The magic ball of Helios-Apollo

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The splendid palace of their fire sublime. O best of gods, blest daemon crown ‘d with fire


In 1866 the archaeologist, antiquities “looter,” Prof Athanasios Rhousopoulos dug up a marble ball which was 30 in diameter covered with magical signs similar to what can be seen in the Greek Magical Papyri.

The Helios-Apollo ball had been buried in the hill just outside the temple of Dionysus in Athens and was identified as a magical talisman to help someone win a combat  .  This was because the theatre of Dionysus had been adapted by the Romans to host gladiator fights and wild animal displays. Some of the symbols on the sphere look like fields or strategy plays.  On the face of it there is only limited interest in such a talisman as there were rather a lot of this type.

The ball attracted my attention because it contains only time that the sigil of an Olympic spirit had been seen before the middle ages. The sigil of the sun spirit Och crowns a disk on the lower half of the sphere.

The Helios side of the ball photograph Jesse Waugh

As part of the work I was doing on my coming book I wanted to see if it was possible to have a system which decoded the writing on the ball.  If I am right, then the Helios-Apollo is not a talisman to help a gladiator team win but an important magical tool.

What the Helios-Apollo ball looks like

The Helios-Apollo ball is perfect marble sphere dominated by three circles. Inside the first circle is the image of a standing man with a solar halo.  He is holding a three-forked staff which could be either a torch, or leaves. At his feet are two dogs, one has a halo. Attached to this is second disk which is crowned by the sigil of Och. Underneath it has five intersecting circles. The circles contain five words (from the furthest left circle ΑΙΘΑΕΡ, ΑΝΑΒΠΑ, ΑΝΝΙΑΕΥ, ΕΔΕΒΩΠ̣Ι, and ΑΠΙΟΒΙ). Three of the intersecting circles are marked (from left to right) ΕΥΠΑΡ̣ΕϹ, ΑΧΦΕΙ and ΑΘΕΛΑ.  Underneath the circles are collections of letters arranged as words ΧΧΧ ΔΔΔΔ ΗΗΗΗ.  Next to this is a diagram of what looks like semi-cicle flanked by two circles on poles. To the right there are three stylised arrows passing through rectangles. Underneath and completing this disk there are nine Λ “l’s” between brackets.

The third disk contains a triangle with the left angle having the letters ΑΔΑΞΑΞΒΕΝΒΕΝΒΛΩΘΝΩΜΑΖΟΜΟΗΡ, the second ΟΖΩΡΟΥΘΕΝΑΑΕΞΑΒΙΟΥΡΟ̣ΑΙΛΕΜΒΡΑΕΡ and the base of the triangle containing the letters ΧΧΧ ΠΠΠΠ ΦΦΦΦ̣Φ̣ΦΦ̣ ΔΔΔΔ ΛΛΛΛ ΛΛΛΛ

Outside these disks there is a large bearded serpent with the letters ΕΙΥ[․]ΛΛΜΕΜΨΟΥΡΦΙΒΡΟΦΕΥ up its body. Between the serpent and the sun is the phrase ΜΟΥΡΒΗ ΜΕΡΦΕΡΒΕΡ

There is lion with  ΘΑ̣Δ̣ΕΙΗΤ on one foot, ΧΧΦΦΦΑ on the other inside  ΠΔΔΔΔΔΗ.   Between the serpent and the lion there is the phrase ΝΧΘΑΝΧΘΩΛΕΚΡΟ|ΑΝΟΚΛΕΡΦΡΟΕΡΑΙ | [․]ΙΕΩΕΥ|ΒΛΕΦΑΡΟΖΗ.

On top of the sphere there is the words ΙΞ̣ΙΔΕϹΙ. (ixidesi) [the Ϲ symbol should be the lunate sigma, which is pronounced as “s”]

The date of the Helios-Apollo ball

Due to the style of the lettering and similarities to other similar items it can be dated to the second to third century (CE). What is not clear as to when the sphere was buried as this may help explain its purpose.

Previous study on the Helios-Apollo ball

The Helios-Apollo ball was given a detailed and somewhat enlightened examination by the Belgian  Hellenist  Armand L. Delatte in 1913.  In his study Études sur la magie grecque: Sphère magique du Musée d’Athènes. Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, 1913, Volume 37 Issue 37, pp. 247-278. An expert on Pythagoras Delatte said a lot of common sense about the object. However, his conclusion was that the ball had been buried near the theatre of Dionysus as a magical attempt to take over the land so that games and events held at the theatre would bring the magician luck is a bit silly.


