Historic Games and Pastimes for Children of Southern Italy

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?

historic games of Southern Italy

An assortment of ancient games from the archeological museum in Metaponto

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.

historic games of Southern Italy

Astragali – game pieces from ancient Siris, 5th century BC, from the archeological museum in Potenza, Basilicata

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.

historic games in Herculaneum

Women playing “astragali,” painting on marble from Herculaneum, end of the 1st century BC – beginning of 1st century AD, in the collection of the archeological museum in Naples

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.

ancient game of Southern Italy

Ancient astragali game pieces from Locri Epizephyrii

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.

historic games of Greater Greece

Bronze balls and bell from Locri Epizephyrii, 5th century BC, archeological museum in Reggio Calabria

Other gaming pieces were made of a type of glass paste, called pasta vitrea in Italian.

antique glass game pieces

Ancient glass game pieces from the area of Policoro, at the archeological museum in Potenza, Basilicata

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…

ancient clay doll from Italy

Ancient terracotta doll from Serra da Vaglio at the archeological museum in Potenza, Basilicata

… and from the same period two figures from ancient Locri.

terracotta dolls

Ancient terracotta dolls from Locri Epizephyrii at the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria

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.

antique terracotta dolls from Southern Italy

Ancient terracotta dolls from Southern Italy at the Altes Museum in Berlin

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.

ancient marble bust from Reggio Calabria

Head of Harpocrates, represented by a young boy, in marble, 2nd century, at the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria

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.

visit Reggio Calabria

Your miniature bronze chariot awaits (425-400 BC) at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria

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!

historic toys of Southern Italy

Wooden yo-yo from Pompeii at the Altes Museum, Berlin

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.

antique bone flute

Part of a medieval bone flute from the history museum at the castle of Lagopesole, Basilicata

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…

antique toys from South Italy

Antique toys at Museum of Local Traditions in Viggiano, Basilicata

… as does this homemade cloth doll.

antique doll from Southern Italy

Antique cloth doll from Viggiano, Basilicata

And then there’s the fun of making noise, as with these ratchets in this historic photo from Bova, Calabria.

games of Southern Italy

Children with noisemakers in 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.

historic Southern Italian toys

Decorative cuccù whistles by Geppetto Artigianato Artistico, Matera

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.

Pupi siciliani

Pupi siciliani – Sicilian marionettes

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.

historic games of Southern Italy

Game of tombola (photo courtesy of Square87, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tombola.jpg)

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!


See ancient games in person on my Calabria Tours and Basilicata Tours!

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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Comments 10

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      Author

      Glad you liked the post. These games, dolls and toys come from numerous museums, the ancient ones from archeological museums and the others from traditional culture museums.

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      Author
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      Author
  1. How fun Karen. Interesting that bambini played games with sheep ankle bones! I went to an entire exhibit of puppi once that featured marionettes like the Sicilian ones in your photo, including a performance. It was amazing. Now I can’t remember where it was-may even have been at the Vancouver Art Gallery?
    Buon Natale e un Nuovo anno pieno di buona salute! Ciao, Cristina

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      Author

      I found it even more curious that well-dressed Roman women played with the astragali! It must have been fun. I have a very pleasant memory of a pupi performance in Palermo. I was right there with the kids, on the edge of my seat, when one puppet brought his sword down on the head of another and it split open on cue – it was great entertainment! A theater definitely worthy of an exhibition at the world’s finest galleries.
      Thank you for your well wishes and ti auguro ogni bene nel nuovo anno!

  2. We often don’t think about children in ancient times: what they played, how they behaved, what complaints they had about their lives. So, this was a fascinating insight into a little of that past. Thank you Karen! Until you explained about the sheep bones, I was certain all those pieces were teeth! Haha.
    Wishing you a very lovely new week in 2022. Stay safe!

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      Author

      My first thought when I saw a little pile of these bones in a museum was that they were vertebrae of some sort! Well, we sensed their organic origin. Be careful with whichever game you play in 2022!

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