What is a whirling dervish? And what does it have to do with spinning tops?

by | Spinning Tops

Have you ever heard of a whirling dervish?

It sounds fantastical, and somewhat mysterious. Hearing this term for the first time, it sounds like it could be a type of tropical storm, a dessert, or an item you might find in the power tools section of Home Depot. It’s none of these. But it’s actual meaning is far from disappointing. Whirling dervish is a concept filled with history, culture, and inspiration.

Severe weather
Power tool

This short article will fill you on where the term originates from and how it’s use has grown and evolved.

What is a whirling dervish?

Dervish is a Persian word that broadly refers to followers of a Sufi Muslim religious order known as the Mevlevi Brotherhood. Dervishes participate in wild dancing rituals that are notable for their whirling movements. These began in the early 1200s, but are still practiced by the Sufi today.

This brotherhood was founded by the mystic poet Rumi, who is also responsible for the whirling dancing ritual. It is said that he was walking within earshot of a goldsmith and began dancing in a whirling pattern to the sound of the hammer. He became dizzy, went into a trance, and believed that he felt god.

Since then, dervishes have participated in elaborate whirling that results in a mesmerizing trance-like effect and is thought to achieve a release of the soul from earthly ties. In fact, visitors to Istanbul can purchase a ticket and watch the whirling take place live.

Check it out for yourself in this video (because we can’t all hop on the next flight to Istanbul!):

The ceremony in which the whirling takes place is known as a sema. As they whirl, dervishes hold their right arm up to receive blessings from heaven. One can appreciate the dreamy state that results from the methodical, repetitive, coordinated movements. Those who have seen the ceremony performed describe the experience as quite intimate. Some recall how austere and earnest the dervishes appeared, with their movements seemingly effortless and perfect.

‘Whirling dervish’ in everyday language

Perhaps you’ve heard a parent tell their child to stop jumping around like a whirling dervish.

As a result of the captivating dervish ritual described above, use of term whirling dervish has expanded. Dervishes have become a source of inspiration for how we describe actions, items, and ideas.

To say one is “whirling like a dervish” might mean that they are working quickly, turning around and around. For example, feverishly slapping at mosquitoes.

Some dictionaries now include dervish as an adjective or non-proper noun. Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines it as someone who whirls “with the abandonment of a dervish.”

Dervish is in the dictionary as a noun

Here are a few examples of the term popping up in literature.

From The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster by Hugh Cook:

No longer was Zozimus glorious, for his bright-shining armor had been mired by the splattering muck of the encampment, and the dervish wildness of his bloodshot eyes, combined with his unkempt condition, made him look three parts lunatic.

From A Daystar of Fear by Geoffrey Jenkins:

He spun like a dervish, turning eccentric rings as the blindness overwhelmed him, then dropped to the floor.

From The Only Game by Patrick Ruell:

She could dance like a dervish, march like a soldier, or hop like a one-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder.

Why has use of this term expanded beyond the small areas of the world in which the dervish ceremony is actually performed? I believe there are two main reasons. First, we are fascinated by any type of trance-like state. Second, we can related to the feeling that arises from spinning our bodies. As children, we loved whirling and the light-headed feeling that came with it. This is evidenced by games and activities such as playground roundabouts, tilt-a-whirl rides, and ring-around-the-rosie. Whirling dervishes are both fascinating and relatable at the same time.

Spinning tops and other things inspired by whirling dervishes

As a result of the interesting history of whirling dervishes and the expanded use of the phrase, there are occasionally toys, products, and made-up places and creatures named after dervishes and their dancing ritual.

Here are a few fun examples:

  • Magic: the Gathering has a Whirling Dervish card in its Legends set.
  • There is a wizarding equipment shop in Harry Potter called Dervish and Banges.
  • The life simulation adventure video game Slime Rancher features a character known as Dervish Slime.
Whirling Dervish card from Magic: the Gathering
Dervish Slime

The term also seems fitting for toys that spin or are otherwise meditative or engrossing to watch.

I’ve come across a number of spinning tops that have been given the dervish namesake. Some are made to actually resemble a dervish whirling:

The spinning tops below are designed by a Pakistani artist and inspired by whirling dervishes:

Whirling dervish spinning tops by Tahir Mahmood

There are also whirling dervish-inspired ornaments and jewelry:

Dervish ornaments by TheGreenGoblin
Dervish necklace by Neferka

The necklace shown above is advertised with the following insightful poem:

I have been whirling since the sunset

Because a child with a white scarf

Told me I could see your face in the stars

If the half moon aligns with Vega and Polaris

And the wind blows the clouds away

If I spin fast enough

If I get spun drunk

I will rise above my pointy tip

Leave the ground with a silver sound

Drill the sky

You will be there


I lied to you

I have been spinning since I’ve known myself

Because if I stop

I fall

How neat that cultures and rituals can inspire us in so many ways. Get your own small, metal embodiment of the whirling dervish – a precision spinning top – from the Scovie top shop!

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