Roman dodecahedra between Southeast Asia and England, part 2

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A little over a year ago, Frank Jacobs published this admirable survey of a mysterious object that has perplexed and preoccupied us for the past week — The Mysterious Dodecahedrons of the Roman Empire, Big Think, Atlas Obscura (5/12/23):

The first of many of these puzzling objects was unearthed almost three centuries ago, and we still don’t know what they were for.

The article also pictures an icosahedron, the sole exemplar of one such artifact of this type having 20 sides instead of 12 that has been discovered (it is preserved in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, Germany).

Aside from the larger number of sides, it essentially belongs to the same class of object as the dodecahedra that we discussed at length in this post.  Like them, it has knobs at the vertices (the endpoints of the edges) and holes in the faces, but the holes are much, much smaller and grouped in a pattern of one hole at the center of a triangle of three other holes, for a total of four holes per side.  Each hole has concentric rings around it, the central hole having a series of such rings.  Incidentally, there are also concentric rings around the holes of the dodecahedra, though usually only one or two. Moreover, some of the dodecahedra have dimples (ten or fewer in number) indented in a circle around the holes on each side, and each indentation has a ring surrounding it.  Some of the holes of the dodecahedra have a single ring immediately surrounding them and one or two circles further away at the circumference.

In sum, the overall arrangement of such apertures and markings gives the appearance of astral phenomena.

Since the holes of the icosahedron are much smaller, you can't really readily see into its interior the way you can with the dodecahedra.

Another fascinating application of the dodecahedron that has come to my attention after part 1 was posted is that it seems to have been coopted by Daoist practitioners to meditate on control / circulation of the breath (qì 氣 ["material / primal energy"]; cf. Gk. pneuma ["spirit"] / Skt. prāṇa ["life force / vital principle"]).  In a comment to part 1 on the Gallo-Roman dodecahedra, I promised that I would write further on their metaphysical twelveness.  What follows is in partial fulfillment of that promise.  Since it is in a different realm than the zodiacal implications of the dodecahedra, but still related, it requires a fair amount of philosophical and Yogic background about what it entails:

In the history of Daoist meditation, several Warring States (c. 475-221 BC) texts allude to or describe breath-control meditations, but none directly mention xingqi (行氣 ["circulation of the breath"]). Good examples are found in the Zhuangzi and the Guanzi Neiye ("Inner Training") chapter.

One Zhuangzi context criticizes breath exercises and daoyin "guiding and pulling" calisthenics: "Blowing and breathing, exhaling and inhaling, expelling the old and taking in the new, bear strides and bird stretches [熊經鳥申]—all this is merely indicative of the desire for longevity." (15, tr. Mair 1994: 145). Another context praises "breathing from the heels: "The true man of old did not dream when he slept and did not worry when he was awake. His food was not savory, his breathing was deep. The breathing of the true man is from his heels [], the breathing of the common man is from his throat []." (6, tr. Mair 1994: 52). The Zhuangzi translator Victor Mair notes the "close affinities between the Daoist sages and the ancient Indian holy men. Yogic breath control and asanas (postures) were common to both traditions," and suggests that "breathing from the heels" could be "a modern explanation of the sirsasana 'supported headstand'". (1994: 371).

Neiye Verse 24 summarizes Inner Training breath control, which "appears to be a meditative technique in which the adept concentrates on nothing but the Way, or some representation of it. It is to be undertaken when you are sitting in a calm and unmoving position, and it enables you to set aside the disturbances of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and desires that normally fill your conscious mind." (Roth 1999: 116).

Expand your heart-mind and release it [大心而敢].
Relax your qi and allow it to extend [寬氣而廣].
When your body is calm and unmoving,
Guard the One [守一] and discard myriad disturbances.
You will see profit and not be enticed by it.
You will see harm and not be frightened by it.
Relaxed and unwound, and yet free from selfishness,
In solitude you will find joy in your own being.
This is what we call "circulating the qi" [是謂雲氣].
Your awareness and practice appear celestial [意行似天]. (24, tr. Komjathy 2003: n.p.).

