BMCR 2006.08.57

The Religion of the Etruscans

, , The religion of the Etruscans. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 225 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0292796285. $50.00.

1 Responses

Table of Contents

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Religion of the Etruscans had its genesis as a series of scholarly papers delivered in 1999 at the Sixth Annual Langford Conference, hosted by the Department of Classics at The Florida State University in honor of co-editor, Erika Simon. In the first chapter, de Grummond writes that “it is a little odd, given the acknowledged importance of this subject, that there are relatively few general, sustained accounts of Etruscan religion, and there is as yet none today in the English language” (1). Perhaps it is a twist of fate that shortly before the appearance of the present book, Jane K. Whitehead’s English translation and update of Jean-René Jannot’s Devins, Dieux et Démons was published by the University of Wisconsin Press (2005). Now, scholars, students and non-specialists alike, particularly those with limited knowledge of foreign languages, have access to complementary in-depth discussions of Etruscan religion.

Planned as a handbook with a wide scholarly appeal, The Religion of the Etruscans contains a brief preface by W. Jeffrey Tatum, who discusses some of the challenges inherent in any study that seeks to “recover the nature of the Etruscans’ beliefs and practices” (xii), eight well-researched and concisely-written essays, and ample illustrations, mostly in the form of drawings and black and white photographs. Topics range from the history of the discipline and the religious significance of writing to the Etruscans’ concepts about their deities, the afterlife, and ritual space. In her “history of scholarship on Etruscan religion” (p. 1)., de Grummond, for example, not only discusses the evidence from antiquity (e.g., canonical texts such as the Libri rituales, the Libri fatales, Libri de fulguratura, Libri Acheruntici, etc.; philosophical texts such as Cicero’s De divinatione, Seneca’s Quaestiones naturales; and historical/antiquarian texts [the writings of Johannes Lydus, Livy, Martianus Capella, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Vitruvius, Varro, etc.]), but she also provides a concise overview of scholarship from the seventeenth century on.

Larissa Bonfante then surveys the extant Etruscan inscriptions for information about rituals and beliefs, noting that while all of them can be read, “not all can be understood” (p. 9). She discusses well-known inscriptions such as those found on the Zagreb mummy wrappings, the Piacenza liver, the Pyrgi gold tablets, the sarcophagus of Laris Pulenas, the Arezzo Chimaera, and the Tabula Cortonensis and argues that “writing defined and fixed the established channels of communication between gods and mortals” (p. 21). She concludes with the suggestion that “the act of writing itself was important and defined the character of rituals or sacred law and the very nature of the religion concerned” (p. 23). Chapter III is devoted to a discussion about the Etruscans’ prophets and priests. Using both Greek and Latin sources and the Etruscans’ material remains, de Grummond not only summarizes the stories of Tages, Vegoia, Cacu, and other prophets but she also outlines how to recognize the individuals responsible for communicating with the gods, called, for lack of a better term, priests/priestesses in English. In addition, she considers the various duties of these religious figures, focusing primarily on the haruspices who are most frequently referenced by Roman literary sources. Then, using evidence from “linguistics, comparative studies of religion, observations of cult practices, and the topography of excavated Etruscan sanctuaries” (p. 45), Simon lays out the basic characteristics of the Etruscan pantheon, arguing, above all, that their deities were devoted to “seeking a balance in the universe, [and] striving for peace and harmony…” (p. 57). Her essay concludes with a useful glossary highlighting the attributes, origins, and cult centers of key divinities. Jean MacIntosh Turfa enhances Simon’s discussion by providing an excellent summary of the Etruscans’ principal votive contexts and activities. She also discusses the nature and purpose of the votives, especially the anatomical ones, arguing that the latter may have been “viewed as metaphors of the human suppliant as sacrificial victim, a vulnerable, natural creature. The map to a human’s life unfolding might be perceived as written in the person’s bodily configuration and health” (p. 106). Following Turfa’s essay is a discussion by Ingrid E.M. Edlund-Berry that focuses on the different types of spaces and boundaries, both earthly and heavenly, which allowed the Etruscans to maintain political, religious and social stability. Edlund-Berry convincingly demonstrates that “the deities of boundaries were as important in the Etruscan pantheon as was the Etruscan belief that all matters were in divine hands,” and that their “network of sacred spaces and boundaries in the skies as on earth ensured the stability of the society and its belief systems,” so much so, in fact, that when these were “trespassed or just crossed by outsiders” such as the powerful Romans, “the Etruscan world of religion, and therefore life, was shattered” (p. 127).

Also insightful are the essays by Ingrid Krauskopf and Giovanni Colonna, especially since both authors usually publish in German and Italian, respectively. Although the absence of sound textual evidence makes understanding Etruscan beliefs about life after death especially challenging, Krauskopf argues for a concept “of an Afterlife, which can be thought of as a banquet,” and for the importance of the “journey into the Underworld, which was probably subdivided into a series of stages and was replete with dangers …” (78). She reinterprets the symposia scenes in late sixth/fifth century B.C.E. Tarquinian tombs as taking place in the realm of the dead, not the living, and suggests that the sacrifices and games performed by survivors both “secured a safe journey to the hereafter [and] gave the souls of the dead the possibility to come back …” (78). Colonna’s essay primarily focuses on the sanctuary at Pyrgi (he is the director of excavations there), since it not only contains examples of the four main types of Etruscan sacred architecture but it also may be “the main sanctuary of Etruria” (p. 132). He compares the evidence from Pyrgi with that provided by both well-known and newly-excavated structures in Tarquinii, Orvieto, Veii, etc., and his discussion of altar types, especially the ones made of rough stones, is especially informative as well as the first publication of this material in English.

Following Colonna’s essay, there is a glossary of key terms and two extremely beneficial appendices. The first, by Jean MacIntosh Turfa, focuses on the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar and includes both Johannes Lydus’s Greek text and the author’s English translation, while the second, edited by de Grummond, contains a number of pertinent Latin and Greek texts, which are reproduced in their original language as well as in English.

Both appendices further enhance the book’s status as an excellent handbook and resource for both scholars and students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Unfortunately, a third appendix, which was to contain an “index of [Etruscan] inscriptions” (p. 9), does not appear. This minor omission, however, in no way detracts from the overall success of the book, a major contribution to our field that fills what was once a striking and hard-to-explain void. Not only does The Religion of the Etruscans introduce its readers to a wide range of topics about this fascinating subject in a clear, logical and well-illustrated fashion, but its format, a series of essays by seven different experts, also succeeds, especially as the chapters contain plenty of cross-references that allow readers to follow-up on particular deities or concepts. With its appendices, glossaries, overviews, and reassessments, the book is an essential read for anyone interested both in Etruscan religion and this fascinating culture in general.


Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Introduction: The History of the Study of Etruscan Religion

Larissa Bonfante, Etruscan Inscriptions and Etruscan Religion

Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Prophets and Priests

Erika Simon, Gods in Harmony: The Etruscan Pantheon

Ingrid Krauskopf, The Grave and Beyond in Etruscan Religion

Jean MacIntosh Turfa, Votive Offerings in Etruscan Religion

Ingrid E.M. Edlund-Berry, Ritual Space and Boundaries in Etruscan Religion

Giovanni Colonna, Sacred Architecture and the Religion of the Etruscans.

[For a response to this review by Nancy Thomson de Grummond, please see BMCR 2006.10.34.]