Skull Cup


ca. 18th century

Metalwork and human skull

Catalog Number
C2004.8.1a-b (HAR 65333)

Rubin Museum of Art

The skull cup is a symbolic tantric ritual object. It often appears held by deities or Tibetan Buddhist masters, such as Milarepa or Padmasambhava. Generally, the skull signifies the impermanent, illusory, and empty nature of all things. This key philosophical concept applies to the understanding of one’s own self as well as the existence of external objects. The skull is often paired with a flaying knife, as seen in images of tantric deities such as Vajrayogini. Both implements are meant to focus the practitioner’s physical and mental processes, the foundational contemplative goals of tantric practices, aimed to remove any false conceptions of an independent, substantial self.