The Trident

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


The trisula expresses the power which produced the cosmos out of chaos. . . . Symbolizing the great mystery of life either in its inception or its continuance, it would equally symbolize the mystery of future life. Thus it became a sceptre in the hands of the gods, representing their highest attribution.

William Simpson

 When Parvati playfully covered Shiva's eyes with her hands, the world was plunged into a darkness which spawned a terrible birth. From the Great Lord's wrath at Parvati's insouciance and the sweat of her laughing palms, Andhaka the Blind was born. He was a demonic creature, blind both physically and spiritually, and unwillingly born. Shiva gave him up for adoption to the Asuras amongst whom he flourished, becoming a powerful demon-king who, through penances, received everything he desired. Perhaps it was out of an awareness of his origin or out of a dim sense of his destiny that Andhaka imposed upon himself his only limitation. He sealed his fate by vowing that he should be destroyed if ever he coveted the most excellent of women, for it was not long after that he set forth with his armies to win the queenly Parvati herself.

 A great battle ensued in which many thousands of daityas and noble ganas perished. Streams of blood soaked the rocky soil before the holy cave of Kailas. Crores of arrows and howling spears darkened the heavens and shrouded the great mountain in imminent death. Thereupon, Lord Shiva rose up against Andhaka and pierced through his body with his trisula. The blood from the three wounds gushed forth to be swallowed up by the shaktis of Shiva's bidding. Impaled upon the three-pronged trident, Andhaka's face became a horrifyingly vivid statement of twisted agony. His distorted open mouth seemed to howl his furious pain, and his sightless eyes bulged from a skull, creased and shrunk in the very outline of anguish. A sandstone image of his head, carved in the eleventh century, perfectly records this despair and anticipates the particular agony of modern man so powerfully captured in Edvard Munch's painting "The Cry".

 Andhaka's vow was fulfilled and thus he remained, transfixed, upon the lordly trident for a thousand years. Whilst his body withered into a skeleton, his heart became filled with submission, and a profound adoration of Shiva transformed his tortured soul. Eventually, the Lord restored his body and gave celestial status to this devotee who became, henceforth, Bhringi, a gana and Parvati's recognized son. Like the three eyes of Shiva, his wounds marked his complete conversion and vividly illustrated the trebling of power in an instrument with a familiar function that could be readily realized in a single point. The three points of the trisula suggest an extraordinary weapon. Its power could accomplish far more than the death of an adversary, for its wielder is both the wild Rudra and the Maha Yogin, Shiva, at once Destroyer, Creator and Preserver.

 The name trisula simply means 'three-pointed', whilst the term 'trident' refers to triple teeth, suggesting great fangs of lightning hurled with the thunderous roar of godly speech. The triplicity of the weapon suggests many triune sets depicting time, space and condition. Past, present and future lie in the hands only of its effortless user. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are all aligned in its awesome shape. Associated with lightning and the thunderbolt, the trident is the triple flame of heaven which weds fire and water in this world. It is the emblem of all the fiery gods, of the potencies and prolific fertility of water. The essential connection with water is more evident with the Greek god Poseidon than with Shiva or Dionysus, but the trident's energy offers many clues to convey the character of its owners and their mutual relationships. Just as Poseidon / Neptune rises from the sea, trident in hand, so the Maruts of Shiva are called 'Lightning-Speared', and the Rig Veda depicts how they rise up out of the ocean to shed fecundating rain. In association with fertility and storm gods, there is also a connection between the trident and the axe or hammer. To be struck by any of them held in the hands of a god generally connotes an immediate translation to heaven or, perhaps, an instantaneous initiation into the highest mystery. In inverted form this belief lingers on in the common superstition that anyone blaspheming God would be suddenly struck down by lightning, whilst the notion that lovers at first sight have been hit by the thunderbolt hearkens back directly to the electric power behind fertility, wherein fire and water merge.

 Agni dwelt in the waters of heaven in the form of Lightning.

