Spinning tops

Material: Clay
Provenance: Sanctuary of Kabeiros and Child, near Thebes.
Date: 5th century BC
Dimensions: Height 11,2 cm. and base diam. 8,6 cm.
Exhibition place: Room 56, Case 142, no. 5 (inv. no. 10444).

These spinning tops, one black glazed and the other displaying a branch of ivy leaves across the central zone, were dedicated at the sanctuary of Kabeiros and the Child near Thebes. Mystery rites took place there, to ensure the fertility of humans, flocks and the earth and to protect youths during transitional stages in their life. The ivy leaves suggest ritual banqueting, one of the features of the Kabeiric cult, and the Dionysiac atmosphere that pervaded such banquets, since Kabeiros displays features of the god Dionysos.

Spinning tops were one of the favourite toys of children and young women, as is shown by representations on vases. Even the patron god of children's games, Hermes is depicted enjoying playing with such a toy. Tops existed in prehistoric times, but became common from the Archaic era onwards. Made of wood or often of clay, some were decorated with ivy leaves, antefixes or animals.

Various types of spinning tops have been preserved and the existence of various ancient designations for the toy and the game might be due to this fact. The simplest variations consist of plain discs perforated in the middle to receive the rotation peg or of discoids with a conical knob on both sides. The cylindrical type of top, with one pointed end, was the most usual form. It was turned by means of a string or a type of whip rolled around the cylindrical body of the toy. The furrows across the cylindrical body were intended for this function. The addition of metal pieces created sound and made the game more amusing.

A white-ground lekythos of the Vlastos - Serpieri Collection (inv. no. BΣ 5) exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum (Room 65, Case 15, no. 5) shows two young women playing with a spinning top. The subject depicted on such a vase employed exclusively for funerary purposes implies death in youth. The word strobiloi (the ancient Greek term for 'spinning top' in the plural) is often mentioned in papyri concerned with magic.

Βibliography: H. Winnefeld, "Das Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben", Athenische Mitteilungen, 426-427 fig. 18. Μ. Fitta (eds), Spiele und Spielzeug in der Antike. Unterhaltung und Vergnugen im Altertum, Stuttgart 1998) 76-78. G.G. Kavvadias, Ο Ζωγράφος του Sabouroff, Δημοσιεύματα του Αρχαιολογικού Δελτίου αρ. 71, Athens 2000, 123 and note. 865.

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Position in the museum