Human Sacrifice on an Etruscan Funerary Urn

Bonfante, L. 1984. “Human Sacrifice on an Etruscan Funerary Urn.” American Journal of Archaeology 88:531-539.

Presenter: Clareese Chin


Courtney Freese;
Ali Gonzalez;
Allen Kupetz;
Ariana Louder

12 thoughts on “Human Sacrifice on an Etruscan Funerary Urn

    • We know that the Etruscans had a predilection for incorporating other cultures imagery and symbolism into their own. I could easily see Etruria incorporating such powerful symbols from their northern neighbors. My question would be did they ever go beyond incorporating these symbols on their art?

  1. Bonfante leaves out no detail when describing what the Celts did with prisoners, or what the Parthians did, or what the Assyrians did, but she fails to convincingly argue that Etruscan human sacrifice was a common motif. From the very start I was skeptical, as the origin of her entire argument was based on a single piece of art similar in ways to another now lost vase, Bonfante seems very hesitant to give any evidence to her argument, saying that “Vergil may have seen some Etruscan representations of severed heads” and “The northern Etruscan cities, from the fifth century on, were familiar with the Celtic custom of displaying the decapitated heads of enemies.” Suggesting a motif because everyone around the Etruscans committed ritual sacrifice does not prove or preclude human sacrifice as a motif in Etruscan art. That is like saying soup cans are a common painting motif today because lots of people have a copy of the one famous painting of a soup can. The entire tone of the piece, when talking about Etruscan sacrifices, creates the feeling that they are notable because they are the exceptions, not the rule. Therefore Bonfante’s paper does not convincingly argue a human sacrifice motif.

    • I am also troubled by the argument that figure wearing a fillet = sacrifice. Figures wear fillets when they perform sacrifices, as well as apparently when they are the intended victim. If fillet doesn’t automatically = victim, the whole discussion becomes far more difficult to justify.

  2. I am not convinced by Bonfante’s arguments of human sacrifice but rather I think this is a strong argument showing the influences of Greek myth in Etruscan art and how the Etruscans interpreted and made their own versions of Greek myths. I think it’s hard to compare the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphengenia to killing captured enemies and putting their heads on gates. It is a completely different context. The former is an innocent victim who was killed for Artemis and the latter seems more of a way of extermination rather than a sacrifice to a particular god. This is like saying in modern times a murderer who receives the death penalty is a human sacrifice. I think Bonfante needs to define the differences between human sacrifice, ritual killing, and mass murder because every individual’s definition of these could be different. There also is very little physical evidence of human sacrifice, we only see depictions on vases and mirrors which all have been identified as part of the Iphengnia myth and could just be an Etruscan retelling.

      • I personally don’t recall if the albino teen had evidence of being killed or if he was just simply in the crevasse (i.e., he died and was placed there), but that is irrelevant when considering how rare it still is. One must also consider the fact that the epileptic albino was, in the minds of the Etruscans, was a physical anomaly. It was perfectly reasonable to believe that a strangely-colored teenager who convulsed at odd times and spoke in tongues (presumably) talked to the gods, and would therefore, if he in fact were sacrificed, make perfect sense. The albino teen is notable because he is so unusual; he is more than just two random heads floating above Orestes.

  3. I do not believe the author convinces her reader on a motif of human sacrifice in the alabaster urn. In the article, the author provides shaky sources and ambiguous evidence in supporting her argument . For instance, she states “the relief decoration of its casket represents a unique scene whose identification is controversial but which surely includes reference to human sacrifice”. She continues to describe the scene and its representation of Orestes and Pylades. Bonafante states that since the original models have been changed, modified and translated, the resulting scenes are hard to identify. The lack of substance and concrete support in this statement does not provide the readers the credibility they need to support her argument.
    She later makes a shift from her argument to state that Etruscan craftsmen had an indifference to the Greek mythological scenes they were creating. I guess this implies that the Etruscans could not accurately depict the narrative?

    If this isn’t confusing enough, she goes back to her original argument by confirming that the identification of this urn belongs to the series of preparation for the sacrifice of Orestes and Pylades. She provides a couple of sources to support her claim. However, I do not believe these sources are credible to her argument because in the footnotes they say that only small attempts have been made to prove that the urn represents a different scene.

  4. I agree that Bonfante’s argument is weak; she takes two ambiguous instances of a particular motif and creates a very elaborate, confusing and not very well-grounded argument for human sacrifice. Do you think that there is anything that Bonfante could have done to bolster her argument? Or was there just a general lack of concrete evidence to work with in this case?

    • Like I said in my reply maybe if she described what exactly she considers as a human sacrifice to distinguish it from ritual killing that would have helped. But there still is a huge lack of evidence.

      • I agree with both of you. While she asserts her argument, It feels as though she kind of just says, “this is what I think” but the fails to proceed to give any kind of concrete evidence to move her idea beyond being just an idea or theory and into something substantial. A lot of the article feels merely observatory.

    • I think that Bonafante should first present her argument and the reasoning for her claim more clearly in her introductory paragraphs. Then, she should utilize adequate and concise sources to back up her main points within the body paragraphs of her essay. It would be helpful to understand her argument better if she had sources that were not so “wishy-washy”, so to speak. She should have structured the organization of her paper to support her claim, not have sources that refute it.

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