Rig Veda

 In The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky identifies Poseidon as a "Dragon", the "Good and Perfect Serpent" who was the Messiah of the Naaseni. His identification with the Dragons is paralleled by an intimate association with the Titans and their siblings, the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), who forged for Poseidon his trident. Though much stress in Greek mythology is placed upon the amorous intrigues of Poseidon, in his older, more esoteric, character he is the counterpart of the Hindu Narayana, who crossed the horizon in three steps and who moves serenely upon the Waters of Space. So firmly is the trident associated in Hindu iconography with Shiva that one does not readily perceive its connection with Vishnu. The mark worn by Vaishnavites on their foreheads is, however, remarkably like a trident, and the stylized statues of Jagannath Puri perpetuate the same form in the person of Vishnu, his brother and sister. As Puri was formerly a Buddhist sanctuary and the trident was a frequently used symbol in Buddhist tradition, it is sometimes suggested that the three sibling deities may have descended from three trisulas there, which were venerated even before the reassertion of Brahmanism. Such speculation is somewhat inconclusive. There is nothing to indicate that the followers of Vishnu did not use the trident as a symbol from the earliest times. There is, after all, a suggestive overlapping of elements which is generally associated with either Vishnu or Shiva. The fiery and watery elements of the two gods conjoin in the mystical six-pointed star and aspects of both these forces can be traced to Poseidon.

 The evidence for the antiquity and wide diffusion of the trident is indeed abundant. In Egypt an inscription of Edfu relates how Horus was transformed into a winged globe in order to fight the armies of Set. For a weapon, he is shown using a three-pronged spear, whilst the winged disc itself resembles a Mesopotamian design which has horns atop the globe, shaped around an upraised knob, suggesting the form of a trident. The crowns of Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods often bore such horns, with a central pillar extending upwards between them. That such a motif should appear together with the winged globe is especially instructive, and their combined elements may be found in various forms of the caduceus. The transmission of ideas and symbols from ancient India to the Mediterranean world and back again was frequent and enormously productive of rich cross-fertilization. The caduceus has been associated since prehistoric times with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, but the trident has been called the caduceus of India by those who have recognized the similarity of elements in the two symbolic forms.

 Some have wondered if Shiva's weapon did not take its inspiration from the influence of the invading Greeks under Alexander, but this has not been substantiated archaeologically or historically. Independent of this, it is important to notice that the shafts of the tridents at Sanchi are entwined with what appear to be serpents. Shaivite tridents with a lingam between two curved serpents standing over an open disc are strikingly similar in form. Furthermore, many caducei, bearing what seems to be a phallus in the centre of a crescent, have been found in various parts of Greece and Anatolia. Variations of this shape can be traced in the three-branched 'Tree of Life' symbol and the three-petalled lotus that became the fleur-de-lis so closely associated with wealth and power among European royal families. Related expressions abound, but the fact remains that the most intensive focus upon the trident form as a ritual object in its own right has long continued in India. There, associated most strongly with Shiva, it is worshipped as a manifest aspect of that god, and to this day Shaivite sadhus walk from holy place to holy place carrying it as their staff of power, guidance and self-identity. Forged in metal or fashioned in crudely foil-covered cardboard, a trisula placed in the smallest cave along a Himalayan pilgrim's route renders it a miniature Kailas, where Shiva's presence is believed to be manifest.

 According to the Tamil Kanda Puranam, the hermits of the Taruka Forest were tricked by Shiva disguised as an irresistibly handsome beggar boy. With the enlisted assistance of Vishnu, who obligingly adopted the guise of a ravishing damsel, he evoked in the hermits and their wives an uncontrollable lust from which they emerged scandalized, shamed and seeking revenge. They made a great sacrificial fire out of which they commanded a tiger to leap forth and devour the god. Killing this beast, Shiva seized a mighty trident which they sent hurtling at him from the blaze and forthwith all the other missiles were tamed and rendered a part of his paraphernalia. Popular though this story remains, it does not attribute the trisula to a source even as lofty as that associated with the fabricators of Poseidon's mighty weapon. A more plausible paradigm for the origin of the trident is the story of Visvakarman, the architect or artificer of the gods, who designed the discus of Vishnu, the vajra of Indra and the trisula of Shiva, making them all from "parings of Surya the sun, which he put in a lathe and turned".

 As Rudra, Lord of Tears, Shiva rules the nether regions of Titans and Asuras. In treading the path of suffering, he descends as Bhairava, the awesome embodiment of terror. Howling in anger and pain, he wanders the world with a skull's bowl for begging and his trident in hand. He is the wild and unkempt outcast from the sacrificial fire of the gods. Like a madman, he roams and strikes an unsettling fear in the hearts of all who see him. In the forest with the hermits, he is seen as the lustful and naked god. He seems a libidinous youth who seduces the wives of proud ascetics and scatters his seed indiscriminately, shocking everyone with his daring tricks and putting their faith severely to the test. The hermits cried, "This Shiva who carries a trident has a body of ill omen. He has no modesty."

