BMCR 2007.06.16

Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend

, Etruscan myth, sacred history, and legend. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006. xvi, 270 pages : illustrations, map ; 26 cm + 1 CD-ROM (4 3/4 in.). ISBN 1931707863. $59.95.

Table of Contents

In this superb book Nancy Thomson de Grummond attempts to let the Etruscans speak for themselves, through their art and inscriptions, rather than approaching Etruscan myth through parallels with Greek myth. It is hard to put down this commanding tour through the wonderful and mysterious world of the Etruscans, who always seem to be just around the corner, on the other side of the door, so familiar and yet so different. What is Etruscan, what is Greek, what is something else—we are in an impossible tangle. De G. rightly emphasizes that we must seek Etruscan gods and Etruscan tales on the basis of Etruscan evidence, if we can find them, and not seek only reflections, imitations, and distortions of Greek models, as many have done.

We are in an odd, or unique, circumstance, in our approach to Etruscan sources, because whereas we can pronounce, after a fashion, what meager writings survive, we do not understand the Etruscan language, and we never know for sure what is being said in the rare inscriptions of more than a few words. Etruscan is certainly not deciphered (as de G. claims in a rare slip, p. 10): we do not know the underlying language. Even if we had discursive written sources, such as the disciplina Etrusca or libri Acheruntici that Roman writers claim existed, we could not read them. We have 11,000 inscriptions, almost entirely names of people, gods, and spirits. The longest Etruscan inscription, on the celebrated Zagreb mummy wrapping, consists of 1,200 words; from dates and the names of gods we infer that it is a ritual calendar of some kind. Of critical importance is the Piacenza Liver, discovered in 1877, a bronze model for teaching haruspicy that is divided into 40 compartments that contain the names of gods, evidently the ruler of affairs to which that portion of the liver pertains. Vital information also comes from Martianus Capella, who lived in the fifth century AD (and founded the medieval trivium and quadrivium, the basis for education in the early medieval period). Martianus gives in Latin the names of gods associated with the sixteen divisions of the sky, a piece of Etruscan lore. To some extent we can coordinate names in Martianus with names on the liver, and de G. devotes a chapter to what we can infer about Etruscan cosmology from such slender evidence.

But the best evidence for “Etruscan myth” is from art, the principal focus of the book. De G. gives us over 200 pictures of Etruscan mirrors, objects, paintings, and sculpture. Of the pictures on the all-important bronze mirrors, once probably the possession of the female elite, she presents clear line drawings so the reader can easily follow her lucid descriptions of the often surprising events depicted on them. In spite of the title, there is more art history than myth in this book; after all, myths exist in words and the words are lost.

As evidence of Etruscan tradition, de G. blesses the reader with a chart of Etruscan gods and their Greek counterparts. However much we might desire to find native Etruscan traditions, most gods turn out to be Greek or to have close Greek equivalents. The Etruscans behaved toward Greek religion rather like the Romans, who may even have taken from the Etruscans their habit of equating local spirits with divinities prominent in Greek literature: the Roman equation of Venus with Aphrodite and Mars with Ares looks very like the Etruscan equation of Turms with Hermes and Fufluns with Dionysus; that is, the names change, but the god retains its Greek character.

Rather unexpectedly, de G. uncovers evidence that the once standard explanation of Roman gods as arising from sexless, apersonal numina, now regarded as old-fashioned, in fact accords nicely with features of the Etruscan gods. They switch sex with ease, are often plural in number, or are assembled in groups. They are vague essences without fixed attributes, appearance, or even nature. These truly Etruscan qualities are critical for understanding the complexities of narrative scenes in Etruscan art.

De G. divides her study of the material into chapters devoted to important mythic themes: prophets, creation, the principal god TINIA, mother goddesses, other gods, spirits, heroes, foundation stories, and the underworld. She attempts to reconstruct features of the stories that support the artistic representations, whose figures are often named in alphabetic writing. In this review, I will distinguish these names with all capital letters. Her reconstructions depend on contextual analysis and comparisons of the visual evidence with each other and with occasional Roman testimony.

The greatest Etruscan prophet was TAGES, perhaps associated with oracular heads that keep turning up in Etruscan art. Another was CACU, who in Vergil is a monster that Heracles killed, but in origin evidently an Etruscan prophet. CACU must be Greek for “bad,” but why is the name Greek? Other prophets include CHALCHAS (Calchas) and URPHE (Orpheus) as well as names otherwise unknown. Scenes of prophecy were suitably popular in a culture that lived according to constant divination.

TINIA, greatest of the Etruscan gods, was equated with Zeus and carried three types of thunderbolt. He also has strong attachments to the underworld and to the numinous power of boundaries. We look in vain for the Mesopotamian Great Goddess that made such an impression on western cultures. The Etruscan divine females are not earth mothers and tend to slip in and out of fixed spheres of influence. MENRVA can control the weather, especially lightning, war, prophecy, and health. UNI, equated with the Phoenician Astarte on the gold plates from Pyrgi (c. 500 BC can bring fertility and childbirth; in myth taken from Greece, she opposes Heracles, as in Etruscan pictures of him biting her nipple and of Heracles’ crib attacked by serpents.

TURAN is sex, like Aphrodite, but also nourishes babies. Several illustrations show her love affair with ATUNIS (Adonis). ARTUMIS has little importance and also is sometimes male! THESAN seems to be dawn, as other spirits may preside over the moon and the earth; she is shown with Memnon. The name of FUFLUNS, a god second in importance only to TINIA, may mean “bud,” and is like the Greek Dionysus, the Roman Liber. In art he is drunken or locked even in erotic embrace with SEMLA or AREATHA (Ariadne), but he also appears for unknown reasons in association with EIASON (Jason), a certain VESUNA, and ESIA (Hestia).

