Etruscan Oil Lamp

Artifacts July/August 2024

(Courtesy Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona; © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY)

What is it?

Hanging oil lamp






Ca. 480 B.C.


Diameter 23 inches
Weight 127 pounds


Cortona, Italy

For the nearly two centuries since this Etruscan oil lamp was found near the city of Cortona, Italy, it has confounded scholars. It was unearthed in a ditch, so its original context is unknown. And its combination of imagery is unique in the ancient Mediterranean world, leaving nothing to compare it with that might hint at how it was used. On the bottom of the lamp, at the center, is an image of a fearsome Gorgon surrounded by snakes. This Gorgon is encircled by a frieze of animals, including dolphins, in combat. In the next ring, crouching male demigods known as Sileni playing musical instruments alternate with winged female Sirens. Finally, there are images of faces flanking the nozzles into which oil was poured, which scholars have traditionally interpreted as representing the river god Achelous.

But the key to understanding the lamp may lie in a case of mistaken identity. “When I looked at the lamp, something wasn’t quite right,” says archaeologist Ronak Alburz of the University of Melbourne. “I couldn’t understand why Achelous would be depicted because there’s no meaningful relationship between the god, Sileni, and Sirens.” Instead, Alburz believes the faces—shown here as separate details—depict Dionysus as an orbiting sun god. In the cosmology of the Etruscans, who flourished in central Italy between the eighth and third centuries B.C., the sky was divided into 16 regions. Alburz believes that the lamp’s 16 images of Dionysus in combination with its other figures, who are often associated with the god, provide evidence that it depicts Dionysus’ thiasus, or retinue, performing an ecstatic ritual. She thinks the lamp likely once decorated a temple where rites associated with the Dionysian mysteries were performed. “There’s sparse knowledge of Dionysus’ place in Etruria,” says Alburz, “so any new evidence is very valuable.”

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