 Shiva is called the Lord of the Caves and the Lord of the Meeting Rivers, names which reflect his close connection with fertility. Though principally a fire god, he receives and controls Ganga as she descends into the world, and he presides over feminine Nature as she expresses herself in mountainous caverns and cross-fertilizing waters. It is in such places that the fiery spark of generation is incubated and spawned. The Svetasvatara Upanishad portrays Shiva's yoga body of fire as the wild god appeared at the dawn of creation, a hunter sure of his target. As Agni, he prepared the seed of life for the Father (who would become Prajapati), compelling him to procreate. As Rudra, he lashes back against the Father's violation of the virginal plenum. He is both the cause of generation and its avenger. Triggering the terrible force that is refracted by the mystery of procreation, Shiva participates in the discharge that will produce conditioned existence but also rises up as a fiery tower of yoga before the archetypally mating couple. Rising up thus, he assumes the shape of the lingam, which is the pivotal seed-point that embodies the potential five elements and senses as well as other sets of five comprising all the diverse realms of existence.

He is powerful, this policeman!
Broke off the hands and feet of water
Lopped off the nose and ears of fire
Behead the winds
And impaled the sky on a stake.

Allama Prabh

 The resemblance of the outer prongs of the trisula to a bull's horns relates to Nandi, Shiva's vahan, but also to Shiva himself, who is praised in the Mahabharata as "Bull of Bulls" and elsewhere called "the Rider of the Bull". It is, perhaps, significant that the zebu bull (of which Nandi is a lordly example) possesses enormous fecundating powers. Symbolically, Nandi signifies this creative potency transmuted into intellectual command. He who is known as a manifestation of Dharma in all his earthy ferocity and ethereal graciousness represents controlled virility. Rudra / Shiva as the bull-god can be traced back to the ancient Harappan civilization and probably beyond. Thousands of years ago Indus Valley artisans moulded a mysterious design showing a horned, ithyphallic god seated in a lotus position. From either side of his head emerge mighty crescent horns, whose tips arch back towards a high pillar that projects straight up from the middle of the somewhat bovine head. The perfect human body illustrates the classic pose of a yogi. The arms are extended out in a triangle to the knees and the feet are brought together at the groin, from which an upright phallus stands. The complex associations here were echoed in similar Shaivite bull-deities found in Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and, during the Minoan flowering, on the island of Crete. From the sixth millennium B.C. there was a steady spread of Shaivism to the West. The images connected with these cults incorporated many of the elements of the ithyphallic god, often including serpents and the Lady of the Mountains.

 Emerging from the East and manifesting many of these qualities, Dionysus came to exemplify a dramatic contrast to the ordered Apollonian outlook of the Hellenic world. Associated with bhakti, creative eroticism, rapture, phallic consecration and friendship with Nature, Dionysus, like Shiva, had his gentle and terrible aspects. Whereas Shiva is called Nichichara ('Night-Prowler'), Dionysus was known as Nyktipolos, which means the same thing. Both gods roamed wildly and were recognized as 'He who maddens women' or 'He with no modesty'. They both exemplified the path of suffering, Dionysus becoming the sacrificial victim when torn apart in the form of a bull and Shiva wandering among the graveyards and ash-heaps of the world. Wherever and in whatever form he appeared, the bull-god, with the trident in his hand or on his head, was always associated with the lightning virility of the mind which, in its lower aspects, spilt over into the liquid fertility of the sea. Thus, Hermes wore horns and carried a caduceus, a sublime symbol of the pivotal power of involution and evolution of the human spirit, whilst in popular myth Poseidon was known chiefly for his libidinous profligacy.