There are variety of reasons why the gladiator talisman theory must be dismissed. While gladiator talismans exist, they are not this size, or weight. This ball was commissioned by someone who knew how to work marble who would have paid a great deal for it. The carvings, although not first class, would also have taken some skill. While it is not good enough for public display, it would have been fine in a wealthy person’s house.

The ball has no intention, or magical purpose on it. It also lacks any symbols or names of people who would have been the talisman’s target. As we will see most of the symbols are solar. There could be a lot of reasons to invoke Helios, or Apollo but winning a gladiatorial combat or some other game is not an obvious choice. Aries for sporting prowess, Hermes for Luck, even Zeus or Athena (particularly in Athens) or Jupiter.  While you could say that a gladiator would benefit from solar force there is nothing to suggest that is the ball’s magical purpose. There are no indications of weapons, fighting or even names of gladiator teams.

If Delatte was correct and the ball was created take control of the land, it would not have known who it was to help win.

Gladiator talismans were normally made of lead, not marble, and contain some sort of dedication. PGM III (Lines 15-30) names the chariot driver he wants to win.  Such talismans could be buried if you wanted to an attract underworld spirits, but normally they would have been put near a tomb or in a well or water supply.

The Theatre of Dionysus link

Most of the problems of working out the function of this ball comes from the fact that people seem to be fixated on the fact it was found near the Theatre of Dionysus on the Acropolis. To be fair I wasted a lot of time trying to see a Dionysus or even a theatre link to this ball.

There could be many reasons why the sphere was buried at that point and none of them are to do with the spheres purpose. If the magician had another use for the ball, it would have been important to work out what to do with it once that purpose was over.  For example, if the ball was used to provide luck and prosperity to the magician’s home or family, what would happen to the ball when the magician died or his family line petered out. Someone would have had the job of getting rid of the ball and no one would have wanted to anger the Gods or Daemons on the ball by smashing it. As a magical object, it could not be offered to a temple so it was safer to everyone if it was given a decent burial on holy ground. The Acropolis and the Theatre was sacred ground

Helios or Helios-Apollo?

Heilios Apollo in Pompei

In the absence of a name identifying the god on the ball, in 1910 the archaeologist Armand Delatte identified the image of the God on one side of the ball as Helios. Helios was not often depicted standing still or on the ground. He is normally in a chariot or in movement. This image is of someone standing in an archway, which is presumably the vault of heaven.

The forked (three-torch) wand is a strange symbol. Hekate is associated with three torches and was a gatekeeper, and she was associated with Dogs. Cybil, who was often confused with Hekate, was often flanked by lions and these dogs could be badly drawn lions.

Dionysus was seen a sun god and like Apollo was closely connected to the arts. Dionysus was also connected with snakes and there is a bearded snake carved on the reverse of the ball.  The three torches could simply be the god’s Thyrsus which was an ivy-covered staff of giant fennel one of the branches could be a pine cone it is hard to tell. The whip was associated with part of the Dionysian mysteries initiation.

However, there is a big problem with identification with Dionysus and that is that apart from the drawing the rest of the symbolism is connected to his brother Apollo. Dionysus’s own solar connection is tentative.  As we will see later much of the magical disk is directly symbolic of Solar Apollo.

For while I thought the figure represented Apollo, after all he was the God of theatres and arts and the centre of the Muses. He also would have been happy with a solar halo. The “dogs” at his feet could easily be wolves. According to the Homeric Hymns Apollo also had a three-branched wand which he gave to Hermes after he promised never to steal his sheep.

He was also connected to snakes, having killed the Delphi Python. He is also shown as holding a whip to ride the chariot of the sun.

An interesting aspect of the cult at Delphi is that Apollo shared the site with his younger brother, Dionysus. Every year at the onset of winter, Apollo abandoned Delphi to spend three in the land of the Hyperboreans far to the north. In the meantime, the sanctuary on Parnassus was given over to the maenades (“the raving ones”) who worked themselves into a frenzy through wine and dance.

German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche pointed out that Dionysus and Apollo were two sides of the same force with Apollo being order and Dionysus chaos. The ancients might not have seen it that way, but the Delphian cult suggests that perhaps the two were the joys of spring and summer and the happiness which was possible during winter.

Once we reject the connection between the theatre and the ball we are left with the symbolism which works rather nicely with the composite Helios-Apollo.  Drawings of  him which were found in Pompey are rather like this one.

