You know what’s coming up this weekend, right? I fear to type the word lest sports enthusiast descend upon us. Everyone says they only watch it for the commercials, and I admit, that’s a big part of why I tune in too. Of course, with the news lately, the NFL isn’t exactly drawing a loyal crowd anymore. The players are overpaid thugs and the league officials aren’t much better. None the less, there are always a lot of people planning to sit through the entire eight hours of coverage – not even including the game itself – beer in hand, chips, pizza and rowdy friends all within arm’s reach.
Everyone has their favourite team too, and I will refrain from taking sides here, since the fan base can be more rabid than Ancient Alien proponents. But in the end, what really decides the outcome of the game? Is it skill? Teamwork? Planning? Sponsorships? Performance enhancing drugs?
How much of a role does luck play in this contest?
I know, I know, your team doesn’t need luck. But what if you could enhance your team’s chances for foisting that giant silver cup into the air? What if you could do something more than not shaving until they win, or wearing the same socks and underwear every day of the playoffs?
In ancient Greece – the culture that gave birth to the very idea of competitive sports – they took things into their own hands…their own magic hands.
You see, some of the Greeks, superstitious as they were, took to carving elaborate magic spheres out of marble and burying them on the “playing field” so as to enhance the luck of whichever champion they were backing (and likely betting on).
A single surviving example of one of these magical spheres sits in the collection of the Acropolis Museum of Athens. It was discovered during a dig in 1866 by archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and apparently, scoundrel, Prof Athanasios Rhousopoulos, buried in the hill just outside the temple of Dionysus.
It’s a relatively obscure bit of Greek history, but like any other aspect of their culture, it related directly to their pantheon of gods.
This particular sphere, known only as The Magic Sphere of the Museum of Athens, is a marble ball, approximately 30 cm in diameter (11.8 inches), covered with ornate carvings. It shows a relief carving of what archaeologist Armand L. Delatte believes is the god Helios.
“With the right hand, he holds one partly mutilated whip, the other a long sceptre which relies on land and ends up with three small torches. At its feet, left and right, are sitting two dogs …”
This seemingly indicates that, much like today, sports fans were wont to invoke the blessings of their favourite deity even 2,300 years ago.
Appearing on the reverse, is a bearded snake coiled around itself and a lion seated majestically. And in the space between these two reliefs are many symbols and lines of text, which were, presumably, incantations to affect whatever magic the artisan required. A number of the images, including the dogs and the lion, represent astrological symbols. Delatte suggests there is a connection to the month of August, and perhaps the god Atlas. Interestingly, on what one might call the bottom of the sphere, is a carved representation of the playing field, displaying what look like the play notes you’d expect to find on the clipboard of the head coach of any football team.
Dated to the 2nd or 3rd Century BCE, this sphere was created during the time of the Roman annexation of Greece, a period of great upheaval throughout the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Within the inscriptions are hints at hidden or forgotten Greek alphabets, alchemical knowledge, and ties to the barbarian past of the Greek peoples.
Being a unique find, much of what we know about this sphere is based on abstract interpretation of the symbols and carvings. Delatte, who was the first (and apparently the only) archaeologist to have taken a close look at the stone in 1918, drew strong parallels between the iconography on this piece to other papyrus artwork of much earlier periods, suggesting to him that the intended magic was likely well practiced and was viewed as traditional. Others have suggested that the main figure might actually be female, perhaps Aphrodite or Persephone, or even the rarely seen Hermaphrodite, who represented the connection between the male and the female, embodying both forms.
Whether the Magic Sphere of the Athens Museum was in fact a talisman of good luck in the sports arena or not, it provides us with valuable clues in our quest to unlock the past.
 Armand L. Delatte. Études sur la magie grecque: Sphère magique du Musée d'Athènes. Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, 1913, Volume 37 Issue 37, pp. 247-278.
Image credit goes to Jesse Waugh of www.jessewaugh.com