The Seven Toys of Diónysos (Dionysus, Διόνυσος) are a symbol of the Mystíria (the Mysteries; Gr. Μυστήρια). They are thought of as laying in a basket which, in the ancient language is Kístî (Kistê, Κίστη). The Kísti is referred to as the Basket of the Mysteries. This is sometimes represented on the altar by a basket lined with a red cloth and containing bread.

In the mythology, the Seven Toys were given to Zagréfs (Zagreus, Ζαγρεὐς) by the Titánæs (Titans, Τιτᾶνες) to lure him away from the thunderbolts of power which were given to him by his father, Zefs (Ζεύς). Having successfully entranced the young God, the Titans cut him to pieces and ate of his flesh. Athiná (Athena, Ἀθηνᾶ) rescued his still beating heart, placed it in a silver box, and delivered it to Zefs, who sewed it into his thigh, to be reborn as Diónysos. The limbs of Zagréfs were entrusted to Apóllohn (Apollo, Ἀπόλλων) who then interred them at Mount Parnassós (Parnassus, Παρνασσός).


Klímîs of Alæxándreia and the Toys of Diónysos

According to the Christian church father, Klímîs (Clement of Alexandria, Κλήμης ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς), the Seven Toys of Diónysos are as follows:

1. Mirror (Ǽsoptron, Ἔσοπτρον)

2. Knuckle-Bones (Astrágalos or 'dice;' Ἀστράγαλος)

3. Sphere (Sphaira, Σφαῖρᾰ)

4. Top (Rómvos, Ρόμβος)

5. Apple (Míla, Μῆλα)

6. Cone (Kóhnos, Κῶνος [Orphic verses] or Stróvilos, Στρόβιλος [Clement])

7. Pókos (Πόκος, tuft of wool or donkey hair)

The above list is found in the below quotation:

"The Mysteries of Dionysus are of a perfectly savage character. He was yet a child, and the Curetes were dancing around him with warlike movement, when the Titans stealthily drew near. First they beguiled him with childish toys, and then,---these very Titans---tore him to pieces, though he was but an infant. Orpheus of Thrace, the poet of the Initiation, speaks of the...

'Top, wheel and jointed dolls, with beauteous fruit

Of gold from the clear-voiced Hesperides’ (Ἑσπερίδες, the Nymphs of the orchard of Íra [Hera, Ἥρα] where grew apples which bestowed immortality).

And it is worthwhile to quote the worthless symbols of this rite of yours in order to excite condemnation: the knuckle-bone, the ball, the spinning-top, apples, wheel, mirror, fleece!" [1]

Arnóvios of Síkka and the Toys of Diónysos

Arnóvios (Arnobius, Αρνόβιος) of Síkka Ouænæría (Sicca Veneria, Σίκκα Οὐενερία, modern El Kef in Tunisia) was another Christian apologist from the era of the emperor Diocletian. He gives a shorter but almost identical list. It is likely that he had access to Clement's work, which was a century before that of Arnobius, so he may simply be accessing the earlier text:

" Liber (Διόνυσος), when taken up with boyish sports, was torn asunder by the Titans; how he was cut up limb by limb by them also, and thrown into pots that he might be cooked; how Jupiter, allured by the sweet savour, rushed unbidden to the meal, and discovering what had been done, overwhelmed the revellers with his terrible thunder, and hurled them to the lowest part of Tartarus. As evidence and proof of which, the Thracian bard (Orphéfs, Ὀρφεύς) handed down in his poems the dice, mirror, tops, hoops, and smooth balls, and golden apples taken from the virgin Hesperides." [2]

This text was translated from Latin; the words which this translator renders as "hoops" are volubiles rotulas, which is a spinning wheel.

EPIPHÁNIOS of Salamis and the Toys of Dionysos

The next quotation is from the early church father Epiphanios (Ἐπιφάνιος; 315 [approx.] – 403 C. E.), the bishop of Salamís (Σαλαμίς):

“And (we know of) the kettledrums (τύμπανα) and the sacrificial cakes (πόπανα), the rómvos (ῥόμβος) and basket (κάλαθος), the wool (ἐρέα) worked out to completion, and the cymbal (κύμβαλον) and kykæón (κυκεὼν), all furnished with a drinking-cup (ἔκπωμα), etc.” [3] (trans. by the author)

The above quotations are from Christian authors who are trying to humiliate our religion, so this must be taken into account; their lists are given here because, despite their origin, they are the most complete sources from antiquity which enumerate the toys. Where Klímîs and Arnóvios obtained their information is unclear. [4]

In reality, it is not so strange that initiates would be unwilling to divulge the secrets of the Mysteries, because they believed in their great sanctity. On the other hand, there is some rumor that Christians fooled the priests in order to enter the initiation and later divulge secrets, but this is not certain. The existence of the toys is not the invention of Christian writers; nor is the tradition concerning the toys of late origin, only found in the Christian era; reference to the toys is found in non-Christian literature, both predating and during the Christian era.


The Gurob Papyri and the Toys of Diónysos

We have yet another mention of the Toys, a Greek text from the Gurob Papyri, where there is mention of a basket with a cone, top, knuckle-bones, and mirror, and this all in relationship to Diónysos in a brief but distinctly Orphic fragment. [4]

ε>ἰς τὸν κάλαθον ἐμβαλῖν

κ>ῶνος ῥόμβος ἀστράγαλοι

ἡ ἔσοπτρος

“Place in the basket:

cone (κῶνος), rómvos (ῥόμβος), knucklebones (ἀστράγαλοι),

the mirror (ἔσοπτρος).” (trans. by the author)

This text comes from the latter part of the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, about 250 BCE. [5] The extant text is fragmentary at this very section, so the rest of the toys were likely in this list.

