The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – The Symbolism of the Broken Trident
In relatively recent times, more individuals than one have expressed their consternation with the emblem of the broken trident in the national flag, and its representation in the recently revealed National Monument, claiming an association thereby with Satanism.
Given that there has been no general protest during the previous fifty years of its existence, and given that any depiction of Satan and therefore of whatever objects he may not may not carry is clearly a matter purely of artistic imagination and creative impression, this current outcry during the jubilee of our Independent status might be considered as premised exclusively on zealous excess and may perhaps be owed to the increased visibility of the national standard at this time.
As most of us have learnt, the broken trident signifies principally the delinking of Barbados from Great Britain, whose female personification was Britannia, which served as an emblem of British power. Some may recall the jingoistic boast at the height of Empire that “Britannia rules the waves…”. Britannia carries a three pronged fork or trident in most depictions; an implement that is also carried by Neptune, or his Greek counterpart, Poseidon.
The link of Barbados to the trident of Britannia has been emphasized time and again throughout our history, once finding pride of place on our colonial flag, on the colonial badge, on our coinage, and on our stamps. Any internet Google search for the images of “seal of the Colony of Barbados” will cogently reveal this association.
So far as the link to Satan is concerned, one historian’s answer to the question, “Why is the Devil often portrayed with a pitchfork?” on the website “Ask Historians” makes for intriguing reading.
According to the narrative, “most of the physical features of the modern image of the Devil developed through the mediaeval period as the Devil became more real to Christians as he began to stalk the earth in the minds of ecclesiastics”. He notes that “these physical features are not of Biblical representation”.
Since there was no text to provide guidance as to the appropriate representation, mediaevalists were constrained to revert to formalism– the way of interpreting literature or art that stresses the heavy or exclusive dominance of traditional standard images or motifs, perpetual coded formulas of representation and description. According to one mediaevalist, Norman Cantor, “the traditional standardized images and motifs are privileged and centered in this view of mediaeval visual and literary art while individual creativity and original discovery are marginalized or excluded altogether”.
He views this formalist approach as ideological –“ the great preponderance of images and motifs was inherited from Greco –Roman Classical art and literature or from the thought world of the Church Fathers…which in turn was a product of the interaction of Biblical ideas with the classical tradition”.
Given this thesis, it should be unsurprising that most depictions of Jesus and Mary are cast in their traditional purely Caucasian form and it might equally be considered prudent on the part of Islam to regard any man-made image or representation of the Prophet to be blasphemous.
Earliest 10th century representations of the Devil depict him with a three-pronged pitchfork, herding souls away from Jesus and steering them into Hell.
According to one historian, Jeffrey Burton Russell, the Devil’s “pitchfork” derives in part from the ancient trident, such as that carried by Poseidon that symbolizes threefold power over the Earth air and sea [Greek mythology], in part from symbols of death, and in part from the instruments used in hell for the torture of the damned [ Biblical ideas].
Conversely, the anonymous author of the piece queries “if the devil were to be made to appear in the real world, why should not that image appear in the real world?”.
His thesis is that the Romans had a two-pronged pitchfork for light work but. in Northern Europe , where the soil was heavier and more clayey, the three-pronged pitchfork was developed in the early middle ages.
He reasons that farming communities grew up around the mediaeval abbeys, thus suffusing the daily existence of their inhabitants, the monastics, with the sights, sounds and smells of the peasantry and rural life. Pitchforks would have been a frequent sight in these environs.
Given that the pitchfork of the Devil first appeared in the second half of the early Middle Ages in the minds of ecclesiastical writers and artists; the monks and bishops, he queries whether these creative would not have more likely drawn their inspiration from the peasantry whom they saw daily than from Greek and Roman images of a millennium before.
Indeed, he compares the use of the fork by the Devil to winnow or shepherd away the souls of the ungodly with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that employs the identical imagery from the opposite perspective-
“His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
According to the thesis of the author, in the portrayal of good and evil “good” is mainly associated with the rich who are thought of as pure and the determiners of what is good and what is evil. The “bad” is associated with all those others who were not similarly blessed to have been born wealthy and thus have to work for a living. Their habits were also seen as bad. According to accepted dogma, the ultimate symbols of bad or evil were hell and the Devil. Hence, according to his argument, the pitchfork used by the poor peasants became associated with evil because of its association with what the good in society considered “bad”.
This attractive argument, in my view, serves to refute the affirmation that the trident on our flag is to be associated with Devil worship as some have posited. In any case, the broken trident should logically suggest that we have weaned ourselves away from what the unbroken object is assumed to signify, in this case, Evil.
It is with some hesitation that I make this last point however, since the broken trident in our flag is supposed to denote a political advance on our former status in those days when the entire trident was an integral part of our landmarks. And yet we have seen it fit to retain the epitome of Britannia in the personages of Her Majesty, her heirs and assigns as our Head of state in perpetuity. One may well ask, “Is the trident really broken?”