Etruscan Myths

[ Classics ]

Etruscan Myths

By Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling

An introduction to the world of the Etruscans and their mythology, plentifully illustrated from the vast collection of the British Museum and other international museums.

For sale in the United States, its dependencies, Canada, and Latin America only

2006

$14.95$10.02

33% website discount price

Paperback

6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | 80 pp. | 40 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-70606-4

The Etruscans were a people of sophisticated culture and technology who lived in the area between Florence and Rome. Their civilization flourished for nearly a thousand years before being subsumed by the Roman Empire, but they left a substantial legacy to western civilization. In antiquity they were known as a wealthy, luxury-loving people, fond of banqueting and music and deeply religious. They were highly literate, but their literature has not survived, so we turn to Etruscan art to tell us about their mythology and beliefs. Their plentiful, spontaneous art also tells us a great deal about their lives and about the importance of women in their aristocratic society. Most informative of their own distinctive and colorful beliefs are their interpretations of scenes from Greek mythology, reflecting the importance of goddesses and demons in their religion, as well as scenes of the human sacrifice they practiced. This book serves as an excellent introduction to the world of the Etruscans and their mythology and is plentifully illustrated from the vast collection of the British Museum and other international museums.

  • What do we know about Etruscan myths?
  • Notes on chronology and pronunciation of Etruscan names
  • The Trojan War
  • The Theban Cycle
  • The Underworld
  • Hercle, Theseus and other heroes
  • Prophecy and the Evil Eye
  • Blood for the Dead
  • The Aftermath
  • The Etruscan Pantheon
  • Concordance of deities
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Picture credits
  • Index

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The Etruscans were one of the most important and influential peoples of the classical world. There continues to be much popular mythology about the Etruscans themselves, claiming that they are altogether a mystery, that we do not know their origins and that we cannot decipher their language. These are all misconceptions. There is a great deal that we shall never know about this intriguing people, but what we do know is far more interesting than the so-called mystery. We are learning more and more about many aspects of Etruscan society—their history, economy, social organization and religion—and one of the areas we know best is their mythology.

Before we begin to discuss Etruscan myth, let us put the Etruscans into context. The Etruscan cities which flourished in central Italy between the tenth and the first centuries BC affected the course of history for both the Greeks and the Romans. Their civilization flourished on the west coast of central and northern Italy, with Italy's two main rivers—the Arno and the Tiber—as its boundaries (see map). The Tyrrhenian Sea to the west was named after them by the Greeks, who knew them as Tyrrhenians. The name of the modern region of Tuscany was derived from Tursci or Tusci, the Roman name for this ancient people.

The Etruscans were contemporaries of the ancient Greeks, the peoples of the Near East, Carthage and Rome. Their geographical position in the middle of the Mediterranean put them in the centre of a world in rapid evolution, and their natural resources—great harbours, fertile fields and minerals—made them wealthy. Like the Greeks, the Etruscans were united by sharing a language and a religion. And like the Greeks, they had fiercely independent, highly individual city states, each of which developed specialities in arts and crafts. The southernmost cities on the coast, Cerveteri and Tarquinia, were the first to become wealthy from the international trade they conducted through their harbours in the Orientalizing period. Like most ancient cities, they were located a few miles from the coast for fear of pirates. Their harbour settlements were themselves international centres: Cerveteri's harbour at Pyrgi (meaning 'towers' in Greek) included a Phoenician settlement, while Tarquinia's harbour at Gravisca had an important Greek sanctuary. Populonia, across from the metal-rich island of Elba, was the only Etruscan city to be established directly on the coast: that was because it grew wealthy from metal working, which was carried out directly on the beaches, from where its products were shipped out. Later, between the fourth and first centuries BC, the coastal cities declined, while the cities of the interior—Volsinii (modern Orvieto), Vulci, Chiusi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia and Fiesole—experienced a rise to prominence.

The fame of the Etruscans, as the Roman historian Livy said, rang out through nearly all of Italy, from the Alps to the Straits of Sicily. Certainly their artistic influence affected all their neighbours, who in turn became 'Etruscanized.' An Umbrian-speaking city such as Perugia was artistically an Etruscan centre, as was Praeneste in Latium. Rome continued to speak Latin, but was deeply affected by the influence of the art of their neighbours across the Tiber. The Etruscans were in close touch with all the cities of the Mediterranean in the early, international Orientalizing period (eighth to seventh centuries BC). It was then that they adopted both the Greek alphabet to write their own unique language, and Greek mythology, sometimes importing whole sagas and traditions. They also adapted the Greek representations to embody the characters and stories of their own ideology which, for whatever reason, they had previously rarely depicted. Greek vases provided Etruscan artists with one of their richest sources for mythological figures and scenes. Wealthy Etruscan aristocrats imported them in great quantities, used them at family banquets attended by husbands and wives (instead of just single men as was the case in Greece), and after having used them in their houses, took them with them to their graves. Most of the Greek vases which fill the museums of the world come not from Greek territory but from Italy, especially the Etruscan tombs of Vulci, Tarquinia or Orvieto. Greek myths—stories about heroes, heroines and monsters, gods and goddesses in human form—were of great antiquity. For a long time they provided the Greeks with the basis for their prehistory, their religion and their philosophy. When the peoples of the Mediterranean and of Europe adopted them everywhere in the Orientalizing period, they provided a common structure and a prehistory for everyone who formed part of 'classical' civilization.