 Poseidon's trident is said to have been originally a lightning bolt which became a symbol of his sovereignty over the Deep. His three-pronged instrument is very much like that of the Mesopotamian gods Marduk or Baal, and his cult is thought to have travelled first to Crete and thence to the Helladic mainland. By Homer's time he had been placed in the Greek pantheon of gods as the son of Kronos and Rhea and given the domain of the sea. Some believed his home was in the sea near Aigai, and Homer showed how he harassed Odysseus throughout his journey home to Ithaca for the killing of his son Polyphemus. He was called the Mighty Supporter of the Earth, which he could cause to quake by rocking the waters that bore it up. With great greenish locks of tangled hair and a strangely powerful form, he was grim to look upon and moody and imperious in his ways. Poseidon's control of the watery element linked him firmly with the growth of life. He was the god of fertility whose elemental powers seemed to have little to do with the intellect, let alone the yogic aspect of other bull-gods. Probing deeper, however, one discerns that the Deep over which Poseidon reigned supreme was filled with nereids, oceanids, nymphs, mermaids and tritons who were often human in shape. It is apparent that the sea in which they evolved is the great astral matrix which nurtured the elemental forms that mark Nature's attempt to sculpt the perfect man. Socrates, in speaking of these mysteries, suggested that the s in Poseidon (Ποσειδων) may well have originally been a double l in the name Pollaeidos (Πολλάειδως), which refers to 'the god who knows many things'. If he overbrooded a long process of evolution, this would seem to be an epithet which was singularly apposite.

 Though Zeus reigns over the Fourth Race, it is Poseidon who rules, and who is the true key to the triad of the Kronid Brothers and to our human races.

The Secret Doctrine, ii 766

 Poseidon is, in distinction to Narayana, the personification of the creative spirit of the Atlanteans as well as their vices. Kronos or Saturn is said to have governed the earlier Lemurian Race, wherein the lighting up of Manas and the first acts of bestiality took place. Accordingly, Saturn (or Shiva) oversaw the Fall of the Manasas into form and eventual degradation, and yet he embodies the key to self-conscious emancipation. Over the Atlantean recapitulation of this process as well as the increasingly conscious abuses of power which characterized that Race, Poseidon reigned supreme. In his reflected manifestation in ancient Greek myth he continued to display the same higher creative potency but also plumbed the depths of riotous animality, throwing up all sorts of monstrous forms, along with the sublime. When one considers the span and the overlap of the Races and Sub-Races of humanity, it is like many wheels within wheels that are superimposed upon one another. The Atlantean Race, as a whole, was at least eight million years in duration and its last remnant disappeared only eleven thousand years ago. The Greeks represent a subdivision of the European family race which continues to persist and has its origins in the last few thousand years of the Aryan Fifth Race that goes back to a seed which developed in the middle of the Atlantean Race and came into its own a million years ago. Thus, the Helladic expression of ancient ideas associated with the trident and the bull-god represent the recapitulation in a short cycle of archetypal themes coming down from the astral impresses of earlier Root Races and Sub-Races.

 In the Minoan cycle the bull-god played a major role. Some have seen a connection between him and the bull-Dionysus of Thrace, though the trident and bull were ritually sacred at Knossos and Phaestos long before the advent of that vine-leafed god. At Knossos a sacrifice was made to the Minoan deity every nine years. One may recall that seven maids and seven youths had to be sent by the early Greeks for this purpose, a practice which suggests the ancient pattern of regicide wherein the king, bearing the title of Minos, was dispatched to the underworld accompanied by fourteen dedicated servants. With the story of Minos and Pasiphae, one sees that the bull originally sent by Poseidon was beautiful but that it was the queen's unnatural love for it that produced the monstrous Minotaur. The bull-god to which sacrifices were made was not the Minotaur eventually slain by Theseus. The later Greek myths that expounded this theme went to great lengths to show that Theseus was the son of Poseidon and therefore played a valid part in completing a cycle which involved the assistance and liberation of Ariadne (the soul), who eventually became the bride of Dionysus (the bull-god).

 The major religious relics of the old Minoan culture provide wonderful clues revealing links between the ancient iconography of the ithyphallic cults that spread into the West and the more familiar trident of Shiva and Poseidon. Three essential objects formed the core of Minoan ritual - the phallic pillar, the horns of the bull and the double axe. The last, of course, shares the basic symbolism associated with the trident and hammer, evoking thunder, rain and fertility. It was called labrys, from which the term 'labyrinth' derives. The horns were the emblem of the suffering god who was sacrificed, in the form of a bull, whilst the axe placed between the horns produced a trident-shaped relic used as a ritual object in Minoan shrines. In the great religious games held at Knossos, individuals leapt up through the horns of a charging bull, becoming, momentarily, the central axe of the trident. They were also, for that fleeting second, the central phallic pillar rising up between the great crescents of the bull's curving horns. This was the most powerful symbol of all, for the phallus is the container of the seed which is shed only through sacrifice. It contains the bindu, the 'limit point' which is the infinitesimal transition between the unmanifest and the manifest. The body of the bull-leaper must have resembled in silhouette the Shaivite emblem of the lingam rising up between the two curved serpents, whose bodies elsewhere entwined downward along the rod of the caduceus.