Delatte says that the two dogs are the key to understanding the figure.  One has a halo and the other does not.  This makes them constellations Canis Minor and Canis Major. The dog with the halo contains the magical star Sirius].

This sphere then represents the Sun at its height in the dog days of Summer.

The magic disk

The magic disk looks familiar to anyone who has looked at the Greek magical papyri. Most of the symbolism on it relates to Apollo and the sun.  Above we have the solar symbol for the Olympic spirit of the Sun.  What is interesting is that in context it mirrors the depiction of so called “three torches” on the picture of Helios Apollo on the front. It would be an interesting conjecture then to suggest that the symbol of “Och” is a stylised version of Apollo with his golden staff.  Notice that it rests on a rectangle. The rectangle was an important Greek symbol as each temple was created from three of them.

Next there are five interlocking circles creating four vesica piscis.  The number five is the number of the Greek letter epsilon which the Pythagoreans associated with Justice. In this sense, it means the balance of the universe and closely associated with Helios-Apollo (It was placed above his temple in Delphi). The connected to the five abilities of Apollo – light, truth, archery, prophecy, music, and healing.

The vesica piscis was a gate caused by the duality of different forces. In this case these five circles create four gates which means the “target” of the different powers were material.

The names written in the circles are either corrupted, completely misspelled, or something else. Even the word in the first sphere is Aithaer which is clearly meant to be the word Aether αἰθήρ  (sky or gas).  By playing around with the letters though it is possible to get words which are approximations. My linguistics expert friend thinks that they might be imported magic words from Semitic sources, and while it is possible that this would be the case in Alexandria, it is less likely to have been the situation in Athens.

Delatte is convinced that the five circles are the Pythagorean elements from earth on the right to Aether on the left. The intersections are what happens when you mix the elements. The second word which we can identify is the intersection of the first sphere which is the word ΕΥΠΑΡ̣ΕϹ which could be derived from the word “to boil” this would make sense if the next sphere is fire. However, that is labelled ΑΝΑΒΠΑ. This word could be based on the word meaning to “rise” which while being appropriate for mystical and magical states, and could cause a mystical boiling gives us little clues as to what the circles mean. Nor do they explain why the intersection on the circle which is connected to earth was not filled in.

The letters underneath the circle suggest to some form of solar mantra which might have been connected to the circles above.  XXX is the English sound “Ch, Ch, Ch” ΔΔΔΔ is “ duh, duh, duh, duh and H,H,H,H,H would be five breathing outs [it could also be vibrated as either ē, and during this period it was vibrated ē].  They appear connected to the circles so the Aether circle is “Ch, Ch, Ch.” And the five breaths cover the third and fourth spheres.  This is a consonant based magic word or mantra which is solar connected.  If Delatte is correct and the words are connected to the elements, then it is probably chant/ mantra of ascension. This would explain why the earth is left blank because you are supposed to be ascending the levels and there is no effect moving from the “earth sphere” to what is presumably the water sphere.

The semi-circular structure could represent a repeat of the symbolism of the Apollo-Helios sphere. It has the arch of heaven with the four elements (made up of four sub sections) underneath. Aether would be represented by the dome or the space between it. The two spheres on poles are canis major and Minor.

The arrows are connected to Apollo and they are shown passing through a rectangle (or a temple) so they are effectively holy light. The reason that there are three of them is because that is the number associated with Apollo’s power.

The bottom of the sphere is another mantra made up of nine Λ lambdas, Ls which would be trilled Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh.  It is possible that this line is the only reference to the moon on the ball as the brackets could be the different moon phases, particularly as there could be symbols of the moon carved underneath which have faded. Lambda is connected to Cancer which is ruled by the moon. But it also rules July which is the beginning of the summer months. Lambda is also symbol of unity (two lines linking to a single point) and light and can be identified it as a solar force.  They could be related to numbers in which case they would be 30*9 or 270 which is three quarters of a circle.

The circle in the triangle

The circle is a symbol of creation, or god, or the universe. It is closely lined to the sun. While the triangle is a symbol of manifestation. An upward pointing triangle, like this one is associated with fire. So, this diagram shows us manifesting fire.

The magic words along the bottom are ΧΧΧ ΠΠΠΠ ΦΦΦΦ̣Φ̣ΦΦ̣ ΔΔΔΔ ΛΛΛΛ ΛΛΛΛ.  It would have been pronounced Ch,Ch,Ch; Puh, Puh, Puh, Puh; Fuh, Fuh, Fuh, Fuh, Fuh, Fuh, Fuh; Duh, Duh, Duh, Duh and Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh, Luh.  The letters are elemental Aquarius (Air), Capricorn (Earth), Fire, Water, Cancer/Sun/Aether. Pedants might wonder why this mantra does not use the obvious elemental letters for the elements instead of χ and π namely ρ for air and γ for earth.  It would be a good question. But one of the answers could be that the system might be suggesting something specific. It could be trying to avoid a fixed earth and wanting the more active cardinal version. The use of the fixed Aquarius sign for Air is a little more problematic for this theory.

