There are various theories about the origins and meaning of the trident. As a symbol, it has been found in various countries, including Ukraine, and used in a number of ways: as a religious and military emblem, as a heraldic device, as a state emblem, as a monogram and simply as a decorative design. At present, the trident – “tryzub” in Ukrainian – is the official coat of arms of Ukraine. The oldest examples of the trident discovered by archeologists on Ukrainian territory date back to the first century AD.
As a state emblem, the trident dates back to the medieval empire of Kyivan Rus’, when it was the coat of arms of several members of the ruling dynasty. At that time, the trident was stamped on gold and silver coins issued by Prince Volodymyr the Great, who might have inherited the bident of his father Sviatoslav the Conqueror as a dynastic coat of arms and modified it to a trident. The latter was also used on silver coins of Volodymyr’s son Yaroslav (later called the Wise), probably during the period when he was governor of the city of Novgorod the Great, or Novgorod Velikii. Several other contemporary and later princes reverted to using the bident again as their coat of arms.
The trident appeared not only on coins but also on bricks of the Church of the Tithes in Kyiv, on tiles of the Dormition Cathedral in Volodymyr-Volynskyi (one of the major towns of that period), and on stones of other churches, castles and palaces. It continued to be used until the 15th century – often in some modified form – as a dynastic coat of arms of some of the ruling families in countries that emerged from Kyivan Rus’.
Additionally, the trident was also used as a religious symbol in Ukrainian folklore and church heraldry, or as a decorative element on ceramics, weapons, rings, medallions, seals and manuscripts. The wide use of the trident in Kyivan Rus’ resulted in its evolving in many directions without losing its basic structure. Some of these variations were its forerunner, the bident; the trident with a cross on one of the prongs, or at the side; and the trident with a crescent moon.
In modern times, upon the recommendation of historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ukraine’s first president, Grand Prince Volodymyr’s trident was adopted as the coat of arms of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) in 1918. By that act, the UNR leaders linked their modern Ukrainian state with the medieval empire of Kyivan Rus’. The trident, which also appeared on Ukraine’s bank notes, was further retained as the official coat of arms by subsequent Ukrainian governments, i.e., the Hetman Government (Hetmante) and the Directory Government.
A trident with a crossed central prong was also confirmed in 1918 as the emblem of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet. In 1939, the Diet of Carpatho-Ukraine, the short-lived independent Ukrainian state that emerged from Czecho-Slovakia, adopted the trident with a cross as its official coat of arms. Finally, in 1992, following the restoration of Ukraine’s independence the previous year, Ukraine’s Parliament adopted the trident as the chief element in its coat of arms. The trident is today shown on Ukraine’s monetary emissions (coins as well as some bank notes or their watermark) and on its postage stamps.