The Sanctuary of the Káveiri at Thívai and the Toys of Diónysos

In the excavations of the Sanctuary of the Káveiri (Cabeiri, Κάβειροι) at Thívai (Thebes, Θῆβαι) in Viohtía (Boeotia, Βοιωτία) pottery and statuettes have been uncovered depicting a child (παῖς) which would seem to be Diónysos-Zagréfs. Also found were votive offerings in the shape of spinning tops and knuckle-bones, some made of bronze and some of pottery. [6]


Thus, we have a story of a child-God given seven toys, but do these toys have some kind of meaning? The German scholar C. A. Lobeck did not think so, as we find in W. K. C. Guthrie's book on Orphéfs, [7] but later in the book, Guthrie gives evidence otherwise, when commenting on the toy, the tuft of wool. [8]

Other than brief quotations which give reference to certain of the toys, the Mirror in particular, there is little information to be found in the writings of antiquity concerning the Toys of Diónysos. Nonetheless, discussion of the words designating each toy and the associations they have in Greek religion shed some light on their meaning.

Mirror (Ǽsoptron, Ἔσοπτρον)

Plôtínos (Plôtinus, Πλωτῖνος) speaks of the mirror [9]. It is also discussed by Próklos (Proclus, Πρόκλος):

"Formerly also by theologists, a mirror was assumed as a symbol of aptitude, to the intellectual completion of the universe. Hence they say, Vulcan (Ἥφαιστος) made a mirror for Dionysius, or Bacchus, into which the God looking, and beholding the image of himself, proceeded into the whole partible fabrication of things." [10]

The mirror is mentioned in Nόnnos (Νόννος) of Panopolítis (Πανοπολίτης). [11]

Knuckle-Bones (Astrágalos or 'dice;' Ἀστράγαλος)

In the quotation from Klímîs of Alæxándreia, we have the "limb-moving rattles," at least that is the translation given. The Greek from which this translator renders this is παίγνια καμπεσίγυια, which is obscure; καμπεσίγυια is "limb-moving," but παίγνια is "play, sport, or game," so perhaps this may be a then-common moniker for the knuckle-bone game, the knuckle-bone being one of the components of the limbs. It has also been translated as a "doll with moving limbs."

Sphere (Sphaira, Σφαῖρᾰ)

Top (Rómvos, Ρόμβος)

The word rómvos is etymologically related to the verb ῥέμβω, which means "to turn in circles;" rómvos is a noun which denotes something which has that same quality. It is known that the rómvos can be a bull-roarer or a top and various other things, such as a tambourines or kettledrums. The rómvos is also a name for the penis. The word is frequently associated with the Mystíria and the cult of Diónysos and Rǽa (Rhea, Ῥέα).

Cf. below to CONE.

Golden Apple of Æspærídæs (Mílon, Μῆλον)Klímîs of Alæxándreia says that one of the toys was a Golden Apple, a fruit which bestows Immortality, for Zagréfs will rise again after his dismemberment. The Golden Apple comes from a tree protected by the Æspærídæs (Hesperides, Ἑσπερίδες). This tree was a gift to Queen Íra (Hera, Ήρα) by Yaia (Gaia, Γαῖα) on her wedding day. The Æspærídæs are daughters of Nyx (Night, Νύξ), lovely Nýmphai (Nymphs, Νύμφαι) who are Goddesses of the Night and the golden sunsets.

Cone (Kóhnos, Κῶνος [Orphic verses] or Stróvilos, Στρόβιλος [Clement])

Klímîs of Alæxándreia, after quoting the Orphic verse (see above), substitutes the word στρόβιλος for the cone in the list of seven. The translator renders στρόβιλος as "hoop," but στρόβιλος, according to the Greek lexicon of Liddell & Scott, is nowhere defined as a hoop, but is called a ball or even a top, but it is also a name of the pine tree, and likely is here used as a type of nickname meaning the pine cone, which is a symbol of Diónysos. [12]

Tuft of Hair (Pókos; Gr. Πόκος, tuft of wool or donkey hair)

(More to come.)


[1] Λόγος Προτρεπτικὸς πρὸς Ἕλληνας Κλήμεντος του Ἀλεξανδρέως, 2.176, trans. G. W. Butterworth, 1919.

[2] Arnobius Adversus Nationes 5.19, trans. Hamilton Bryce and Hugh Campbell, 1886.)

[3] Ἐπιφάνιος Cathol. et Apostol. Eccles. fidei expos. 10 p. 506 Oehl. (Orphic frag. 34)

[4] See Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries by George E. Mylonas, 1961, p. 287.

[5] Orphic Fragment 31 Papyri tertii a. Chr. saec. fragmentum in vico Gurob repertum et editum cum commentario bonae doctrinae plenissimo a J. Gilbart Smyly Greek Papyri from Gurôb Dublin 1921 n. 1 tab. I. II; edo ex tabulae imagine et apographo mihi a Smylyo comiter misso. Gurôb Papyrus Col. 1: lines 28-30.

[6] Source: Illahun, Kahun and Gurob: 1889-1890 by W. F. Petrie, Chapter IX.64 The Greek Papyri by A. H. Sayce, p. 34.

[7] See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W.K.C. Guthrie, 1935. We are using the 1993 reprint published by Princeton Univ. Press (Princeton, NJ USA), pp. 123-124.

[8] Ibid. Guthrie, p. 121.

[9] Ibid. Guthrie, pp. 121-122.

[10] Ἐννεάδες Πλωτίνου 4.3.12. This quotation is Kern Orphic fragment 209.

[11] σχόλιον Πρόκλου επί Τιμαίου Πλάτωνος 33b, trans. Thomas Taylor, 1820.

[12] Διονυσιακά Νόννου 6.171.

[13] Ibid. Guthrie, p. 121.

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