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Bill Thayer

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Oscillum


[image ALT: A woodcut in two parts. On the left, a mask. On the right, a tree with several such masks hanging from the branches, plus a peninsula-pipe and a shepherd's crook at the base of the tree. It is an illustration of a sort of ancient Roman scarecrow, the oscillum, as explained in the text of the webpage.]

p846 Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p846 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

OSCILLUM, a diminutive through osculum from os, meaning "a little face," was the term applied to faces or heads of Bacchus, which were suspended in the vineyards to be turned in every direction by the wind. Whichsoever way they looked, they were supposed to make the vines in that quarter fruitful (Virg. Georg. II.388‑392). The left-hand figure in the annexed woodcut is taken from an oscillum of white marble in the British Museum. The back of the head is wanting, and it is concave within. The mouth and pupils of the eyes are perforated. It represents the countenance of Bacchus with a beautiful, mild, and propitious expression (molle, honestum, Virg. l.c.). A fillet, spirally twisted about a kind of wreath, surrounds the head, and descends by the ears towards the neck. The metallic ring, by which the marble was suspended, still remains. The other figure is from an ancient gem (Maffei, Gem. Ant. III.64), representing a tree with four oscilla hung upon its branches. A Syrinx and a Pedum are placed at the root of the tree.

From this noun came the verb oscillo, meaning "to swing." Swinging (oscillatio) was among the bodily exercises practised by the Romans, and was one of the amusements at the Feriae Latinae (Festus, s.v.; Hygin. Fab. 130; Wunder, Comment. ad Cic. pro Planc. p93; Feriae, p530A.)


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Page updated: 29 Aug 12