The Toys of Dionysos

Numbered among the toys of Dionysos are a knuckle bone, (Thomas Taylor gives it as an ankle bone), a ball, tops, apples, a mirror and a lump of wool. Before we look at the significance of these it is important to retell the story and their part in it.

When Dionysos was a child he was defended all around by the Kuretes, as was Zeus. There is scope here for identifying the child with the Father or King of the Gods. However the Titans insinuated themselves into his presence, in the version that Guthrie gives us, by distracting him with toys and baubles. When he was distracted the Titans took hold of him and tore him apart, devouring his flesh and only his heart was saved by Athena. So much for the gory telling of this ancient fable.

What could it mean, other than an excuse for aberrant behaviour? Behaviour, it is declared, Orpheus tried to stop and reform with his insights and disciplines. The story goes on that this became his fate in turn.

Since this is concerned with the death and resurrection of Dionysos, it could well represent in that initiatic order the same story as that of Hiram Abiff among Freemasons facing the masters degree, which also deals with the death of the hero. These tales will be told in due course in their rightful place, for the moment let’s look at the ‘toys’ he had to play with. They are clearly more than this or they would not be mentioned. It is important not to dismiss them, as some academics have, as mere trinkets to serve as a distraction.

Kerenyi in The Gods of the Greeks lists the toys as ‘dice, ball, top, golden apples, bull-roarer and wool’. He has mentioned the mirror earlier, adding that the child was fascinated by his own image. In the cleansing of the statue of Narayana, Vishnu, one of the instruments used is that of a mirror. Another is a fan. Kerenyi also tells us that ‘the number of Titans who murdered the first Dionysos is expressly stated to have been two.’ (p.254). He suggests that it may have been the very Kuretes who were supposed to protect the child. But let’s not get too scholarly.

Where Taylor gives ‘a pine nut’ we can safely assume a pine cone. Bernhard Wosien, a living representative of the Orphic Apollonian tradition, said that the pine cone was a symbol for the Tree of Life since, when it fell and its petals opened, it formed another little tree. But we have only to look at the symbols on the Hand of Dionysos to see the pine cone holds a pivotal place.

Since the tale is entirely concerned with the tearing apart of the child – and various different versions of this tale occur – we can assume that the ‘lump of wool’ means uncarded wool. This is wool in its raw state prior to teasing out with teasel and comb to become useable.

A similar idea is expressed in the Masonic tradition as the polishing of the ashlar, the rough hewn stone, before it is polished into being the perfect ashlar.

This leaves us with variously a wheel, tops, and knuckle bone or dice. The symbol of the wheel is evident enough and can be applied in many different situations in the awakening of the self. Not least of all being, as the modern phrase has it, ‘what goes around comes around’ or, simply said, Karma.

One of the wheels of dharma at the temple of Kornak India

While a top may have been included for other reasons, that they are plural in number suggests to me that one of them is a spindle used in spinning the wool. It may be here that the wheel finds its place also. Are we simply looking at rites from an ancient sheep rearing community? Among the images Plato uses is that the Earth is suspended on a spindle turning incessantly beneath the pole star. This will explain why the Fates are shown as weaving the thread of life.

But the other important aspect of the top is that spinning on its axis keeps it aloft and erect. We are put in mind of Hermes spinning on his toes as he surveys the Heavens.

As a child I was introduced to knuckles, not the game where boys try rapping the other across the back of the hand, but the game in which shapes are thrown into the air and caught on the back of the hand. The commercial form of these ‘knuckles’ were of six angled pieces of metal with balls at each end of the spikes.

Commercial Knuckles

In this way the mind of the labourer is constantly turning things over in his (or her) mind, looking at a problem from all angles to see the likely and best outcome. This is the process referred to in Alchemy as the digestion, when applied to a mental condition. By identifying these as dice implies gambling that I feel was alien to the original intention.