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Ianiskos. The divine boy-healer


Statue of a boy with a goose
National Archaeological Museum
Sculpture Collection Γ 2772

Provenance: Sanctuary in Ancient Lilaia, Mount Parnassus, Phokis

Dimensions: Height 86 cm

Date: Early 3rd century BC

Exhibition Place: Room 30


A chubby, nude, smiling boy, aged 4 to 7, wears a diadem called stephane on his short hair. Crossing his left leg in front of his right, he stands beside a four-sided support, on which he immobilizes a goose with his open left palm. In his closed right palm it was recently found that he is holding with his index finger an astragal (knucklebone) which is barely visible. The existence of the knucklebone opens up new perspectives for the interpretation of the statue and the identification of the child.

The statue in Parian marble was found in 1857 on the northern slope of Mount Parnassus – in the area of ancient Lillaia, a city in Phocis. It was discovered near the sources of the Kifissos River, at the site of Agia Eleousa, where there was probably a sanctuary dedicated to the river itself and to the Nymphs.[1]

The boy is smiling and showing a quiet strength. Perhaps he is wearing a diadem because he took part in a festival or a rite of age transition, as is probably indicated by his freshly cut hair, which was rather dedicated to a local deity. The knucklebone in his hand is the game par excellence for boys, in everyday life and in the sanctuaries, as Plato reveals to us when he describes boys playing in pairs after a religious ceremony with a sacrifice in the palaistra (sporting ground), wearing wreaths and festive clothes.[2] It is a kind of dice, the only difference being that the die is rolled to fall in six ways, while the knucklebone in only four. Among these only two are more likely, as two of its surfaces are wider than the others. The rolls excluded two and five and the optimal roll was called Venus, Midas or Hercules. FIG. 4. On the same principle, knucklebones were also used for divination. The boy of Lilaia holds the knucklebone with its “unusual” side.

The species of goose under the boy’s hand is the chenalopex (goose-fox), probably the brown goose Tadorna ferruginea, which is still found in northern Greece, Lesbos and the corresponding Turkish coast and is easily domesticated. The goose is associated with divination and positive oracles, and is considered a bird of wetlands, river banks, lakes and marshes. As an amphibian it moves between water and land and is the only bird that can swim thanks to the membranes of its feet, so it has access to the mortal world and the underworld.

The old archaeologist Ioannis Svoronos identified the boy with Ianiskos, the divine boy-healer and young son of the god Asklepios. By immobilizing the goose, the boy symbolically neutralizes the mythological creatures of the swamp that caused deadly fevers in young children. The knucklebone in the boy’s hand further emphasizes the avoidance of a deadly threat. The earliest Greek word for dice is kindynos (danger), as in the phrase rolling the ‘danger’. Later it came to denote not an object but the concept of danger.

From the Alexandrian poet Herondas, who wrote in the 3rd century BC short stories entitled Mimoi or Mimamboi (Mimes), we are informed that two women pilgrims at the sanctuary of Asklepios in Kos were impressed by a statue of a boy strangling a goose.[3]  Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD attributes the same or a similar statue to the Carthaginian sculptor Boethos, of the 4th century BC.[4] Many children’s statues in shrines hold knucklebones in their hands, probably in memory of a healing. Besides, in an ancient text, a little earlier than our sculpture, the story of the little patient Euphanes is told, who offers the god Asklepios his only possession as a reward for his healing: ten knucklebones.[5]


[1] The city took its name from Nymph Lilea who is believed to have been the daughter of Kifissos. The worship of the river is already mentioned in the Iliad. hom. Il. II 522-523: «οἱ τ’ἄρα πὰρ ποταμὸν Κηφισόν δῖον ἔναιον, οἱ τε Λίλαιν ἔχον πηγῆς ἐπὶ Κηφισοῖο…»

[2] plato, lysis 206 e 207 a cuf 1965: «Εἰσελθόντες δὲ κατελάβομεν αὐτόθι τεθυκότας τε τούς παῖδας καὶ τὰ περὶ τὰ ἱερεῖα σχεδόν τι ἤδη πεποιημένα, ἀστραγαλίζοντάς τε δὴ καί κεκοσμημένους ἅπαντας. Οἱ μὲν οὖν πολλοί ἐν τῇ αὐλῇ ἔπαιζον ἔξω, οἱ δὲ τινες τοῦ ἀποδυτηρίου ἐν γωνίᾳ ἠρτίαζον ἀστραγάλοις παμπόλλοις, ἐκ φορμίσκων τινῶν προαιρούμενοι. Τούτους δὲ περιέστασαν ἄλλοι θεωροῦντες…»

[3] herond. iv, 30-35: « Κυννώ: ἆ πρὸς Μοιρέων, τὴν χηναλώπεκα ὡς τὸ παιδίον πνίγει· πρὸ τῶν ποδῶν γοῦν, εἴ τι μὴ λίθος, τοὔργον, ἐρεῖς, λαλήσει. μᾶ, χρόνῳ κοτ᾽ ὥνθρωποι κἠς τοὺς λίθους ἕξουσι τὴν ζόην θεῖναι. »

[4] plin. hn 34, 84: Boëthi, quamquam argento melioris, infans eximium anserem strangulat.