Translating "circulating the qi" follows Guanzi commentaries that interpret this original yún (, "cloud") as a variant Chinese character for yùn (, "transport; move"), thus reading yùnqì (運氣, "control the breath; move  through the body").

Besides the Warring States-era received texts that mention breath circulation techniques, the earliest direct evidence is a Chinese jade artifact known as the Xingqi yupei ming (行气玉佩铭, Breath Circulation Jade Pendant Inscription) or Xingqi ming (行气铭, Breath Circulation Inscription). This 45-character rhymed explanation entitled Xíngqì 行氣 "circulating the (vital) breath" was inscribed on a dodecagonal block of jade, tentatively identified as either a knob for a staff or a pendant for hanging from a belt. While the dating is uncertain, estimates range from approximately middle 6th century BCE (Needham 1956: 143) to early 3rd century BCE (Harper 1998: 125). This lapidary text combines nine trisyllabic phrases describing the stages of breath circulation with four explanatory phrases. The Xingqi jade inscription says:

To circulate the Vital Breath [行氣]:
Breathe deeply, then it will collect [深則蓄].
When it is collected, it will expand [蓄則伸].
When it expands, it will descend [伸則下].
When it descends, it will become stable [則定].
When it is stable, it will be regular [定則固].
When it is regular, it will sprout [固則萌].
When it sprouts, it will grow [萌則長].
When it grows, it will recede [長則退].
When it recedes, it will become heavenly [退則天].
The dynamism of Heaven is revealed in the ascending [天幾舂在上];
The dynamism of Earth is revealed in the descending [地幾舂在下].
Follow this and you will live; oppose it and you will die [順則生 逆則死] (tr. Roth 1997: 298)

(Wikipedia, with some modification and amplification by VHM)

Here's a photograph of the pendant in question:


While this ancillary application of duodecimal thinking is interesting, let us return more directly to its origins in the zodiac.  Once more, I quote Plato who, in the Theaetetus, stated, "the god used [the dodecahedron] for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven").  In the comments following the previous post on Gallo-Roman dodecahedra, Brian Pellar provided irrefutable evidence of a direct connection between these artifacts and the zodiac.  Brian has been working on the relationship between the zodiac and the alphabet since before 2009.  It is appropriate that he has published seven scholarly monographs on this subject in Sino-Platonic Papers (numbers 196, 219, 246, 263, 296, 328, 341).

P.S.:  Since writing the above, even more aspects of the Gallo-Roman dodecahedra have been called to my attention, so it is likely that I will write a "part 3" within a few days.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Michael Carr, Violet Zhu, Mark Metcalf, Heidi Mair, Alexander Bazes]


  1. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 7:03 pm

    For more on Greek-Chinese sciences analogy of this…

    The pneuma (πνεῦμα) in gymnastics, Greek medicine, and philosophy, is said to have been brought to Greece by Alkmaion (Ἀλκμαίων 520-450 BC), a disciple of Pythagoras.
    The twelve gods were also included in a cyclical structure including the pneuma in medicine. That notion spread with the Stoicians during the Hellenistic times as it became the most important philosophy/science for the Greek rulers of Asia (Seleucids, then it mixed with others).
    The emphasis on psychic power or strength (Greek δύναμις) based on the soul’s tension (τόνος) is typical of Cleanthes, the Stoician (Κλεάνθης 301 – 232 BC) and implied by his notion of ἀρετή – i.e. excellence or virtue. This he applied both on the microcosmic and the macrocosmic level.
    Lucius Annaeus Cornutus c. 31 (= SVF 1.514): Ἡρακλῆς δ’ ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὅλοις τόνος, καθ’ ὃν ἡ φύσις ἰσχυρὰ καὶ κραταιά ἐστιν, ἀνίκητος καὶ ἀπεριγένητος οὖσα … Τοὺς δὲ δώδεκα ἄθλους ἐνδέχεται μὲν ἀναγαγεῖν οὐκ ἀλλοτρίως ἐπὶ τὸν θεόν, ὡς καὶ Κλεάνθης ἐποίησεν· “Heraclitus is the tension in the universe through which nature is strong and mighty, being invincible and insuperable .. it is possible to refer the twelve labours to the god (sc. Heraclitus) not inappropriately, as indeed Cleanthes the Stoic has done.”