The richest source of information about Etruscan mythological subjects is their art. The Etruscans decorated their pottery, their bronze furnishings and their chamber tombs with the figures and stories of Greek myth. The artistic evidence consists of hundreds of bronze, stone and terracotta statuettes and architectural sculptures, tomb paintings, coins, carved gemstones, some 3,000 incised bronze mirrors, and similar numbers of decorated funerary ash urns of alabaster, stone, and terracotta, ranging in date from the seventh to the first century BC. Objects made for private use, such as mirrors and gems, are often decorated with figures of divinities, prophets, heroes and heroines, and these characters are often identified by the names inscribed next to them, providing us with, as it were, 'picture bilinguals'.

Etruscans decorated their temples with figures and scenes from mythology, emphasizing the importance of the gods' power over mortals. They used the 'apotropaic' power of images to protect their temples and tombs and drive away evil demons. But unlike the Greeks, who in time discouraged private displays of wealth and power and whose graves have yielded little beyond funerary markers before the Hellenistic period, Etruscans dedicated much of their art to the funerary sphere, to their tombs, sarcophagi, and ash urns. Archaeologists and tomb robbers have in the past concentrated their efforts on the necropoleis or cities of the dead and on recovering the gold and bronze and other precious objects placed in their richly appointed graves.

Like the Egyptians, the Etruscans believed in some kind of afterlife. The chamber tombs from which most Etruscan objects have come were richly furnished because Etruscan aristocrats needed to show their status, and used their conspicuous wealth to demonstrate their culture, good taste and international contacts. But, above all, the richness of their family tombs expressed private devotion to the generations of ancestors that preceded them, the importance of the family and of its continuity in the afterworld as well as in future generations.

From the rich and abundant repertoire of Greek myths the Etruscans chose certain kinds of subjects, often showing them in a special light, emphasizing different characters, imbuing them with a different meaning or adding figures which would have been surprising in the original Greek context. The choice of objects on which they represented these myths was also different from that of the Greeks, and tells us something about their life, religion and society. The importance of women in Etruscan society, for example, is shown by the fact that our richest source for mythological figures and scenes are the bronze mirrors made for women to use in their lifetime and take to their graves for the afterlife. In contrast, Greek mythological scenes occur mostly on the black- and red-figure vases made as symposium or drinking ware for the men of Athens to use at their social drinking parties.

Another source of information is supplied by inscriptions. Objects and inscriptions found at sanctuaries tell us about the gods worshipped and represented by the Etruscans. The most famous are three gold tablets found at the sanctuary at Pyrgi, the harbour of Cerveteri (Caere), in 1964. They are 'bilingual' because they are written in both Etruscan and Phoenician, and they record the dedication of a gift by the king of Caere to Uni/Astarte, that is, the Phoenician Astarte, here identified with the Etruscan goddess Uni. The Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet into their own language with great enthusiasm, and soon became an extremely literate people. Altogether more than 10,000 inscriptions in the Etruscan language have survived. There were also undoubtedly once Etruscan literary texts, epic poems, drama and local legends. Not one of these, or the books and written texts of prophecies and rituals which were so important in their culture and religion, has survived. Inscriptions, on the other hand, have come down to us as part of the archaeological heritage from Etruscan tombs, cities and sanctuaries. They consist of religious and ritual texts, funerary epitaphs, votive inscriptions and labels identifying mythological figures represented in art. From the religious and ritual texts, and dedications written on gifts to the gods, like the gold tablets from Pyrgi, we learn the names of Etruscan gods. Many of these have been identified with Greek divinities who were more or less close to them in character and function.

The half dozen or so longer texts are religious and ritual, and tell us something about the native gods that the Etruscans actually worshipped. The longest (2,000 words) is on the Zagreb mummy wrappings, preserved today in the Zagreb Archaeological Museum. It originally belonged to a religious text of the Hellenistic period, a sacred linen book partly preserved by being used to wrap an Egyptian mummy. It names such gods as Nethuns, the Etruscan name for Neptune, to whom offerings of wine were to be made on certain days. The second longest inscription is on the so-called Capua tile in the Berlin Museum, also a religious calendar; it names gods such as Letham, important in ritual but not in mythology.

More important for our subject is the curious religious text on the Piacenza Liver, also of Hellenistic date. This life-size bronze model of a sheep liver, found near Piacenza in northern Italy, was perhaps used by a priest in the Roman army. It was intended for guidance with reading the entrails of sacrificed animals, and is inscribed with the names of twenty-one Etruscan divinities. Some of these can be identified with Greek and Roman gods: Tin was equivalent to Zeus or Jupiter; Uni, Hera or Juno; Hercle, Hercules; Fufluns, Dionysos, Bacchus; Selvans, Silvanus. Also included are Usil, the sun, and Tiur, the moon, as well as Catha, an Etruscan solar divinity, and Cel, a mother goddess. We learn from this and other religious inscriptions that there were many native gods worshipped by the Etruscans who were not those of Greek mythology.

We hope that this book will inspire readers to look for representations of Etruscan myths on Etruscan objects in the British Museum and other museums around the world, and at the Etruscan sites so sensitively described by D.H. Lawrence in Etruscan Places, first published in 1932. They can also look for them in the books and articles listed in the further reading at the end of this book.

By Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling

Larissa Bonfante, Professor of Classics at New York University, specializes in Etruscan civilization. Judith Swaddling is an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, where she is responsible for the Etruscan collections.

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