 With the advent of Kali Yuga, the corruption of these ancient concepts spread through the West and was chronicled in the many myths that included themes of lust, incest, ever-materializing consciousness and bestiality. These marked a recycling of old Atlantean patterns as well as the development of a Dark Age. Early Hebrews and Christians, reacting against the degradations of earlier wisdom, indulged on occasion in cunning distortions of ancient names and symbols. Thus Hebrew authors gave to the saviour-god, Baal, attributes of evil just as the Christians perceived Bacchus (Dionysus) and Pan, with his horns and cloven hooves, as earthbound cousins of the licentious Poseidon. In fact, the Judaeo-Christian tradition turned the ancient gods upside down, lumped their attributes together, and came up with the goat-like, phallic-sporting, trident (pitchfork)-bearing Devil. In this shrivelled and caricatured shape of evil, one sees the final degradation of the ancient bull-god, of the noble crescent on Shiva's brow, of the sacred lingam still worshipped by millions, and of the fiery trident which broods over the Akashic Ocean of Life. With this tragic inversion of ideas, the Karma of Israel plays itself out in the world, echoing yet an even older Karma begun long ago in Atlantean times.

 Though primeval ideas were badly obfuscated, the keys to understanding them are still to be found in the old symbols which, even after and despite their degradation, persist as accurate expressions of inner, inviolable truths about the cosmos and human development. H.P. Blavatsky pointed out that the dolphin, besides being the vehicle of Poseidon, was "one with him, esoterically". As such, Poseidon is one with Makara, he "who converts into a sphere the dodecagonal pyramid". He is Makara who has five ministers (the Kumaras) and who floats upon (not in) the water, and is thus intimately involved in the birth of the spiritual microcosm. The Akashic waters over which he hovers are to him a mirror of mind, a matrix in which the tri-pointed spark of consciousness will take birth. Amphitrite is the ocean's own daughter, that very sea in which the Kumaras will be conceived and which has harboured all the forms, monstrous and sublime, leading to that of man. Out of the chaos of her infinite womb the seed of the lingam, flanked by the crescent horns of sacrifice, fell into time and conditioned existence.

 The Kumaras are the progeny of Lord Shiva, the Maha Yogin of the Mind-Born. In them the soul of all the elements, with fire and water predominating, dwells, enshrining the link between their fiery parent god and Vishnu-Narayana. After the sacrifice of the divine seed and the prolonged suffering that accompanies its obscuration in the world, the mighty Maha Yogin reveals how man can rise up from amongst the phantasmagoria floating in the astral depths of the mother. By focussing upon the pivotal seed-point which can release a heaven-bound flash of enlightenment within the mind, an individual follows the way shown by the Lord of Consciousness. Like the lingam itself, the wise serve as a link between struggling humanity and the sacred force of divine creativity. Transmitting the seed of generation into the spiritual power of the mind, these enlightened beings complete the cycle of the sacrificed bull-god who falls, through his progeny, into the world and rises up as a saviour of humanity. As with the caduceus, the fiery power of the trident-bearing god moves downward and upward, completing a cycle within the curves of its outer prongs. The central prong is the solar channel of the seed, whilst the outer ones are the lunar crescents of sacrifice, cycles of time, fertility and growth. Together, they eloquently express controlled virility, the erect but restrained attitude of the Maha Yogin, the shining paradigm and patron of all true yogins and yoginis.

Ages pass before my unseeing eyes.
I look out on an ancient landscape,
Undulating, shimmering between the horns;
Arching, granite curves atop a Cyclopean terrace.

The great horns float out beyond the hills
And hover o'er the mother sea.
A dolphin flies between their prongs,
Its bright flanks blinding my eyes.

In the darkness of his cave, Shiva appears,
His Kailas height rises up between the horns
And I am swept beyond time and place.
I leap between their arching curves.