Abstract: Beauty and Violence: Matricide Myths on Etruscan Bronze Mirrors

Intricately engraved bronze mirrors not only symbolized the status, prosperity and superiority of their owners but they also reinforced the cultural importance of adornment, marriage and the family in aristocratic Etruscan society.  While their polished obverses provided multiple opportunities for self-transformation, the changeless scenes on the non-reflecting sides functioned as a sophisticated form of visual communication within the domestic sphere, evoking the values, beliefs, aspirations, and fears of their patrons and users.  Not surprisingly, their themes varied considerably, from the joys, challenges, and tensions of family life to reflections on beauty, fertility, heroism, power, fate and immortality. 

In this talk, I will focus on some of the narratives that embodied the Etruscans’ social and cultural expectations about motherhood, a subject that appears on mirrors produced throughout Etruria between the fifth and early third centuries BCE.  While most of these scenes proclaim a close bond between mothers and their sons, others illustrate moments rife with tension and hostility, portraying women whose behavior transgresses social and cultural paradigms.  Sometimes, as in the case of Uni (Hera), who rejected her baby son Sethlans (Hephaistos), there is a positive outcome to the conflict that is portrayed, but at other times, the hostility results in a horrific act: matricide.  The broader implications of the mirrors’ matricide myths will be at the center of my discussion, which will focus, in particular, on the scenes that depict the moment just before Cluthumustha (Klytaimnestra) dies at the hands of her grown son, Urusthe (Orestes).  What justified the inclusion of this shocking confrontation on these objects of beauty and transformation?  To whom was the narrative directed, and how does it correlate with the apparent privileges enjoyed by elite Etruscan women?  By comparing the mirror representations to the story’s treatment in funerary and religious art, it will become clear that their functional context—the domestic sphere—played an important role not only in terms of the narrative’s visualization but also with respect to its message to their users, individuals very much like Klytaimnestra herself.  


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Bonfante, L. and J. Swaddling.  2006.  Etruscan Myths.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.

de Grummond, N.T.  2006.  Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

van der Meer, L.B.  1995.   Interpretatio Etrusca: Greek Myths on Etruscan Mirrors. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

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