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TURBO (στρόβιλος, βέμβιξ), anything that, turns round with a whirring noise: hence (1) a top (Cic. de Fato, 16, 42; Verg. A. 7.378, Tib. 1.5, 3; Pers. 3.51). In all these passages the top is a “whipping-top,” except in the passage of Cicero, where the argument (see Gel. 7.2) appears to imply a top which, set going, is left to spin of itself, like a “humming-top.” In Greek there seem to be distinct words for the two kinds of tops (cf. Grasberger, Erziehung, 1.77-80): βέμβιξ is clearly a whipping-top (Aristoph. Birds 1461; Cleobul. ap. D. L. 1.82); and it is equally plain that we must take στρόβιλος in Plat. Rep. iv. p. 436 E and Plut. Lys. 12 to be, like our humming-tops, spun by a string, without the lash to keep it going. We find in Homer (Hom. Il. 14.413) the form στρόμβος, which may be either, as far as the sense of the passage guides us, but would naturally be taken as = στρόβιλος. Κῶνος is given by Photius and Hesychius as a synonym of στρόβιλος: but our only description of it refers to the religious use mentioned below (3). The dictionaries give “top” as the meaning of ῥόμβος, citing Eur. Hel. 1362, where, however, it is clearly not a top, and its use is religious. We doubt if it was ever an equivalent either of βέμβιξ or στρόβιλος.

(2) Turbo is also used (Cat. 64, 314) for the whorl (σφόνδυλος) of a spindle, for which the usual name is verticillus [FUSUS]. In the five passages of Pliny, which the dictionaries quote for this use of the word (as also in Ov. Met. 1.336), a more careful examination will show that turbo is there used merely to express a conical shape.

(3) The precise form of the instrument used in religious mysteries and witchcraft, and spoken. of as turbo, rhombus, κῶνος and ῥόμβος, is a more difficult puzzle. A comparison of the authorities in Latin and Greek leads us to the conclusion that all four are the same thing, which was called κῶνος because of its shape and ῥόμβος because of the sound which it made. It is described by Clement of Alexandria (Protrept. 2.17=p. 16) and Arnobius as being used in the mysteries of Dionysus: it was attached by a string and whirled in the air with a rushing noise, as the Scholiast explains (κῶνος: ξυλάριον οὗ ἐξῆπται τὸ σπαρτίον καὶ ἐν ταῖς τελεταῖς ἐδονεῖτο ἵνα ροιζῇ), with which agrees the passage of Euripides mentioned above, where the ῥόμβοι of the Bacchanals are “whirled round in the air.” Similarly in the magic use we find the rhombus turned to the accompaniment of the incantation (Prop. 2.28, 35) by means of strings attached to it (cf. “staminea,” Id. 3.6, 26; “licia,” Ov. Am. 1.8, 7). The uses of the turbo in Hor. Epod. 17.7 and the rhombus in Mart. 9.30 [p. 2.907]are clearly identical. Similarly the metal ῥόμβος in Theocr. Id. 2.30 is whirled round while the incantation is sung; but in this instance the ἵυγξ is bound on it (cf. Xen. Mem. 3.1. 1, 17). To this refers the mention in Photius, ῥόμβος ὃν ἔχουσιν οἱ ἐπιθειάζοντες ὡς τύμπανον, a misunderstanding of which, and of the Schol. ad. Apollon. 1.1139, has led to the strange idea that the ῥόμβος was sometimes a drum or a tambourine. We may take Photius to mean that the sorcerers used both the rhombus and the tympanum in their conjuring, as in fact the witch in Theocritus does (2.36), and as the Bacchanals did.

Mr. Andrew Lang has argued with great ingenuity that the ῥόμβος or κῶνος in the mysteries resembled the Australian turndun, which is whirled round by a string, making a rushing noise, and is used in sacred rites (Custom and Myth, pp. 29 ff.). The shape, however, in Greece we must imagine to have been that of a cone or “peg-top,” not pointed at both ends like the turndun or “bull-roarer.” That in its first origin the ῥόμβος or κῶνος was a weather-charm seems to us very probable. But we think it less likely that it had to do with raising the wind, which indeed is seldom prayed for, than with attracting the sun. It is possible that a symbolical figure may in some religious uses have been bound upon it, as the ἴυγξ was in some magical practices, and it is easily conceivable that the same method might be employed to draw the heavenly bodies and to draw human beings. There is, no doubt, the simpler explanation that it was used in the mysteries as a plaything merely to represent the childhood of Dionysus (cf. Lobeck, Aglaophamus, p. 700); but then we lose all clue to its magic use, and all connexion with the similar customs which Mr. Lang has adduced.


hide References (12 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (12):
    • Aristophanes, Birds, 1461
    • Euripides, Helen, 1362
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 3.1.1
    • Homer, Iliad, 14.413
    • Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 1.1139
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.336
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 7.378
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.7
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.8
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 7.2
    • Plutarch, Lysander, 12
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 9.30
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