Comparative Guts

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Athenian red-figure cup attributed to Oltos

examination of the liver of a sacrificial victim (‘hieroscopy’), ​c.500 B.C.
Cervetri, Museo Nazionale Cerite
Photo: Jaime Ardiles-Arce

Representation of warfare is a feature of Greek painted pottery from the earliest figurative images from the eighth century BCE. In the second half of the sixth century and into the early fifth century Athenian pot painters became interested in showing a very wide range of what soldiers do in war, beyond the actual fighting. A series of black-figure images, and a small number of red-figure images, show the examination of the liver of an animal sacrificed in advance of battle to discover whether the omens for battle are good. We know about the examination of victims’ livers from literary accounts, and Greek armies included manteis (‘seers’) skilled in the art of divination so that expert interpretation could be offered. The images take a very similar form in each case. The liver, large, amorphous and often dangling, is held out by a person whose relatively small stature signals enslaved status as well as youth. It is inspected by a soldier in full armour, carrying a shield. The shields bear various devices, including bucrania and a human leg: in this particular case the choice of a cow as a shield device reminds of the bovine victim sacrificed. Frequently, as here, behind the figure carrying the liver is an old man – in this case the old figure is named Nestor and the scene thus given an Iliadic setting. Most representations are on amphoras, this one is on a cup attributed to Oltos and dating to around 500 BCE.