    For athletics during the Roman period, Oreibasius (Ὀρειβάσιος; c. 320 – 403) makes it also clear as the qigong (氣功) of the Chinese during the practice of their martial arts (6.16):
    We will prescribe what we call the retention of the vital breath (tou pneumatos). . . That is for the same reason that an important part of apotherapy consists of suspending and holding the breath by the tension of all the muscles of the chest and by relaxing the muscles of the stomach and the diaphragm; in this way, the excrements are pushed down. The next step is to submit the apotherapy to the inner organs of the lower stomach by softly tensing the muscles. . . . The best gymnasts also use the exercises of holding the pneuma and the apotheraeutic massages. . . . That is why I agree with those who use apotherapy in the middle of the [gymnastic] exercises, especially for those that are in charge of the training of the “combat sports” athletes.

  2. Allen Thrasher said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 7:21 pm

    Shouldn’t it be “Heracles” rather than “Heraclitus”?

  3. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 7:26 pm

    yes, indeed, Herakles- not Heraklitos.
    The analogy between his works on Earth and the cosmic tension-energies

  4. jkw said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 8:14 pm

    Breathing from the heels in Daoism is not a metaphor, nor does it represent headstands. It is a practice of full-body breathing, where your breath/qi enters every part of your body. For a variety of reasons, most people can breathe into their upper bodies more readily than they can breathe into their lower body, so when you can extend your breathing all the way down to your toes, you have generally managed to get to full-body breathing. Breathing to your fingertips is an earlier phase of learning this process. This practice is still being taught as a part of daoist qi gong and meditation.

    Physiologically, breathing causes pressure to flow through your body. With some practice, you can feel the pressure moving, and you can practice breathing until it does reliably get all the way down your body to your feet. This requires deep, relaxed breathing.

  5. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 12, 2024 @ 8:52 pm

    If practicing only breathing with body movements is "Yangqi" 養氣. Put in a bigger and smaller sphere is "Lianqi" 練氣, or inner alchemy. "Lianqi" 練氣 includes the connection (using the mind) and the realization of inner and outer natural principles.

    Neither the Chinese nor Indians nor the Greeks used the relation human (microcosm)/Macrocosmos/nature as a metaphor only. It is just that few got the transmission on how to do it. So for the masses, it is more the understanding of "Yangqi" 養氣. And now in the modern Western world, it is the intellectual division of the upper and lower body, as they have difficulty connecting both harmoniously (mind and body).

  6. Stephen Goranson said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 7:34 am

    "Breathing from the heels" reminds me of the movie, Bull Durham, in which Annie coaches a pitcher, among other things, “I want you to breathe through your eyelids.”

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 8:43 am

    @Stephen Goranson:


    When I want to calm myself, I consciously breathe from my diaphragm.

    When I want to empower myself to the fullest, I breathe from my heels.

    Breathing just from the lungs, especially the upper part of the lungs, weakens and ultimately asphyxiates a person.

  8. Rodger C said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 11:50 am

    I breathe through my eyelids to relax for a nap. Don't know about baseball, though.

  9. Daniel C. Waugh said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 12:17 pm

    I am not an expert on the Daoist techniques (or much of anything Daoist), but I am intrigued by the deep breathing exercises and their benefits. Apart from baseball (probably not of much consequence here), think about what I might call "Sherpa breathing", using the diaphragm to inhale rather than expanding the chest. It is a key technique for being able to climb at high altitude. Whether it might have some connection with religious practice and belief is an interesting question; perhaps it is simply a matter of its having developed through practice the technique which worked.

  10. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 5:54 pm

    Mathematically the icosahedron is the dual of the dodecahedron, with faces and vertices switched. The icosahedron has 20 faces, 12 vertices, and 30 edges. The dodecahedron has 12 faces, 20 vertices, and 30 edges.

