With its lust red and xanthos yellow colours, paraded between the Italian tricolour and the European Union royal blue, the Sicilian flag cuts a dashing figure as it flutters outside every town hall on the island. But only when a gust of wind blows, does it unscarf its full composition.
The background is bisected diagonally into two triangles – respectively red and yellow – and in the centre, three legs burgeon from a head surrounded by lustrous curls and a pair of wings. Three ears of wheat complete the exotic-looking montage.
Though it became the official public flag only twenty years ago, its composition recounts a complex and interesting story. Let us begin with the easy part: the red and yellow background.
These two colours represent the cities of Palermo (red) and Corleone (yellow) who were the first to rise up in insurrection against the Angevins in 1282 in the episode that has come to be known as the Sicilian Vespers. They were adopted into the flag in 1943 by the separatist movement who campaigned for the annexation of Sicily to the United States. And whilst the movement is no longer, the colours have come to represent resilience and independence.
The three legs are a variant on a symbol known as the triskele which is found in a variety of forms throughout the ancient world – from Mycanae, to Celtic triple spirals, to the Indian swastika. It has been associated with Sicily since at the least the Greek times and is found on coins minted in Siracusa from the 4th century BC.
The Greeks identified Sicily as the Homeric land of Thrinacia (Θρινακίη from θρῖναξ “trident”) – the island of Helios’s cattle – which was reinterpreted as Trinacria – meaning simply, “with three headlands” – (Τρινακρία, from τρεῖς and ἄκραι). These three headlands were, Capo Peloro in the East, Capo Pachino in the South and Capo Boeo in the West and the three legs in the Sicilian triskele are intended to represent the three capes of the island.
What all these triskele-like designs have in common is that they are symbols of eternity. In the Zoroastrian religion of Ancient Persia, for example, it was understood to be a symbol of the sun and its constant course through the sky – and hence, by derivation, eternity. The symbol is likely to have been adopted by the Greeks as what was known as the tetragammadion – τετραγαμμάδιον – in other words, four Greek letter gammas (Γ) placed each at 90 degrees to each other in a clockwise rotation. And thence to the triskele.
The figure in the middle of the three legs is usually described as a Medusa (also known as Gorgo). In Greek mythology, she was one of three sisters, and had the power to turn anyone who gazed upon her to stone. According to the legend, she was beheaded by Perseus who used her head (which still retained this power) as a weapon to petrify his enemies. And in the same story, it is told that when Perseus beheaded the Medusa, the winged hose of Pegasus sprang from her body.
These Gorgon figures were often used by the Greeks to decorate the architraves and metopes of their temples and there are some fine examples of those that once adorned the temple of Athena in the archaeological museum in Siracusa. Of course, more than mere decoration, their function was to cast off the evil eye, deter demons and maintain the sanctuary of the temple precinct.
The same symbol was later adopted by the Romans and there is a fine depiction of the head of the Medusa in the floor of the Roman Villa at Marsala.
However, the other interpretation I have heard for the head in the middle of the flag (and the one proposed by Raleigh Trevelyan) is that in fact it depicts Apollo. This could well be true since, for the Greeks, Sicily was the island of the sun and Apollo was the god who drove the chariot of the sun through the course of the sky. If we consider the triskele also as a symbol of the sun’s course through the firmament, this would indeed make sense. Furthermore, although they are a modern addition to the assemblage (c. 1848) this would also explain the wings either side of the head as being the wings of Apollo. The presence of the Temple of Apollo in Siracusa perhaps adds further weight to this theory.
What then do the three ears of wheat represent? For the Romans, at least until the conquest of Egypt, Sicily was the granary of Rome. Vast swathes of native forest were cleared to create the latifundia – or feudal estates – where the wheat would then be grown and harvested by slaves before being shipped off to the bakeries of Rome.
It is not coincidental therefore that Sicily is also known as “Persephone’s island”. And as with all things, the Greeks had had a legend to explain it.
There were cults to Demeter all around the Greek world – the most important one being at Elefsina near to Athens in Attica. However, in Sicily the goddess Demeter lived near a lake – Pergusa – in the centre of the island. She was identified as the Goddess of Fertility and Agriculture.
The story goes that her daughter Persephone was abducted into the underworld by Hades – the entrance to which is usually identified as the source of the River Ciane near Siracusa. Demeter roamed the island for many years searching for her daughter, and when she eventually found her, made a deal with Hades that for six months she would stay in the Underworld with him and six months she would return to live with her mother. It was in the six months that Persephone lived with her mother that Demeter was content – and allowed things to grow. This was the Spring and the Summer. And hence gave rise to the explanation of the cycle of the Seasons.
The three ears of wheat therefore remind us of the importance of agriculture on the island, but also the significance of Sicily as a provider of wheat to the Romans.
The other question that is often asked is the association between the Sicilian flag and the symbol of the Isle of Man.
I have found no satisfactory answer. However, several interesting hypotheses present themselves. One is that it is merely a coincidence. We have already mentioned the Celtic triskele – for example, the one found on the slab at the entrance to the megalithic tomb at Newgrange in Ireland dating from around 3200 BC and it is quite possible that it arrived in the Isle of Man from there. Furthermore primordial symbols such as these are often found scattered across the globe, giving the impression of an apparent connection whilst often it might be purely incidental.
Another is that it was brought to the Isle of Man by the Carthaginians. Though this seems far-fetched, we known that the Carthaginians arrived as far as Cornwall in the search for tin. (Tin was used in making Bronze). However, to my knowledge, there is no evidence of the Carthaginians in the Isle of Man, which makes me think of this theory as a little implausible.
A further hypothesis is that it is via a connection from the rule of the Isle of Man in the thirteenth century by the Scottish Kings and their apparent connection to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily 1198-1250. Even though there is no evidence Frederick every used the triskele, it apparently appears in German architecture of the thirteenth century. It is an interesting speculation, but again, the connection seems tenuous at best.
Furthermore, despite the claim that the connection of the triskele to the Isle of Man goes back to the thirteenth century, it was not adopted into their flag until the 1920s.
The hypothesis put forward by Raleigh Trevelyan is that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time the Isle of Man was looking for a symbol, all things Sicilian were in vogue. And hence, they just happened to borrow it. It is certainly a plausible explanation.
There is one further curiosity concerning the triskele: it is apparently found on the gold medal of the Battle of Maida presented to officers who fought in it.
All of us know of “Maida Vale” in London, but I would wager that few of us stop to question the origin of its name. It is named after the Battle of Maida, which took place in Southern Italy on 4th July 1806, during the Napoleonic wars and involved a clash between a British expeditionary force and the French.
The river Maida is a meandering, reed-filled stream in Calabria and if you are travelling on the motorway towards Reggio Calabria, you will see it signed on the side of the road about 5km south of Lamezia Terme. The connection with Sicily is that the British forces set sail from Messina.
I have not done sufficient research on this, so what comes next is mere conjecture: however at that time there was a British Regiment garrisoned at Milazzo. (There is a British cemetery beneath the castle walls that dates form this time). Furthermore, the button from the tunic which was found in the famous “cage of Milazzo” was from the 27th Inniskilling Regiment. And this regiment is listed as having fought at Maida Vale.
Could it be that the heroes of Maida Vale were the ones who had been garrisoned here in Milazzo? It is tempting to think so.
Sicily is an island of history and its flag is a mere distillation of a part of this history. But as with everything else connected to the island, its telling is never straightforward…