of his people in 988 (it was used again later by Kyiv Metropolitan4 Clement Smolyatych in the consecration of a hierarchy independent of Constantinople).
The Head of St. Clement has today been positively identified among the 61 Myrrh-Bearing Heads of the Kyivan Caves Lavra where it is installed in a silver chalice as it exudes holy oil. This relic is often shown to Vatican and Roman Catholic visitors to the Lavra by Metropolitan Vladimir Sabodan.
At the same time, St. Volodymyr also adopted the anchor symbol of St. Clement (who he proclaimed to be the primary Patron of Kyivan Rus' and ordered that he and his wife, Anna, be buried in the Chapel of St. Clement).
The trident with the Cross at the top of the central upraised arm became St. Volodymyr's dynastic emblem which he passed onto his sons and descendants. It represented then, and continues to represent, the purely spiritual symbolism of faith in Christ (the Cross) and hope in His salvation and protection (the trident-anchor).5
In fact, the only Byzantine influence on the development of St. Volodymyr's trident has to do with the two "B" symbols on either side of the central bar. Those are clearly a borrowing from the Byzantine emblem which was a Cross flanked by four "B's and representing the first letters of the Paleologues' motto: "King of kings, ruling over kings (i.e. Christ)."
St. Volodymyr's two "B's" referenced his dedication of himself and of his state to the "King of kings" whose Cross was in the centre of his royal trident.
By taking on the "B" symbol, St. Volodymyr was also letting the Byzantine empire know that he was a ruler, a true "Basileos" on an even footing with the Byzantine emperor himself (in fact, Volodymyr took the name "Basileos" meaning "king" when he received baptism - only the Byzantine Emperor could ratify the taking of that title, as the authors show).
The authors take great pains to demonstrate, using solid archaeological and other historical evidence, that the Cross-Trident is a purely spiritual-heraldic emblem of the Ukrainian Christian tradition (they, in fact, find references to a "Rus'" - rather than any Greek colony - in Tmutorokan in Crimea). As members of a national academic institute, they call on all Ukrainians to embrace it as such and also as a national emblem, especially since the Ukrainian Parliament has yet to ratify the Trident as part of the Great Arms of Ukraine and the fact that citizens in eastern Ukraine tend to resist accepting the Trident because they see it as a political symbol.
Ukrainians in the diaspora sometimes tend to see in the Trident as a symbol of cultural identity alone. When the trident is depicted in Churches, it is shown with the Cross in the centre as a kind of exception to the rule. Other Ukrainian organizations have their own versions of the trident - mostly without the Cross in the centre.
The findings of "The Ukrainian Trident" should help restore the specific Cross-Trident of Saint Volodymyr and his descendants to its rightful place in all Ukrainian Churches and communities. Copies of this book should be purchased and studied by all members of our community!
The Cross-Trident should copiously decorate Ukrainian places of worship and religious institutes - in imitation of our ancestors. It should be proudly worn on lapels, rings, brooches, and even as a baptismal neck Cross. (The Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan of Canada, Ilarion Ohienko, proudly wore a Cross-Trident on his Panaghia, where the Cross was a full three-bar Orthodox one!)
The Cross-Trident in the form bequeathed to us by Saint Volodymyr the Great should also be used by all Ukrainian organizations. Let's remember that the two characteristic "B's" on either side of the Trident's central portion refer to Christ as the "King of kings" - without the Cross, the sense of the Trident is lost!
There should likewise be a concerted effort, by the Diaspora as well as in Ukraine, to petition the Ukrainian Government to adopt the full Cross-Trident as the Great Coat of Arms of Ukraine and to have it placed on the Ukrainian national flag.
The Cross-Trident should likewise help renew interest in, and veneration of, the great Sovereigns of Kyivan Rus', Saint Volodymyr the Great, Saint Yaroslav the Wise and their descendants, together, of course, with Saint Clement and the our ancient Christian tradition of Kherson. May the Cross-Trident anchor us all in the faith of our great ancestors!
Alexander Roman, PhD