  11. Brian said,

    May 13, 2024 @ 9:17 pm

    Fascinating post regarding the Chinese Jade Breath Circulation Pendant. My first time reading about it. I was immediately intrigued by the 12 sides within a circle of text (12 columns with three groups of characters inscribed top to bottom) that discusses the link between the healthy life cycle of breath to a human body and the life cycle of a seed to a plant.

    More specifically, I noticed that there is a purposeful relationship made between the drawing in of the Vital Breath into the body (i.e., “collect,” “expand,” “descend,” “sprout,” “grow,” “recede,” and become “heavenly”) with the seed into the soil of the earth — its sowing (“collection,”) then opening via water/nutrients (“expand”), then the downward turn of its roots (“descend”), then its emergence from the soil (“sprout”) and growth (“grow”), then its harvest/death (“recede”), which, in turn, allows for the spirit within the new seed, like the sun/Word, to resurrect and rise once again (“heavenly”).

    I’m also intrigued by the possibility that the jade pendant could represent the top of a stick, which might tie into the symbolism of the Jade Scepter of the Jade Emperor, the primordial God of China (which, as I discussed in my earlier work, might possibly be linked to the earlier Was Scepter of the Pharaoh of the Egyptians, i.e., a symbol of the insemination/movement/cutting-harvest agency of the sun/seed/Word via the writing/sowing spear of the northern celestial Egyptian Anu and the later northern celestial Chinese Taiyi). I also showed/discussed in SPP 328, pp. 70 & 73, the Jade Scepter/Legs is Mansion 15 of the Chinese Lunar Zodiac, which is the old winter solstice — a symbol of not only the reversal of the sun on the horizon, but the reversal of the seed within the soil (which ties into the down, then up, then down again movement discussed in the Jade Breath Circulation Pendant).

    The Jade Emperor is also linked to the creation story of the twelve Earthly Branches. In regard to this, as discussed in my earlier work, there appears to be a strong link between the first Earthly Branch, Zi (“Child”), the Chinese character for “seed” or “word,” and the shape and start of Phoenician alphazodiac (Aries — the letter couplet gimmel/daleth). As the Word is the child/seed or breath from Heaven (the breath gives rise to the vowels and consonants, which carry the sun/light/meaning within), the written script and meaning of the circular 12 sided Jade Breath Pendant is not far removed from the idea of the Word made Flesh (the sun/son made flesh/matter — a key part of the Phoenician alphazodiac), with the Word as the heavenly “Vital Breath” that empowers the body to "sprout" and "grow" via proteins/flesh. Then it recedes/dies in harvest, only to resurrect like the sun/son once again. Like the Parable of the Sower, with its promise of a harvest of “60, 80, 100,” as well as its warning of thorns that “choked it, and it yielded no grain,” the appeal “To circulate the vital breath” (with its hint of a wider circulation/harvest) appears to reflect the ultimate aim of the Jade Pendant: “follow this and you will live, oppose it and you will die.”

    In sum, I have to say that given the lack of concrete details and evidence surrounding that Jade Pendant, everything I’ve said is all pretty much pure speculation. Whoever fashioned that jade could have just simply liked a 12-sided jade for any number of reasons (including trivial). But it’s a fascinating relic, and fun to speculate about.

  12. bks said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 5:48 am

    I don't think that anyone has pointed out the unlikely idea that this could be a precursor to the game (re)invented by William Rowan Hamilton in the 19th Century:

  13. Seth said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 9:41 pm

    @bks This blog post discusses that game idea extensively:

    I'm skeptical of that theory, since I think the holes must be a significant part of whatever purpose it had. There aren't versions without the holes, and the different size holes seem to be deliberate.

  14. Alexander Bazes said,

    May 15, 2024 @ 3:42 pm

    I have often wondered: where exactly on the foot is the heel 踵 in Zhuangzi? Is it an Achilles heel (i.e. on the back of foot/ankle region) or is it on the bottom of the foot, in contact with the ground?

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