(Detail from Brueghel's Painting)


Originally played as an adult gambling game with possible origins in Ancient Rome, the little girl (with her back to us) in this detail from Bruegel's painting is holding a Teetotum in her left hand.

According to David Parlett (Oxford History of Board Games, 1999 pp 29-30), a Teetotum is a stick or spindle embedded through a cubic die, so that only four sides of the die could be used in the game. While the game became a popular 16th century German game, Parlett reports that it was also "...known by its French name toton, evidently a corruption of the Latin totum... It's English counterpart appears in the early 18th century as a square piece of board with a spindle through the center, allowing it to spin like a top".


A somewhat later version is shown in the graphic at the right. It is an English ivory teetotum dated about 1800. (This photograph is a detail from R.C. Bell, (Board & Table Games From Many Civilizations: Volume I, Dover 1979, fig. 160.) Parlett indicates that later the square was modified into a polygon as shown in the graphic on the right. At this time all six sides of a die were made available on the teetotum. Partlett remarks that in time the teetotum polygon became flattened, and thus we have the cardboard device with a metal spinner that is included with board games in place of dice-like implements.

How To Play The Game

Each player places a certain amount of money into a central "pot". The player who's turn it is, takes the spindle and spins the teetotum. The size of the spindle in Brueghel's painting suggests that two hands were required at that time to spin. Later, spindles where shortened so a player could spin the spindle like a top using two fingers. The spindle is spun on a flat surface, and when it stops spinning, the uppermost external side of the die indicates the "fate" of the player.

Eventually, the markings on the die were changed so that each of the four external sides of the die on the spindle were marked with a letter. Depending upon the country in which the game was played, the letters varied. Parlett offers the following:

Although the girl holding the teetotum in Brughel's painting is standing outside of a building, normally, this game is a "Tablegame" - that is it is played inside a building, on a table! To see more information about this game, click on the "DREIDEL" item in the left menu panel.

Last update February 9, 2010