Archaeologists recently re-evaluated a remarkable relic from the ancient Etruscan civilization in central Italy – a massive, elaborately decorated bronze lamp that may have been used in rituals honoring the Greek god Dionysus.

The lamp, found in a ditch near the town of Cortona, has long puzzled scholars due to its unique design and mysterious symbolism. But a new analysis by researchers at the University of Melbourne sheds fresh light on this enigmatic artifact.

Standing over 2 feet wide and weighing nearly 130 pounds, the bronze lamp features an intricate spider-like structure with 16 figures adorned with bull-like horns. For decades, experts believed these figures represented the Greek god of the river Acheloos, however, the Melbourne team argues this was a misinterpretation.

Detail of the Etruscan lamp of Cortona
Detail of the Etruscan lamp of Cortona. Credit: Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona

Examining literary sources and iconographic evidence, the researchers determined the lamp’s decorations more likely depict the “thiasos” – the ecstatic retinue of followers surrounding the god Dionysus.

Known as the Greek deity of wine, revelry and the mystical, Dionysus was often portrayed with bovine features, explaining the lamp’s curious horned figures.

The lamp’s dating has also been a point of contention, with previous estimates placing it centuries later than the Melbourne team’s new analysis. Using comparative studies, they concluded the lamp was crafted around 480 BC – much earlier than many had thought.

The thiasos of Dionysus in a sarcophagus
The thiasos of Dionysus in a sarcophagus. Credit: Sailko / Wikimedia Commons

This revised timeline aligns with the height of Etruscan civilization, a rich cultural tradition that flourished in central Italy before eventually being subsumed by the rising Roman Republic.

The lamp, the researchers believe, may have been used in Dionysian mystery cults, serving as a sacred object in rituals honoring the god of wine and spiritual transcendence.

The lamp was probably an object associated with the mystery cult of Dionysus, said lead author Ronak Alburz. Its decoration represents the Dionysian thiasos, perhaps immersed in a cultic representation of the cosmos of the mysteries in celebration of Dionysus.


Sources

Alburz, Ronak and Tol, Gijs Willem. “A Re-Evaluation of the Iconography of the Etruscan Bronze Lamp of Cortona” Etruscan and Italic Studies, 2024. doi.org/10.1515/etst-2023-0019


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