TURMS, the Etruscan Hermes, is the most represented of all Etruscan gods. Sometimes there are two TURMS in a single picture. He is present in the very popular Judgment of Paris scene. APLU (Apollo) is the most Greek of the pantheon and turns up in many places as an auxiliary character, standing at the side. USIL, a sun good, is assimilated to APLU. TIU, the moon, is never represented in art. SETHCANS (= Hephaestus) is god of crafts, and the Etruscans often represented the story of how, made drunk, he returned to Olympus to free UNI, whom he had imprisoned in a special chair.

LARAN is Ares or Mars, but MARIES is enigmatic, taking on many forms, perhaps model for the Roman Genius. NETHUNS (Neptune) is rarely represented but prominent on the Piacenza Liver and on a mirror is shown with Amymone, holding a trident. The mysterious figures ALPAN, ACHVIZR, LEINTH, and EVAN change sexes with startling ease.

Named spirits, who seem so like the ill-defined Roman numina, include CULSANS, shown bifrontal like Janus and perhaps also representing the spirit of the doorway. CILENS appears twice on the Piacenza Liver and may be the spirit of the night. SELVANS protects boundaries (like the Roman Lares), THUFLTHA maybe brings good luck. Other spirits, cast in groups, may offer models for the Roman Lares, Penates, Fates and such abstractions as Salus, Discordia, Valetudo, Favor, Fortuna, and Victoria.

Tantalizing hints of lost heroic myth survive, especially concerning the VIPINAS brothers who for some reason captured the prophet CACU, to judge from illustrations of this incident. HERCLE was highly popular in Etruria, as he was among the western Greeks, and we find illustrations of some of his Labors, accompanied by VILE (Iolaus). In a novel variant, HERCLES fights the Minotaur, and other unknown stories show him with a mysterious MLACUCH. Other Greek heroes represented are ACHLE (Achilles), especially in scenes of bloodshed, PELE (Peleus), ELINAI (Helen), PHERSE (Perseus), THETHIS (Thetis), and ATLNTA (Atalanta).

We learn a good deal about the Etruscan afterworld not from mirrors, meant for ladies’ boudoirs, but from paintings in tombs. Such scenes emphasize blood sacrifice that animates the bloodless soul. The deceased may journey on a cart to the other world, sometimes through doors guarded by demons. A rocky boundary separates the two worlds. The death-god CHARU (Charon) never propels a boat as in Greek myth, but threatens with a hammer, dressed garishly. His winged-female counterpart VANTH (though CHARU can be female too, and sometimes plural in number), is less scary. She carries snakes and holds a great key, perhaps to the door of the other world. Other monsters remind us of the Norse Valkyries, as early Etruscan representations of an enchained wolf remind us of Fenris. Even the Etruscan word AISER, taken to mean “gods,” sounds like the Norse company of the gods, the Aesir, but it is hard to know what to make of such correspondences. AITA (Hades) and PHERSIPNEI (Persephone) are king and queen of the underworld and sometimes participate in the happy life there, where the patron and his wife happily incline on couches and dine.

To accompany de G.’s rich feast of learning is a fine CD-ROM with color plates illustrating the text (of course your computer is probably across the room) and also an alphabetic catalog of all photos in the book plus numerous ones that are not. When more than one character appears in a scene, the picture is repeated under each lemma. Of course, you can project these images from a PowerPoint presentation, so that they can be used for teaching purposes, a nice bonus.

Although de G. has set out to let the Etruscans speak for themselves, and shown us many details in which they seem to do just that, there remains the disturbingly overwhelming influence of Greek art and myths and religion. I wish she had said more about this. The Etruscans appear to have led their lives in bondage to a vigorous omen-seeking that was ritualized and formalized and from an early time in alliance with alphabetic writing. Principally they are taking their omens from livers and by watching the sky, both practices of Mesopotamian origin; a clay practice liver also survives from Babylon, c. 2000 BC. An old argument wonders where the Etruscans came from, the East, or were they autochthonous. Autochthonous or no, their divination culture is Mesopotamian in origin, and one wonders how they got it. This sort of life has nothing to do with the Greeks, who looked for omens, yes, but even Hector denied their efficacy.

Omen-mongering goes with a religion where gods scarcely exist, but the world is filled with spirits and vague powers of indeterminate sex, exactly as de G. describes a whole category of Etruscan god. Such a culture has little room for traditional tales, and de G. presents scant evidence for them. Into this alien frame has poured an ocean of Greek stuff, Greek art, Greek stories, Greek gods. There is no point in denying the force of Greek culture, but whence comes the Etruscan intimacy with Greek myth, that is, Greek literature? For we are not to imagine that Greek “oral tradition” is effective in Etruria either, or that the utterly Greek iconography of the bronze mirrors comes from any native Etruscan tradition.

De G. never faces the fact that in Etruscan elite culture men, and maybe women, must have spoken Greek and read Greek in the Greek alphabet, which they used for their own purposes to keep track of events that revealed the will of the many spirits, often hostile. There were Greeks living in Etruria, including craftsmen, who were representing Greek stories and sometimes Etruscan ones, and adding Etruscan names, and the Etruscans learned from them what the stories were and how to make pictures of them. The Etruscan elite must have learned about Greek myth and Greek religion through literate means, just as later the Romans touched Greek culture in the same way. The Etruscans give us an example of cultural forms passing directly from one people to another by literate and not oral means, a model for the Romans, and I wish that de G. had found opportunity to discuss how this blend may have taken place. Mesopotamian culture, after all, passed to the Greeks by oral and not literate means.

Etruscan culture is puzzling and hard to grasp, but de G. has projected a brilliant and welcome light all across it.