In the ball’s first sphere the Ch,Ch,Ch was connected to Aether and yet here it is connected to air. Aether was originally associated with Air but over time had become to be associated with Spirit (and the Stoics also considered it a fiery spirit). It might have been that the associating with Aether on the first circle is incorrect.

The triangle’s base provides the names of power for the four elements. The weight of the mantra is slightly towards Phi (f,fire) because there are more letters connected to this element and lambdas (L, Aether).

The line on the left angle there is a word string which appears to be several words joined together.

ΑΔΑΞΑΞΒΕΝΒΕΝΒΛΩΘΝΩΜΑΖΟΜΟΗΡ (Adaxaxbenbenblothnomazomoer). Benben was one of the most potent symbols of ancient Egypt symbolizing the Primeval mound and housed the spirit of the sun god Ra. The word is ancient Egyptian.  Adaxax might be a fusion of the Greek words ΑΔΑ means “virgin” or “untouched” and ΑΞΑΞ meaning “dry heat.” Blvthvm [but the word is blothnom] is Semitic, possibly corrupted Hebrew, the word appears to be connected to drying out through age although it could also be a root word for “lord. Azomoer, Azo is “dry.”  This would mean that the mantra is about Ra, the Lord of the Benben drying out the waters of creation in the Ancient Egyptian myth.

ΟΖΩΡΟΥΘΕΝΑΑΕΞΑΒΙΟUΡΟ̣ΑΙΛΕΜΒΡΑΕΡ or Ozoroythenaaexabioyroailembraer

ΟΖΩΡ appears in some of the manuscripts as Osiris. My linguist friend suggest ΟΖΩΡΟΥΘΕΝΑ could be a mix between Osiris and Athena. Delattee thinks that that ΟΖΩΡΟΥΘΕΝ might mean the “Sun God Osiris. ΒΙΟU is used the name of the Sun God in the Berlin Papyri (1, 239) and in an invocation to Eros Horus in the Leiden Papyri. ΑΕΞΑΒ is Hebrew Azab which means “abandon” IOY could be the root of “cry” POA is “Pomegranate”, ΛΕΜΒΡ was a ship and AER was Air.  It is an odd collection of words which could mean a lot of things. Pomegranate was a symbol of the underworld, but also a symbol of fertility, death and rebirth and hope all things which are symbolic of the sun. The idea of a boat travelling through the air also describes the sun, something which is connected more to Egypt as the Greeks saw the sun as being drawn in a chariot.  So, what we have here then is the Sun god Osiris rising into the air on his boat into the air bringing power and fertility.


The serpent is coiled in a way to create figure eight in a least part of its body.  The snake could represent the nine-starred constellation of Drago which was an important star system magically because it never sets below the horizon for many observers in the northern hemisphere.

It is probably the solar serpent Agathos Daimon (ἀγαθοδαίμων) who was a snake spirit of good fortune and the husband of Tyche. He was closely associated with the sun and, line in this ball he is associated with a lion or a solar halo.

Along his body are a string of names the first is ΝΧΘΑΝΧΘΩΛΕΚΡΟ (Nchthanchtholekro) the first three letters are transposed hebrew “tchn” which is probably Nechoth meaning “descending” or a corruption of  vxn  meaning “serpent” xna Anach “groaning” diwt Thwd “thanks”, or “choir” and ekro wrka “surely.”  The letters anch could also be connected the to the Egyptian “akh” which means eternal life.

The next word is Anokderfroerai


ΑΝΟΚ appears in the beginning of a lot of Magic Words and correspond to the copitc word meaning “I AM.”  Homer describes Φηραί as a Holy City belonging to Agamemnon. During the period that the ball was made it was famous for its temple of Tyche and it had always been that way. Certainly “I am Fortune” makes sense in association with with  Agathos Daimon

The damaged middle word could really be anything. ΒΛΕΦΑΡΟΖΗ: blefaroze. Blefaros is “eyelid” and “Paroce” could be a corruption of the world Φάρος which means “light-house” a pun mixing the words for sight, protection (as the Eye of Horus) and light.  My linguist friend thinks this is rubbish as the word is actuallly pharoze as there is not the “s” for a Pharos. Equally that prevents it being the word Pharoah  which would give the idea of the eye of the King.

