The History Behind the Ukrainian Trident

The Ukrainian Trident, a.k.a. the Sign of Princely State of Volodymyr the Great is the official coat of arms of Ukraine. But where does it even come from? Read on to learn more about its fascinating history.

Is It Really A Trident?

You don’t necessarily expect Ukrainians to associate themselves with the sea. Granted, they do have the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coast, but there is a lot of other stuff going on. To have a trident as a national symbol makes sense for Barbados (they have it on their flag), but Ukraine?

The Ukrainian trident is actually a medieval symbol. It’s associated with the Kievan Rus’ state. Most historians agree that it’s not really a three-pronged spear that the symbol stands for. In fact, it hardly has anything to do with the sea at all.

Going Back To The Origins

Kievan Rus’ was a federation of Slavic tribes that existed between the late 9th to the mid-13th century. Kievan Rus’ reached its greatest extent and power in the early 11th century. It started declining around the end of the century and by 1240 it fell to the Mongol invasion.

Kievan Rus’ was ruled over by the Rurik dynasty. The dynasty is named after the legendary Rurik, who gained control of Ladoga in 862 and essentially established the state. Today, Lagoda is just a village. Back in the Middle Ages, it was a key trade outpost, mostly dominated by Scandinavians. It’s considered to be the first capital of Russia (and definitely proven to be the first capital of Kievan Rus’).

Rurik and his descendants were, in fact, Scandinavians. The name Rus’ was actually referring to Germanic tribes like the Swedes, not to Slavs.

Either way, the trident’s origins lie right into that Scandinavian past. Except it was not a trident back then…

A Falcon And A Cross

Historians agree that the Ukrainian trident doesn’t depict a spear. Rather, it’s a symbol of the Holy Trinity. How do you depict the Holy Trinity? A falcon flying over a cross (respectively the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son).

You can see the falcon over a cross symbol all around Scandinavia and North-Western Russia. The symbol has been found in Lagoda (the first Kievan Rus’ capital). Vikings liked it, too. Olaf Guthfrithsson, who ruled over Dublin and Viking Northumbria in the 10th century, had them on his coins.

But Why A Falcon?

Ukrainian Trident

If you are going to depict the Holy Spirit, why not use a dove? Falcons seem a bit too aggressive, right?

Actually, it’s a bit of a double meaning. Falconry has always been a sport of the nobility. By consequence, the falcon became a symbol of the monarchy.

There is more to it, too. In Christianity, an untamed falcon symbolizes the non-believers. It is an aggressive, powerful animal. When tamed, the falcon can be used for hunting and it’s seen as a noble bird. A tamed falcon symbolises the Christian convert, who is now blind to worldly pursuits (much like falcons are kept blinded) but still courageous and powerful.

When Did It Turn Into A Trident?

The origin is clear. It makes sense that you would use symbols of Christianity and the monarchy for a state that is based on Christianity and monarchy.

The first time we see an actual trident is on Prince Volodymyr the Great’s silver and gold coins. It is unlikely that he came up with it himself. More likely, Prince Volodymyr inherited it from his ancestors and was simply the first to put a trident on coins. Volodymyr’s father Sviatoslav I of Kiev, had used a bident with a cross over it as his seal. His grandsons adopted the trident as their coat of arms.

Let’s Pause and Talk about Volodymyr

Or shall we say, Saint Vladimir? He was the guy who Christianized Kievan Rus’ and he is venerated by Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike.

Persecution against Christians was not uncommon during his early rule. When a mob straight-up killed a Christian man and his son (making them the first martyrs of Kievan Rus’), Volodymyr did nothing. It was obvious that pagan beliefs weren’t working too well for his country (you really don’t want your subjects to be killing each other) but the Prince took his sweet time, deciding on a religion for everyone.

He considered Islam, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Byzantine Orthodoxy, a.k.a. all the popular “Western” religions at the time. He wasn’t going to go to China and learn about their beliefs. Asia was a completely different world at this point.

Ultimately, Volodymyr decided on Orthodox Christianity. To quote his envoys to Constantinople:

We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth… We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.

But maybe it wasn’t just that. Islam was not desirable because it doesn’t allow pork or alcohol. Volodymyr himself said Drinking is the joy of all Rus’. We cannot exist without that pleasure. As for Judaism, he thought the loss of Jerusalem was proof enough that God had abandoned the Jewish. Finally, a Byzantine alliance came with a lot more political gains than choosing Roman Catholicism ever could.

Whatever his motivation might have been, hats off for taking the time to consider options. Open-mindedness is not something you usually associate with the Middle Ages.

So, How Did It End Up As The Ukrainian Trident Again?

Kievan Rus’ was in the Middle Ages. The coat of arms wasn’t adopted until the early 20th century. How come?

Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a leading historian of the time, proposed it. It was meant to symbolise the connection between modern-day Ukraine and the once almighty state of Kievan Rus’. To be completely fair, there are three countries nowadays that like to think of themselves as the descendants of Kievan Rus’. Ukraine is one but you also have Russia and Belarus.

Either way, the Ukrainian trident officially became the coat of arms on 25 February 1918 of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The republic didn’t last, sadly. It only existed until 1921. After that, the Soviets took over and Ukraine became Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (or Ukrainian SSR for short).

It wasn’t until the fall of the USSR that Ukraine was independent again.

The Ukrainian Trident As A Symbol Of Independence

Ukrainian Trident

Today, the trident is a symbol of independence and resistance against foreign invaders. The three-fingered hand salute also resembles a trident. It was used by independents in the 80s and is the logo of the nationalist All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda”. Svoboda is a weird mix between socialist and nationalist (did I just call them Nazis?). To quote their doctrine:

The revolution will not end with the establishment of the Ukrainian state, but will go on to establish equal opportunities for all people to create and share material and spiritual values and in this respect the national revolution is also a social one.

They are not decidedly right-wing (political observers have noted that they shifted toward the centre in recent years). Besides, not everything Westerners associate with right-wing holds true in Eastern Europe. For instance, anti-communism is basically equal to freedom here. The communists were the evil dictators for decades. It’s not exactly like having a slightly too liberal cousin who lives in a commune.

Other Uses Of The Ukrainian Trident

Since the official symbol of the Soviet Union was a hammer and sickle, using any other coat of arms was open rebellion. The trident has symbolised independence and freedom not only for Ukrainians but also for (their not so beloved) neighbours, the Russians.

The trident was put over Russia’s tricolour (a.k.a. what is now the flag of Russia) and used as a symbol of anticommunism. The National Alliance of Russian Solidarists was a Russian anticommunist organization based in Belgrade (then Yugoslavia). They used the trident over a tricolour as their flag.

Of course, the Soviets were not exactly pleased with NTS’s propaganda. To quote the Wikipedia page, they responded:

via several methods including arrests, assassination attempts, kidnappings, counterpropaganda, and diplomatic pressure

One prominent NTS member was so badly beaten up during his kidnapping, he didn’t even make it to USSR, dying from the trauma in transit. Anti-communist resistance was no joke back then.

The trident is a part of that history of struggles against what seemed an all-powerful, radically evil regimen. It’s a reminder that freedom and independence came at a price. Today, the Ukrainian trident (whether as an image or in the three-fingered sign) holds more significance than most coat of arms. To the Ukrainian people, it’s a bold statement of hope, fight against injustice, and the ultimate triumph of what is right. Call me melodramatic, but I think this is pretty cool. You know, for a symbol that started out as a badly stylized falcon.

Did you know the history of the Ukrainian trident? If not, what surprised you most? Let us know in the comments below. Happy travels (and props for taking the time to learn about Ukrainian culture)!

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