BMCR 2008.04.26

Etruscan Myths

, , Etruscan myths. The legendary past. London and Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006. 80 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0292706065 £8.99.

Etruscan Myths is the latest offering in the British Museum series, The Legendary Past. It brings together two leading scholars in Etruscan studies; Larissa Bonfante, Professor of Classics at New York University and Judith Swaddling, senior curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum.

As with others in the series, the book is aimed squarely at the novice; its stated intention, ‘to inspire readers to look for representations of Etruscan myths on Etruscan objects in the British Museum and other museums around the world’ (10). It assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. To this end it is helpful in both its lay out and in its use of reference material. Following a good, concise map (6), the first chapter ends with sections on comparative chronology and on the pronunciation of Etruscan names (10). The final chapter ‘The Etruscan Pantheon’ catalogues the main Etruscan divinities concluding with a useful comparative list of Etruscan gods alongside their Greek and Roman equivalents (78). The book finishes with a brief Further Reading list to Etruscan and Greek myth (79), and an index (79-80).

Etruscan Myths is an enjoyable and easy read, split into six chapters each dealing with a major theme of myth: The Trojan War; The Theban Cycle; The Underworld; Hercle, Theseus and other heroes; Prophecy and the Evil Eye; and Blood for the Dead. A seventh, The Aftermath, looks at the influence of Etruscan myth on later Roman myth and beyond, with a generous nod to Macaulay’s epic, Horatius (62-64). (The enduring appeal of this latter was evidenced by the delight of my 13 year-old nephew at its language and rhythm. I should add that he thoroughly enjoyed this book.)

There are 53 illustrations. One of the great joys of Etruscan art is the extraordinary imagery that appears on the many mirrors that have survived and the subsequent, usually easy to understand and read, line drawings of them. However, this brings me to the first of several minor problems I have with the book. With so many visible inscriptions of names on the mirrors, why is there no depiction and transliteration of the Etruscan alphabet?

Given the nature and number of black and white mirror drawings (twenty), it is also a shame that no illustrations are in colour. There is a feeling of frustration when one reads comments such as, ‘another colourful, lively rendering of the Judgement of Paris on a so-called Pontic vase’ (14); also when one realizes that the first-time reader of Etruscan myth has no chance to appreciate the extraordinary polychromy of Etruscan painted tombs, building attachments, and cinerary urns. In the same vein, the image of a fairly monotone sphinx on the cover of the book is a somewhat uninspiring choice.

My main concern with the book however is its understandable, but unfortunate, Hellenocentricity. Understandable of course, in that with no extant literary sources we can only guess at the exact origin, nature and meaning of Etruscan myth, relying instead on its (in part) obvious antecedents in Greek myth; unfortunate, in that Etruscan myth subsequently appears as a by-product of Greek myth rather than a vibrant mythology in its own right. This is exemplified by the use of Greek, not Etruscan names in the Index (80). Why is ‘Heracles’ indexed in a book entitled Etruscan Myth, not ‘Hercle’? Why is ‘Tusna, swan of Turan’ indexed, yet ‘Turan’ is not; instead you need to know to go to the concordance (78) to find that Turan = Aphrodite. And why the very confused and confusing ‘Hercle, Theseus and other heroes’ as a chapter heading, instead of ‘Hercle, These and other heroes’?

On 49, Bonfante and Swaddling suggest that, ‘Turan, the Etruscan goddess of love and fertility, is … different from her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite. In Etruscan art we seem to see a juncture of sex and death embodied in the image of the beautiful goddess’. This implies a fundamental difference between Greek Aphrodite and Etruscan Turan. What is ignored however, and in fact ignored throughout the book, is the existence of a South Italian middle-ground with its own mythology and imagery that had evolved from its pan-Greek ‘colonial’ past, influenced no doubt by Greek Etruscan contacts in Campania and with the native peoples of the south. From South Italian imagery, it would seem quite obvious that Aphrodite, both in conjunction with her ‘familiars’ (Eros and her swan), and from the prevalence of her imagery on funerary pottery, has much in common with Etruscan Turan and ideas of a goddess of sex and death.

In comparing the imagery of mythology, and indeed using Greek imagery as evidence for the meaning and identification of Etruscan mythology on the basis of known figures, it should be remembered that most Greek evidence is from the 6th and 5th centuries, most South Italian from the 4th, most Etruscan from the 6th, 4th and 3rd. Given the ever changing nature of mythology, both over time and from place to place, comparing like for like is always going to be riddled with danger.

A great chance, I feel, has been lost to give pride of place to Etruscan mythological and religious identities in their own right, and to show that their fundamental gods, Tinia, Uni, Turan, Nethuns and Fufluns came from somewhere other than a large mountain in Northern Greece. Bonfante and Swaddling suggest that during the 8th/7th centuries BC, the Etruscans ‘adopt’ Greek myth. I would suggest that ‘adapt’ would be a far more appropriate word. The difference is significant.

There are some odd assumptions or minor errors: why is the Hercle and Busiris pot comic? On the contrary, it would seem quite graphically violent (39 and fig. 24). Why should ‘a man and a woman having intercourse indicate the consummation of marriage’ (52)? Why (that old chestnut), must imagery of a myth, the story of which has survived in the text of a play, be referential to theatre (27)? The iunx, the small bird after which the magic wheel of Turan is named, is a wryneck not a woodpecker (49). And finally, what Further Reading list to Etruscan myth and religion is complete without D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places?!

This said, there is no doubting that this is an enjoyable and important introduction to the enigmatic Etruscans. The gravitas of its publishers and authors should ensure a wide and ready market for what is an accessible, well-presented, and cheap book.