Surrounded as we are by all sorts of diversions for our leisure time, have you ever wondered what served as the source of entertainment for children of the distant past? Or for the young at heart? Imagination and fantasy are not limited to contemporary times, so read on if you’re curious as to how people amused themselves, even before electricity, and check out several historic games and pastimes for children of Southern Italy.
GAMES OF THE ANCIENTS
Many historic games and toys are not all that unfamiliar to contemporary society. In recent times, the material may be “updated,” but the concept hasn’t changed at all. The items in this grouping come from the area of ancient Metapontum (in Metaponto, Basilicata today), and they date from the 6th to the 5th centuries BC. How do you like the terracotta dice?
In the next photo, what looks like a cluster of bones is, in fact, a cluster of bones, but don’t worry. Your ancestors weren’t headhunters. The bones used for games were usually sheep ankles. Thus, it is not surprising that the Italian word for these historical game pieces is astragalo, or talus in English. The peoples of ancient Siris (today Policoro, Basilicata) would have had a grand time playing with this pile of animal bones in the 5th century BC. Games included pari o dispari (odds and evens) and a type of contest in which the bones were thrown into a circle with the goal of moving those of the adversary.
The Romans also enjoyed a good game of astragali as in this painting on marble, discovered in Herculaneum and in the collection of Naples’ archeological museum. I find it interesting that the players are upper-class women.
The following ankle bones, also dating to the 5th century BC, are from ancient Locri Epizephyrii (Locri, Calabria). According to informational material of a museum exhibit I attended a few years ago, use of animal bones for games was also common in contemporary pastoral communities of the area, which means that it survived electricity. I have my doubts, however, as to whether the practice has withstood the internet.
Game pieces were made of other raw materials, as well, such as these bronze spheres from ancient Locri. The little bell may have been a toy, but in addition, symbolized a connection with the god Dionysius and the afterlife. Keep in mind, these artifacts usually turn up in burial sites.
Other gaming pieces were made of a type of glass paste, called pasta vitrea in Italian.
HISTORIC DOLLS IN SOUTHERN ITALY
Dolls and puppets are also timeless. I particularly like these little terracotta figures with moving limbs. This figurine comes from Serra di Vaglio (in inland Basilicata, Vaglio, today), a community of the ancient Peuketiantes peoples, influenced by the Greeks who had settled the southern coast…
… and from the same period two figures from ancient Locri.
On a visit to Berlin’s Altes Museum (Germany), I admired several rather detailed dolls from the 4th century BC in the Southern Italian section: a seated figure with crockery as seen in the cover photo (above), two dolls with moveable extremities and one with a ball.
Who played with such dolls and other toys? We see many images of ancient adults, but very few of children, so I was pleased when I came across this delightful little Roman boy representing Harpocrates, Hellenistic god of silence and secrets. This 2nd-century marble bust was found in the center of Reggio. His ever-so-slightly bemused face framed by long curls looks as though he may have enjoyed many a juicy tidbit.
Perhaps something to do with a chariot race? This miniature Greek model in bronze is one of my favorite artifacts from the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria. Found in a 5th-century tomb, the chariot perhaps is more a symbol of aristocratic sport rather than a toy, but I imagine well-heeled ancient children played with similar objects.
FAMILIAR AMUSEMENTS FROM SOUTHERN ITALY
It’s amazing how these ancient objects can feel so familiar thousands of years after their creation. Just imagine a young citizen of Pompeii “walking the dog” with this wooden yo-yo!
And what of the medieval period? I unfortunately don’t have photos of old decks of cards, but I have part of a bone flute from Lagopesole Castle in Basilicata, where the inhabitants also played checkers and chess, hunted, danced, played instruments and embroidered.
Jumping ahead many centuries, to the time of our parents’ and grandparents’ memories, we have such classic pastimes as rolling a hoop and spinning tops. These antique toys come from the Museum of Local Traditions in Viggiano, Basilicata…
… as does this homemade cloth doll.
And then there’s the fun of making noise, as with these ratchets in this historic photo from Bova, Calabria.
HISTORIC GAMES AND PASTIMES OF SOUTHERN ITALY: SOUVENIRS AND EXPERIENCES
Every era has its popular games and toys. Some towns have unique diversions, such as Matera, the Città dei Sassi in southern Basilicata, with its whistle in the shape of a chicken. In the old days these terracotta birds scared away evil spirits, whether placed on the fireplace or a baby’s crib. The chickens then became a toy, and at one time, even a status symbol for local children. Today, you can buy a cuccù (cuckoo), from simple to elaborate, as a souvenir.
A very pleasurable live entertainment that has survived through today is Sicily’s wonderful marionette theater, the teatro dei pupi. I highly recommend seeking out a performance when visiting Palermo, Siracusa, Catania or Caltagirone. You’ll feel a timeless connection with iconic medieval figures, wielding swords and saving damsels in distress, as you experience the traveling theater tradition that has enchanted audiences for hundreds of years.
And if you aren’t yet ready to travel and would like to get the feel for a Southern Italian game, get a tombola set (a type of bingo invented in Naples in the 18th century) or a 40-card deck of Italian cards, with which you can play scopa, one of Italy’s most popular games.
Or go old school and buy a bag of hazelnuts for the gioco delle nocciole. In this classic game, multiple players make little “castles” of three hazelnuts for the base with one balanced on top. Launching a larger hazelnut from about a ten-meter distance, the goal is to knock down the little structures of the opponents (sort of like bowling, but thrown), taking the dispersed nuts as winnings. The game would begin in the fall with the hazelnut harvest and be played up to the Christmas season.
Buon Divertimento – Happy Divertissement!
Explore two fascinating Southern Italian regions in my books Calabria: The Other Italy, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an intoxicating blend of humor, joy, and reverence for this area in Italy’s deep south,” and Basilicata: Authentic Italy, “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.
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CALABRIA: The Other Italy and BASILICATA: Authentic Italy make great gifts!