Kylix attributed to Douris

Jessica Lamont
Jessica Lamont is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. Her interests revolve around Greek religion in 5th century Attika. She excavates in the Athenian Agora, and is currently away at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as the Michael Jameson Fellow.

  • Accession Number: JHUAM B9
  • Measurements: Height: 9.6 cm, Diameter: 29.7 cm
  • Material: Ceramic
  • Date/Culture: Greek, 480-470 BCE
  • Provenance: The Baltimore Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America

A detail of the image in the tondo.

This red-figure vessel provides a glimpse into the world of play: a quiet, intimate scene of top-spinning. On the right is a youth enveloped in his mantle. Both the boy and the bearded figure beside him are mesmerized by the whirling toy. The man wears a chlamys and the traveler’s cap that often characterize Hermes. In his upraised hand is a stick, from which three strings hang. These dangling strands, painted in red, are now quite faded. This instrument was used to strike the top, causing it to spin. For this reason, it is known as a “whipping top.”

An image of the back.

The top, with its cylindrical body and pointed base, was a common children’s toy in ancient Greece. The earliest tops come from the Geometric period, and have been found in sanctuaries, where they were dedicated as votives. Perhaps the youth, teetering on the edge of manhood, is dedicating his childhood top to Hermes. This rite of passage is captured in the Greek Anthology VI 309:

“To Hermes… he hangs toys of his boyhood: his noiseless ball, this boxwood rattle, the knuckle-bones he had such mania for, and his spinning-top.”