[5] IG IV2 I.121-122: Εὐφάνης Ἐπιδαύριος παῖς. Οὗτος λιθιῶν ἐνε[κά]δευδε. ἔδοξε δὴ αὐτῶι ὁ θεός ἐπιστάς εἰπεῖν. “τί μοι δωσεῖς, αἴ τύ/κα ὑγιῆ ποιήσω”. αὐτός δὲ φάμεν “δέκ’ἀστραγάλους”. Τὸν δὲ θεὸν γελά/σαντα φάμεν νιν παυσεῖν. ἁμέρας δὲ γενομένας ὑγιής ἐξῆλθε.

Dr Despoina Ignatiadou



On thee find

Bobou O. 2015. Children in the Hellenistic World. Statues and Representations, Oxford , cat. no. 80.

Ignatiadou D – Papaikonomou I.-D., 2018. The knucklebone and the goose: playing and jeopardy for the boy of Lilaia, Board Game Studies XXI Annual Colloquium. “Dialogues and Interactions”, Athens 2018, Board Game Studies Journal Volume 16, Issue 1, 309–337 DOI: 10.2478/bgs-2022-0010.

Raftopoulou E.G. 2000. Figures enfantines du Musée national d’Athènes. Département des Sculptures, Munich.

Σβορώνος I. 1909. “Ιανίσκος, Ασκληπιός, Αρτιτόκος, Κοράσιον Ασκληπιού και Ανδρίσκος”, Αρχαιολογική Εφημερίς, 134-178, ιδ. 174-177.


On the subject

Arnott W.G. 2007. Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z, New York, 31.

Beaumont L. 2012. Childhood in Ancient Athens. Iconography and Social History, London – New York.

Edelstein J. – Edelstein L. 1945. Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Baltimore, 231.

Graf F. 2005. “Rolling the dice for an answer”, S.I. Johnston – P.T. Struck (eds), Mantikê. Studies in Ancient Divination, Leiden, 51-97.

Hamayon R. 2012. Jouer. Une étude anthropologique à partir d’exemples sibériens, Paris.

Papaikonomou I.-D. – Poplin F. 2013. “L’astragale en contexte funéraire. Amphipolis, Thasos et Abdère”, V. Dasen – U. Schädler (eds), Jeux et jouets gréco-romains, Archéothéma 31, 57.

Papaikonomou I.-D. 2006. “L’interprétation des “jouets” trouvés dans les tombes d’enfants d’Abdère”, A.-M. Guimier-Sorbets et alii (eds), Rois,Cités, Nécropoles : Institutions, Rites et Monuments en Macédoine (Mεελετήματα 45), Aθήνα, 239-249.

Papaoikonomou Y. 1981. “L’enfant aux astragales”, BCH 105, 255-263.

Raftopoulou E.G. 2000. Figures enfantines du Musée national d’Athènes. Département des Sculptures, Munich.

Rühfel H. 1984. Das Kind in der griechischen Kunst: von der minoisch-mykenischen Zeit bis zum Hellenismus, Mainz, 227-230, pl. 95, no. 167.

Schädler U. 1996. “Spielen Mit Astragalen”, AA 1, 61-73.

Schädler U. 2013. “À quoi joue-t-on ? Les osselets”, V. Dasen – U. Schädler (eds), Jeux et jouets gréco-romains, Archéothéma 31, 62.

Απαλοδήμος Ντ. Περιγραφικό λεξικό των πουλιών της Ελλάδος, Μουσείο Γουλανδρή Φυσικής Ιστορίας, Αθήνα, 45.

Ιγνατιάδου Δ. 2013. Διαφανής ύαλος για την αριστοκρατία της αρχαίας Μακεδονίας, Θεσσαλονίκη, 226, εικ. 188.

Καλτσάς Ν. 2002. Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο. Τα γλυπτά. Αθήνα

Κοκολάκης M.M. 1965. Μορφολογία της Κυβευτικής Μεταφοράς, Αθήναι, 23-41.

Ντάσιος Φ. 1992. Η περί τον Παρνασσόν χώρα. Αρχαιολογία 44, 56-63.

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