The magic sphere of Helios-Apollo is a marble sphere discovered in 1866 on a hill outside the Temple of Dionysus in Athens, Greece.
During antiquity, the temple was a sanctuary in dedication to Dionysus, the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and festivity in the ancient Greek religion.
The sanctuary was first constructed around the 6th century BC, with a theatre being constructed adjacent to the temple in 530 BC. The association of Dionysus with wine and its resulting inspiration meant the god was also honoured in relation to literature.
After the conquest of Greece by Sulla and the partial destruction of Athens in 86 BC, the sanctuary and theatre were later repurposed by the Romans to be used for performances and gladiatorial combat.
During the 19th century, the sanctuary and surrounding area was excavated by Prof Athanasios Rhousopoulos, a grand collector-academic art dealer who was known to be associated with a network of secondary dealers and tomb robbers that engaged in the trafficking of antiquities.
Rhousopoulos’s excavations uncovered a 30 cm marble sphere covered with what appeared to be “magical” symbols.
A study in 1913 by Belgian Hellenist, Armand L. Delatte, concluded that the sphere was buried near the theatre as an ancient talisman for luck in the games. This association was based on Delatte’s belief that some of the symbols showed strategies for winning an athletic or theatrical contest. This was further supported with the gladiatorial connection, as the sphere has been dated to the 2nd-3rd century AD during the Roman period.
However, a more recent study by Nick Farrell proposes that the sphere was an ancient spirit house, a type of stone or jewel that could hold a spirit (whose name he suggests is carved on the sphere’s crown by the word “ΙΞ̣ΙΔΕϹΙ”) and could be called upon for assistance.
The sphere is dominated by four scenes, in which the first depicts the image of a man with a solar halo. Delatte interpreted the image to be Helios, the god and personification of the sun, often described as the son of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, and brother of the goddesses Selene (the Moon) and Eos (the Dawn).
He is shown sitting on a throne beneath an arch, flanked by two dogs that could symbolise the sky’s bright “dog stars”: Sirius and Prokyon.
The second scene shows a circle containing five intersecting circles marked with the words: ΑΙΘΑΕΡ, ΑΝΑΒΠΑ, ΑΝΝΙΑΕΥ, ΕΔΕΒΩΠ̣Ι, and ΑΠΙΟΒΙ, whilst three of the intersecting circles are marked with ΕΥΠΑΡ̣ΕϹ, ΑΧΦΕΙ and ΑΘΕΛΑ. Underneath the circles are collections of letters arranged as ΧΧΧ, ΔΔΔΔ and ΗΗΗΗ.
The third scene shows a circle containing a triangle, in which the left angle has the letters ΑΔΑΞΑΞΒΕΝΒΕΝΒΛΩΘΝΩΜΑΖΟΜΟΗΡ, the second angle ΟΖΩΡΟΥΘΕΝΑΑΕΞΑΒΙΟΥΡΟ̣ΑΙΛΕΜΒΡΑΕΡ, and the base ΧΧΧ ΠΠΠΠ ΦΦΦΦ̣Φ̣ΦΦ̣ ΔΔΔΔ ΛΛΛΛ ΛΛΛΛ.
The last scene shows a large depiction of a lion, with ΘΑ̣Δ̣ΕΙΗΤ and ΠΔΔΔΔΔΗ inscribed on each foot.
The remainder of the sphere is filled with astral and geometrical symbols, a snake, numbers and incomprehensible inscriptions, with the only identifiable word being ΑΙΘΑΕΡ, the first of nature’s five elements (ether, earth, water, fire and air).
Header Image Credit : David Carey – Dreamstime ©