The name at the top of sphere is the word ΙΞ̣ΙΔΕϹΙ. (Ixidesi) which is a word which does not appear to be in any dictionary in Greek and has too many vowels to be Hebrew.  But it is pronounceable and I believe that given its position on the sphere and the fact it is by itself I think it is a name of the Daemon which was meant to reside in the sphere.

 What can we tell about the magician who made the Helios-Apollo ball?

The ball uses the same mix of magical techniques that we see in Alexandria and in the Greek Magical Papyri. Hebrew, Egyptian and Greek words and ideas are mixed together to create a syncretic effect. The ball’s existence suggests that the magical techniques expressed in the Papyri were not restricted to Alexandria but were an influence in Greece too.

The price of the ball and the skill required to make it means that our magician was not poor or using it to perform some low brow form of magic.  There are elements of innovation on the ball which suggest a system and a logic behind its creation.  It emphasises geometric shapes more strongly than other magical objects which would suggest a neo-Pythagorean influence and the elemental connection could be a Stoic influence.  The Stoics saw the Universe as God with fire and the principle of aether being the most important and then elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.

Our magician then would have been a rare thing.  A wealthy, educated magician well-versed in two key philosophies of the day.

So what is the Helios-Apollo ball?

The Helios-Apollo ball is no temporary magical object. Carved in marble it is an object which is designed to last a lifetime. It is also not meant to be portable so it is expected to stay in one place and presumably be placed on a tripod – as it is now.

Covered with its solar symbols, if the Helios-Apollo ball were magically charged it would be pulsing with solar force. This solar force could have been used as a talisman for health, protection from evil, prosperity and happiness.  Although fire is a key part of some of the symbolism that is secondary and indeed might have been an afterthought.  The important fire symbolism, such as the torch and the lion are out outside the main three circles.

But the lack of an intention renders it largely useless for this purpose.  If the Helios-Apollo ball were, as Delatte suggests, a talisman to bring luck and ward off evil to the land around the Theatre of Dionisius the papyri would have insisted that intention should have been carved on it.

A general broadcasting talisman against evil would make sense but we would expect to see symbols or words where evil or a threat were mentioned or vanquished. But the ball instead seems more focused on depicting the solar force at its strongest.

But similar concepts can be seen in PGM where a spirit is tied to an object. These magical assistants were tied to stones, and jewels where they would be easily called upon to assist magic.  These were not often very big, but these spirit houses could be theoretically any size. If the magician wanted to attract a powerful spirit, or had a close connection to it, and they had the time and money then an expensive jewel, or, as in this case, a rather nice symbolic statue which represented the spirit would make sense.

If I am correct than the name of this spirit was carved into the crown of the sphere after it had been magically charged –  ΙΞ̣ΙΔΕϹΙ. (Ixidesi). The magician would chant the spirits’ name as a part of an invocation and it would come from the Helios-Apollo ball to provide him with any assistance.

If it were a personal spirit, or Daemon it would be useless to anyone but the owner. In fact, on the owner’s death the Spirit is said to help them move on and become immortal. But there was always a risk that the spirit might remain in the stone or become angry or mischievous now that the magician had departed, or that the empty solar stone might attract a less positive solar daemon.  For any number of these reasons the family or students of the magician would not want to keep it. But equally destroying it was not an option. The sphere had the image of Helios-Apollo on it and its destruction risked angering him. Burying it in sacred ground was the best option and the south side of the Acropolis would have been acceptable.

The Helios-Apollo ball also gives us some clues as to how it was magically created. It is likely that the references to the sun being between the greater and lesser dog stars suggest that it was created during the “dog days” of summer when the sun is at its hottest. The chants on the ball would have been used to attract the elemental forces which would have during the course of the ritual, or rituals, tuned the ball until it matched the frequency of the spirit which the magician hoped to attract. There might have been three main rituals (to match the three circles) and with the spirit arriving and telling the magician his name. This name would have been scratched into the Helios-Apollo ball and the spiritual assistant would take up residence.

The Helios-Apollo  ball contains lots of magical subsystems, which can be adapted and used for other purposes and are hinted at in this article. That said, it would be interesting to find the ball in the Acropolis Museum and see if a solar spirit is sleeping within it.


Further reading

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.

The Greek Qabalah, by Kieren Barry

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation edited by Hans Dieter Betz