Bad Blood? Varying Attitudes on Human Sacrifice in Archaic Greek Art

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In the ancient religious imagination, catastrophic events – plagues, droughts, natural disasters – were frequently seen as manifestations of divine wrath that necessitated extraordinary ritual responses to quell. These responses frequently consisted in intensified forms of sacred violence, the most extreme of which was human sacrifice. The corpus of Greek literature is rife with myths of human sacrifice. In spite of this rich mythic repertoire, Greek artists produced scenes of human sacrifice rather infrequently and drew upon an extremely restricted range of subjects. The extant corpus of human sacrificial images totals fewer than 50 specimens and almost all of them feature the maidens Polyxena or Iphigeneia as the victim. In the Archaic era (700-480 BCE), painters and sculptors were almost exclusively interested in the sacrificial fate of Polyxena. Archaic representations of Polyxena’s sacrifice are remarkable for their overt treatment of the physical violence to which the maiden was subjected, in some cases going so far as to visualize the blood gushing forth from her perforated neck. Interest in the violent and gory aspect of the sacrificial ritual diminishes in the closing decades of the Archaic period. The title of the proposed talk, bad blood, has a twofold sense; both senses refer to the underlying subject of belief and to the main arguments of this paper: The first sense is idiomatic and indicative: Polyxena’s sacrifice was a matter of bad blood, since it resulted from the need to placate the wroth and aggrieved ghost of Achilles, who denied the Greeks safe passage home until he was granted the spoils due to him (cf. Eur. Hek. 35-44; Quint. Smyr 14.324-338). The second, more literal sense is interrogative: To wit, was the shedding of Polyxena’s blood bad per se? While Greek authors of the Classical period and beyond suggest that human sacrifice was universally condemned as an unthinkably barbaric offense and a violation of ritual norms, earlier extant literary sources offer no such clear ruling. However, this situation changes when the small yet iconographically remarkable group of pre-Classical visual representations of human sacrifice are considered. In these images, one may detect a diversity of attitudes or positions on the ritual of human sacrifice, individual as well as collective, that range from acceptance to outright repudiation. This range of attitudes is not, however, neatly confined to the proverbial frame of the image or the mythical context of the event. Like the mythic cast of characters, contemporary ancient viewers were meant to participate in the discursive dynamic, bringing their individual beliefs and attitudes to bear on the scene and its significance. In other words, these representations imply a multiplicity of attitudes (and the beliefs that inform them) among the implied viewers of these artworks.


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