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 Apóllôn (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. [5]

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. [6] 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. [7]


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, [8] but later in the book, Guthrie gives evidence otherwise, when commenting on the toy, the tuft of wool. [9]

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 [10]. 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." [11]

The mirror is mentioned in Nόnnos (Νόννος) of Panopolítis (Πανοπολίτης). [12]

Then we have Plátôn (Πλάτων) from the Republic [13]:

Σωκράτης: For this is he who is able to make not only vessels of every kind, but plants and animals, himself and all other things--the earth and heaven, and the things which are in heaven or under the earth; he makes the Gods also.

Γλαύκων: He must be a wizard and no mistake.

Σωκράτης: Oh! you are incredulous, are you? Do you mean that there is no such maker or creator, or that in one sense there might be a maker of all these things but in another not? Do you see that there is a way in which you could make them all yourself?

Γλαύκων: What way?

Σωκράτης: An easy way enough; or rather, there are many ways in which the feat might be quickly and easily accomplished, none quicker than that of turning a mirror round and round--you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth and yourself, and other animals and plants, and all the, other things of which we were just now speaking, in the mirror.

Γλαύκων: Yes, he said; but they would be appearances only.”

Plátôn (Πλάτων) from the Tímaios [14]:

“And knowing that this lower principle in man would not comprehend reason, and even if attaining to some degree of perception would never naturally care for rational notions, but that it would be especially led by phantoms and visions night and day--planning to make this very weakness serve a purpose, God combined with it the liver and placed it in the house of the lower nature, contriving that it should be solid and smooth, and bright and sweet, and should also have a bitter quality in order that the power of thought, which proceeds from the mind, might be reflected as in a mirror which receives likenesses of objects and gives back images of them to the sight, and so might strike terror into the desires when, making use of the bitter part of the liver, to which it is akin, it comes threatening and invading, and diffusing this bitter element swiftly through the whole liver produces colors like bile, and contracting every part makes it wrinkled and rough, and twisting out of its right place and contorting the lobe and closing and shutting up the vessels and gates causes pain and loathing. And the converse happens when some gentle inspiration of the understanding pictures images of an opposite character, and allays the bile and bitterness by refusing to stir or touch the nature opposed to itself, but by making use of the natural sweetness of the liver corrects all things and makes them to be right and smooth and free, and renders the portion of the soul which resides about the liver happy and joyful, enabling it to pass the night in peace, and to practice divination in sleep, inasmuch as it has no share in mind and reason. For the authors of our being, remembering the command of their father when he bade them create the human race as good as they could, that they might correct our inferior parts and make them to attain a measure of truth, placed in the liver the seat of divination. And herein is a proof that God has given the art of divination not to the wisdom, but to the foolishness of man. No man, when in his wits, attains prophetic truth and inspiration, but when he receives the inspired word, either his intelligence is enthralled in sleep or he is demented by some distemper or possession. And he who would understand what he remembers to have been said, whether in a dream or when he was awake, by the prophetic and inspired nature, or would determine by reason the meaning of the apparitions which he has seen, and what indications they afford to this man or that, of past, present, or future good and evil, must first recover his wits. But, while he continues demented, he cannot judge of the visions which he sees or the words which he utters; the ancient saying is very true--that ‘only a man who has his wits can act or judge about himself and his own affairs.’ And for this reason it is customary to appoint interpreters to be judges of the true inspiration. Some persons call them prophets, being blind to the fact that they are only the expositors of dark sayings and visions, and are not to be called prophets at all, but only interpreters of prophecy.”

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."

Plátôn (Πλάτων) from the Laws [15]:

“Let us look at the matter thus: May we not conceive each of us living being s to be a puppet of the Gods, either their plaything only, or created with a purpose – which of the two we cannot certainly know? But we do know, that these affections in us are like cords and strings, which pull us different and opposite ways, and to opposite actions; and herein lies the difference between virtue and vice. According to the argument there is one among these cords which every man ought to grasp and never let go, but to pull with it against all the rest; and this is the sacred and golden cord of reason, called by us the common law of the State; there are others which are hard and of iron, but this one is soft because golden; and there are several other kinds. Now we ought always to co-operate with the lead of the best, which is law. For inasmuch as reason is beautiful and gentle, and not violent, her rule must needs have ministers in order to help the golden principle in vanquishing the other principles. And thus the moral of the tale about our being puppets will not have been lost, and the meaning of the expression ‘superior or inferior to a man's self’ will become clearer; and the individual, attaining to right reason in this matter of pulling the strings of the puppet, should live according to its rule; while the city, receiving the same from some God or from one who has knowledge of these things, should embody it in a law, to be her guide in her dealings with herself and with other states. In this way virtue and vice will be more clearly distinguished by us. And when they have become clearer, education and other institutions will in like manner become clearer; and in particular that question of convivial entertainment, which may seem, perhaps, to have been a very trifling matter, and to have taken a great many more words than were necessary.”

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).

Plátôn (Πλάτων) from the Republic [16]:

“And suppose the objector to refine still further, and to draw the nice distinction that not only parts of tops, but whole tops, when they spin round with their pegs fixed on the spot, are at rest and in motion at the same time (and he may say the same of anything which revolves in the same spot), his objection would not be admitted by us, because in such cases things are not at rest and in motion in the same parts of themselves; we should rather say that they have both an axis and a circumference, and that the axis stands still, for there is no deviation from the perpendicular; and that the circumference goes round. But if, while revolving, the axis inclines either to the right or left, forwards or backwards, then in no point of view can they be at rest.”

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. [17]

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] Πολιτεία Πλάτωνος 10.596 d. Trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

[14] Τίμαιος Πλάτωνος 71. Trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

[15] Νόμοι Πλάτωνος 644 d. Trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

[16] Πολιτεία Πλάτωνος 436 d. Trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

[17] Ibid. Guthrie, p. 121.

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