Theses Doctoral

Human Sacrifice in Greek Antiquity: Between Myth, Image, and Reality

Fowler, Michael Anthony

This dissertation offers an archaeologically and art historically grounded inquiry into the actuality, form, and meaning of human sacrifice from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period. It opens with a critical, up-to-date review of the corpus of proposed archaeological evidence for human sacrifice in the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Greek civilizations, wherein it is argued that rituals of this kind were rare but nevertheless a historical reality, performed in special or extraordinary circumstances at least until the Late Archaic period. The rarity of human sacrifice in the archaeological record is a direct expression of its exceptional nature; the unmatched potency of sacrificing a human being was necessitated only in the most unusual or extreme situations: to quell the unyielding wrath of the gods or to honor a deceased person who was imagined as possessing superhuman stature. The evidence of individual cases of human sacrifice indicates that the ritual could take a variety of forms, some involving heightened degrees of violence. After arguing for the historicity of human sacrifice, the dissertation shifts to a comprehensive analysis of artistic representations of human sacrifice, with a particular interest in their ritual aspect. These images, it is argued, should be interpreted in several, mutually inclusive ways – not only as metaphors or conceptual foils to sacrificial norms, but also as ritually plausible representations of a phenomenon that seems to have existed at least into the later sixth century BCE. Apart from a small group of Bronze Age seals decorated with motifs possibly associated with human sacrifice, the first secure evidence of human sacrificial representations date to the seventh century BCE and continue through to the end of the Hellenistic period. Like the archaeological cases, the visual sources form a comparatively small corpus. The subject matter is exclusively mythical and almost entirely drawn from myths of Polyxena and Iphigeneia; only rarely do artists explicitly represent the bloody violence of sacrifice. Images of the death blow are almost exclusively produced in the Archaic era – a time during which there is contemporary archaeological evidence for human sacrifices in funereal contexts – and involve only Polyxena. Interestingly, the cessation of material evidence is contemporaneous with a shift in the iconography toward the emotionally pregnant moments leading up to the sacrifice. The roughly 100-year overlap between the archaeological and visual evidence presents the possibility that artists drew upon elements of known instances of human sacrifice, or at the very least the two forms of evidence are indirectly related, in that both are inspired by myth. While human sacrifice does not seem to have persisted into the Classical period and beyond, artists continued, as they had in the Archaic period, to construct ritually plausible images with compositional analogues in other, highly codified iconographies, most notably those of animal sacrifice and the wedding. In this way, even as artists began to explore ever more the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of these sacrificial myths, they continued to invest them with a reality and an immediacy that far outlived the ritual’s practical existence.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Mylonopoulos, Ioannis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 21, 2019