Jynx / Rhombus / Strophalos

Category: Elements of Ritual > Implements & Instruments

1 Introduction

The English word ‘jinx’ derives from the Greek ἴυγξ íynx, which has a complicated history. In the first instance, it is the name of a bird, the wryneck. Secondarily, it is the name of a kind of ritual implement (which I refer to as ‘jynx’), a kind of bullroarer or whirligig, especially known for its use in love spells. Thirdly, it can stand for the spell, and for love itself. In later times, its use in ritual seems to have expanded, and finally, in the Chaldaica, it was transferred to designate a class of gods, the Iynges.

Here, I will not attempt to give a general description of the jynx (also known as rhombus, strophalos, and by other terms), but quote ancient accounts, which disagree strongly with each other, reflecting a considerable diversity of practice. (If you are aware of further relevant passages, please let me know!)

2 Suda, s.v. Iynx

From a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, which used many now lost ancient sources:

“Iynx is the daughter of Echo or of Peitho, [unintelligible word(s)] and of Aprodite. She bewitched (katapharmattousa) Zeus; for such acts, she was turned to stone[!] by Hera.
“(The wryneck) is also called kinaidion by some. (Cf. Cyranides 1.κ.)
“There is also a little instrument called jynx; witches (pharmakides) are used to whirl (strephein) it while they lay a charm on the beloveds.
“It is also a certain bird, which is regarded as having the same power. Hence, they bind them to little wheels.”

3 Scholia on Pindar

One source of the Suda may have been the following scholium (explanatory note) on the poet Pindar, Nemean Ode 4.56:

“Jynx (wryneck) is a kind of amatory bird.
“Whence is the jynx (so called)? Some say that she was the daughter of Echo, others of Peitho, who bewitched Zeus to desire Io. Because of Hera’s wrath, she was transformed into a bird, which women who prepare amatory (spells) use.
“After this, the object of desire is also called iynx; now, (Pindar) here means ‘desire’ by iynx.”

There is another, more extensive scholium on a different Pindaric passage (Pythian Ode 4.381), where the poet refers to “a variegated four-legged jynx”:

“Jynx (wryneck) is a bird variegated in plumage, long-necked, with a long tongue, whirling around (peristrephomenon) quickly and shaking around its throat.
“Witches (pharmakides) consider this bird to help them in their amatory incantations; for they take it and bind it to a kind of wheel, which they wheel around (perirrhombousin) while they are saying incantations (epaidousai).
“Others say that they take out its innards and fasten them to the wheel.
“Now, they say that Aphrodite brought the first jynx to humanity and gave it to Jason, and taught him the amatory incantations, so that he could drive Medea madly in love and make her assist him.
“The (four) ‘legs’ (knēmai) are the wooden spokes within the wheels.
“But one can also understand (the ‘legs’) metaphorically, the wings being called feet, by analogy. For it is not simply bound to a wheel with four legs, but above with its two wings, and below with its two feet.
“But others read tetraknēmon’ (= tetraknēmoni), so that it would be ‘a variegated jynx on a four-spoked (wheel)’.”

4 Scholia on Theocrytus, Idylls 2

The scholia on Theocritus also contribute to our knowledge, however much credence we give their explanations. On Idylls 2.17:

“Jynx is a bird of Aphrodite (wryneck). Witches (pharmakides) use it as a help in their magical rituals (mageiai). For they enclose it in a wheel of wax and fasten it to a leather strap on both sides, and they wheel it over fires by whirling it around (peristrephousai) and speaking whatever incantation (epaidousai) they wish. As it is whirled around, it slowly melts, and they may say over it: ‘As this rhombus melts, so may he melt for love of me.’ And they even call love itself a jynx after the animal in (the rhombus), as does Pindar (Nemean Ode 4.35).
“<…> just as Aristotle says. In the book on animals (History of Animals 504a12), he says it is a little larger than a chaffinch.
“Or a kinaidion or the so-called butt-shacker (seisopygis), so called because it turns (strephein) in every direction and twists its buttocks.
“Or, from Iynx, whom Callimachus calls the daughter of Echo, who bewitched (pharmakeuein) Zeus, so that he slept with her; hence she was turned into a little bird by Hera, and assists in acts of sorcery (pharmakeiai).”

On Idylls 2.30, a questionable metaphorical reading:

“‘Bronze rhombus’: He calls the rhombus made of wax and the bird jynx (wryneck) ‘bronze’ because of the hardness and power of the spells (pharmaka).”

5 Prose paraphrase of Dionysius’ lost Ixeuticon or On Fowling 1.24

“The wrynecks, which are beloved to witches (parmakides gynaikes), take their nourishment in the following way: they stretch out their long tongues, like fishers do their fishing-lines, and project them into a path of ants, so that (the ants) are carefully picked up while they busy themselves about food; then, drawing their tongue back and making it small, they eat those that have been caught.
“They are continuously moving their necks, as those who have left the men and (become) feminine are used to do in their frenzy (bakkheuein) in the mystery (teletē) of Rhea.”

6 From scholium on Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 144

Rhymbos (means) motion, whence the little wheel (trokhiskion) that is moved around by witches is called a rhymbion.” (The forms with rhy– are Attic, corresponding to rho– in Koine Greek.)

7 Scholia on Dionysius, Description of a Journey through the World 1131

Rhombos also (means) a witches’ wheel, in Theocritus, bewitched (i.e, ‘chanted over’) during its spinning.”

8 From Psellus, Exegesis on the Chaldaic Oracles

Based on the Chaldaica and their Neoplatonic exegesis, lost today but still available to some extent to Michael Psellus, a Christian intellectual of the 11th century CE, he wrote the following:

“Chaldaic oracle: ‘Work with the Hekatic strophalos.’
“Exegesis: The Hekatic strophalos is a golden ball, enclosing lapis lazuli (sappheiros) in the middle, which is whirled (strephomenē) around on a strap of bull’s leather; the ball is covered with characters. Those who whirl them make invocations (epiklēseis).
“They also used to call objects like this jynxes, whether they had a spherical shape, a triangular one or some other. While they are wheeling them, they intone meaningless or animalistic sounds, laughing and whipping the air.
“Now, (the Chaldaean) teaches that the motion of such a strophalos is efficacious in the ritual (tēn teletēn energein), because it has an ineffable power. And it is called Hekatic because it is dedicated to Hekate – Hekate, according to the Chaldaeans, being a goddess who has the wellspring of virtues in her right side and that of souls in her left.
“But this is all nonsense.”

9 From Psellus, On the Miracle at Blachernae

“The pagans (‘Greeks’) made an empty effort by taking refuge in their own divinations and making their telestic (‘consecratory’) preparation, which inspires (katabakkheúousa) certain cult statues for the answering of queries.
“For either their consecration (teletē) is only half-complete (hēmitelēs) and the oracle ineffectual (ateles);
“Or the spirit that is set over (the cult statue) is very inclined to matter (prosyloteron) and has been misled about what is going to happen, and the Hekatic strophalinx, with its bull-leather strap, and the names of iyngic invocation are only empty and inconseqential (atelesta);
“Or, if it actually should bring something about (teloito), it is from a bad sort of spirit.”