Although at first glance one might think that the figure depicted on the 30-centimeter diameter marble sphere preserved at the Acropolis Museum in Athens is the Statue of Liberty, in reality the idea it represents is much older. And the geometric symbols carved on the sides of the image and above it add a little more mystery to the matter.
The sphere was found in 1866 by Professor Athanasios Rhousopoulos, buried in the vicinity of the remains of the Dionysus Theatre in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis. It shows the relief image of a divinity, which researchers identify for the most part with the god Helios, crowned with rays and enthroned under a canopy. He carries a whip in one hand (no, it’s not Indiana Jones either) and in the other holds a scepter that ends in three torches.
At his feet are two dogs (or a lion and a dragon according to interpretations), one of which also wears a crown of rays. On one side there is another torch, a seated lion and a snake with a human head that could represent constellations. On the other, a circle containing the above-mentioned symbols: a row of five small circles which overlap (and which bear the words: ΑΙΘΑΕΡ, ΑΝΑΒΠΑ, ΑΝΝΙΑΕΥ, ΕΔΕΒΩΠ̣Ι, ΑΠΙΟΒΙ) and other inscriptions.
Above the heads of the lion and the snake is another circle containing a triangle. Several Greek letters are arranged in groups or forming unintelligible words.
Experts believe that it could have been created at some point between the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. And although the symbols could not be deciphered, their comparison with those existing in some ancient Greek papyri of magical character has led to the conclusion that it is an object connected to the solar cult.
From the place where it was found, the Theatre of Dionysus, it can be deduced that it could have been placed there to ensure success in the theatrical competitions of the time. It would therefore be a kind of magical object. This was the opinion of the Belgian Hellenist and Pythagorean expert, Armand L. Delatte, who examined the object in 1913 and concluded that it represented the god Helios.
But others think it must have been some sort of talisman to ensure victory in gladiator fights. By the time the sphere was dated, the Romans had already adapted the Theatre of Dionysus as a venue for this type of spectacle.
Following this interpretation, the indecipherable symbols that appear in the sphere would be nothing more than representations of tactics and strategies to be followed by gladiators. However, it seems too big and heavy to be used as a talisman. And they usually have the name of their owners inscribed on them, which does not seem to be the case here.
The iconography proposed by Delatte has also been questioned. There are those who think that the one represented in the sphere is none other than Hecate, usually associated with the three torches, the doors and the lions. Others claim that this is Dionysus himself, given his relationship with the snakes, and the three torches would actually be his thyrsus (cane stick covered with vine or ivy). And those who discard this last option opt for Apollo.
Delatte said the key to understanding everything are the two dogs. One has a halo or crown and the other does not. That would turn them into the constellations Canis Minor and Canis Maior and the whole sphere would be a representation of the Sun at its height during the Dog Days (season of the year when the heat is strongest).
In any case, it remains a mystery who abandoned or buried the sphere and the reasons for doing so in the vicinity of the theater, whether it was related to it or was abandoned there precisely because the Acropolis is sacred land.
Sources: Archaeological Discussions (William N.Bates, en American Journal of Archaeology vol.24, No.2, pp.173–215) / Acropolis Museum / Jesse Waugh / Études sur la magie grecque : I. Sphère magique du Musée d’Athènes (Armand L.Delatte) / The magic ball of Helios-Apollo (Nick Farrell).