Konstantinos Mougolias and…the art of spinning tops
The spinning top (known in antiquity as the stromvos, strovilos or vemvix) represents a timeless toy for both children and adults. It has a long history and exists in almost all cultures. Reference to the unique toy can be found in Homer’s Iliad (ra. X, I. 413), when Ajax throws a “stone that spins around like a top” just before it hit his enemy, Hector, in the chest during their combat.
This month, I had the opportunity to speak with Konstantinos Mougolias, a master craftsman in Greece, who is keeping history alive as he creates vibrant tops for children and collectors today.
Mr. Mougolias, tell us a bit about your childhood. Where were you born? What your childhood was like?
I was born in Keratsini, Piraeus, but I went to primary school in a small village in Kalavrita. Family circumstances took me there and I was raised by my grandfather who was an animal breeder. I lived there with him in the forest and it turned out to be a very fortunate time in my life. I had the chance to witness the “old life”, to encounter an older generation and to see a more traditional culture.
My grandfather and my uncle used to deal with wood crafting and they hand made shepherd’s crooks. Because we lived in the woods, they could easily acquire the wood supplies necessary to create the crooks.
Do you have any memories that you feel led you towards this profession?
Actually, I didn’t play with spinning tops when I was young, we had other toys. The first time I saw a spinning top that had a rope on it was in Keratsini in 1973, but it was a toy that wasn’t very popular at the time. The peak of spinning tops in Greece was in the 1950s and 1960s. Imagine, they were selling these tops in the marketplace.
I have done some folklore research and I found that the popularity of spinning tops lasted for a very long time. In the mid 1980s these toys were played with in folksy neighborhoods like Piraeus or Peristeri and on various islands, like Skopelos and Kos.
What did you study at University?
I studied archeology in Thessaloniki and I worked for some time in this field. I took part in excavations in different cities of Northern Greece, like Vergina and Pieria. It had nothing to do with my current job. Later on I quit archeology and looked for something that would allow me to express myself more.
This is quite a different profession and craft. What made you want to create these handmade toys?
I quit archeology because I felt the need to work as a freelancer, to “freely” schedule my day. I was searching for work that I could start on my own, and then I thought of the spinning tops. However, I integrated various archaeological references that stemmed from my studies. My memories of my grandfather and his wood processing along with my first attempt to sell the tops I made led me to this career path of handmade spinning top creation. I was also inspired by the rotating Dervishes. And that first day, my tops were sold-out!
What made you choose spinning tops? Why not another toy?
One day I saw a top spinning and I was enchanted by its image. The spinning action is a magical representation of the true nature of our universe; it is constantly turning around in perpetual motion, no matter where we are or when we notice it. We might not be fully aware of what exactly is happening, yet we feel like we can tune in to the Cosmic Wheel. And we simply can’t stop smiling as we gaze upon it…
Was it difficult to begin a business like this? Did you encounter any obstacles?
In Greece, being a freelancer is very difficult. However, I started this job during a prosperous period, approximately 2003, and it was a success. Another positive factor was the rise in interest and demand for handmade crafts. I was able to bring back an “obsolete, forgotten object” and therefore, serve a vintage art of great significance that already had so many admirers.
Given that competition in the toy industry is quiet big, have you found challenges in making these wooden spinning tops today?
Well, I’m not really competing in the toy industry. My main target group is collectors – adults who love collecting spinning tops. I also create spinning tops for Christenings (as commemorative gifts). I have a small workshop where I create, with love and devotion, a variety of wooden or metal tops, yo-yos and other lovely crafts. I don’t do large production though.
When did you make your first toy and what is your most popular seller right now?
I created my first toy in 1999, it was a traditional spinning top with a rope. Today, traditional tops are also very popular and are considered to be lucky. They are frequently ordered for children’s Christenings.
You have been to various exhibitions and have also won an award. What was this experience like?
Since 2003, I have annually attended a major exhibition for handcrafts where I demonstrate my toy collections. It’s true that I have won an award in the National Competition of Toys which was organized by the Marianna Vildridis Institution in Thessaloniki and I’m very proud of it.
What are your future plans?
In February, I will be in Paris to participate in the International Festival of Tops. I was invited there and it’s a big honor for me, a great recognition of my work. The hosts learned of my work and actually contacted me to participate in this festival.
I wish you good luck in the festival and thank you for sharing a bit of your passion and craft with us!
Thank you very much and I also wish Politismos good luck!
Learn more about Kostas Mougolias’s beautiful handmade toys at his website: Svouropoieion to Aeikiniton http://www.aeikiniton.gr/