The trident is a powerful symbol as well as a robust weapon and tool. It’s been used as both by many civilizations throughout history and it’s very much alive in modern culture as well. But what exactly is the trident, where did it originate and what does it symbolize?
What is the Trident Symbol?
Simply put, the trident is a three-pronged spear with all three of its tips typically situated in a straight line. The three prongs are also usually of the same length although there’s some variation in that regard depending on the weapon’s exact purpose.
The term “trident” quite literally means “three teeth” in Latin or “threefold” in Greek. There are also 2- and 4-prong variations of the trident with 5- and 6-prongs variants existing mostly just in pop-culture and fantasy. 2-pronged tridents are called bidents, and sometimes pitchforks, although pitchforks typically have three tines.
As a symbol, the trident is often associated with marine deities such as Poseidon and Neptune because the weapon was most commonly used for fishing. Both tridents and especially bidents/pitchforks can also symbolize rebellions.
Peaceful Uses for the Trident
The trident’s traditional use is as a fishing tool, with the three prongs increasing the chance for successfully spearing a fish. Most cultures have also used standard spears for fishing before the invention of fishing rods and nets, however, the trident has proven to be far superior for that purpose than a normal spear or a bident.
Instead of for fishing, the pitchfork’s intended use is for handling bales of hay instead. Still, the trident has also served a purpose in agriculture as a tool for removing leaves, buds, and seeds from plants.
The Trident as a Weapon of War
The trident has also been used as a weapon of war, usually by lower-class people who didn’t have the means to afford a more sophisticated weapon. As a fighting weapon, both the trident and bident are typically inferior to the spear as the latter’s single point offered more effective penetration.
However, both the trident and the bident compensate for that by helping less-skilled combatants land successful hits with ease. Additionally, tridents crafted specifically for war were often made with an elongated middle prong – this allowed for a powerful initial contact, similar to that of a spear as well as the chance of still harming the opponent even if you missed them with the middle prong.
Tridents have even been used in martial arts. A prime example of that is the Korean dang pa trident which was exceedingly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Tridents in the Arena
The trident is especially legendary as a gladiatorial weapon. Roman, Greek, Thracian, and other gladiators often used a combination of a trident, a small, throwable fishing net, and a buckler shield to fight in gladiator arenas all across the Roman Empire. They were often called “net fighters.”
The combination was effective as it offered the gladiator superior range, an easy to use weapon, and an ensnaring tool. It was mostly used for the entertainment of the masses, however, as a simple sword and shield was still a more effective combination.
Nevertheless, as several of the larger rebellions across the Roman Empire included gladiators in them, the trident was often identified as a symbol of people’s uprising alongside the pitchfork.
The Tridents of Poseidon and Neptune
Despite its uses in war or on the sands of the arena, the trident is still best-known as a fishing tool. As such, it’s also been the symbol of various sea deities such as the Greek god of the sea Poseidon and his Roman equivalent Neptune. In fact, even today the symbol for the planet Neptune in both astronomy and astrology is the lower-case Greek letter psi, commonly referred to as the “trident symbol” – ♆.
As the myth goes, the cyclopes forged the trident as a weapon for Poseidon. One of the best known myths involving Poseidon’s trident relates to him striking the ground (or a rock) with the trident, causing a salwater spring to gush forth. This indicates the power of Poseidon’s trident and his dominion over the seas.
Naturally, in the hands of powerful deities like Neptune and Poseidon, the trident was viewed as a fearsome weapon, capable of causing devastating tsunamis and sinking entire armadas of warships.
The Trident and Other Marine Deities and Mythological Creatures
Even in Greek and Roman mythologies, Poseidon and Neptune were far from the only characters wielding tridents. Other marine dwellers also favored the trident such as the Tritons (mermen), the Nereids (mermaids), the titan Nereus, as well as the common Old Man of the Sea persona which was often used to symbolize any of the above.
In the hands of either of these beings, the trident served both as a fishing tool, capable of killing and carrying giant fish, sea serpents, dolphins, as well as a weapon capable of destroying boats and ships.
Tridents in Hindu and Thaoism Mythologies
While it was most popular in the Greko-Roman world, the trident was also used as a symbol across the globe as well.
In Hinduism, for example, the trident or trishula was the weapon of choice of the famous god Shiva. In his hands, the trident was both a devastating weapon and a symbol of the three gunas (modes of existence, tendencies, qualities) of Indian Vedic philosophy – sattva, rajas, and tamas (balance, passion, and chaos).
In Taoism, the trident was also quite symbolic. There, it represented the Thaoist Trinity of gods or the Three Pure Ones – Yuanshi, Lingbao, and Daode Tianzun.
Even though tridents are no longer used for fishing or war, they remain a prominent symbol in modern pop-culture. Famous modern comic book characters such as Aquaman, Namor, and Proxima Midnight wield tridents as do many other characters in fantasy literature and video games.
The trident is also a symbol of numerous military, political, and civilian organizations. And then, there’s also the famous Britannia – the personification of the United Kingdom, a shieldmaiden wielding a large trident.
Tridents are also a popular tattoo design, symbolizing the strength and power of the gods. It’s often chosen by men and is typically paired with nautical themes, such as waves, fish and dragons.
As an ancient weapon and tool, the trident is both a practical object and a symbolic image. It can be found around the globe, with variations in different mythologies and cultures. Tridents continue to represent power and authority, most notably that of Poseidon and his equivalents.