Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Etruscan Mythology and Religion: Part 2 of 2

Etruscan Religion (from mysteriousetruscans .com)


The basis of Etruscan religion was the fundamental idea that the destiny of man was completely determined by the vagaries of the many deities worshipped by the Etruscans. Every natural phenomenon, such as lightning, the structure of the internal organs of sacrificial animals, or the flight patterns of birds, was therefore an expression of the divine will, and contained a message which could be interpreted by trained priests such as Augurs.

Emerging from this basic concept the Rasenna scrupulously followed a complex code of rituals known by the Romans as the "Disciplina Etrusca." Even up to the fall of the Roman Empire, the Etruscans were regarded by their contemporaries with great respect for their religion and superstitions.

It may have been the fact that Etruscan religious beliefs and practices were so deep-rooted among the Romans that led to the complete destruction of all Etruscan literature as a result of the advent of Christianity. Arnobius, one of the first Christian apologists, living around 300CE, wrote ,"Etruria is the originator and mother of all superstition" .When the Gothic army under Alaric was approaching Rome, the offer made to Pope Innocent I by Etruscan Haruspices was seriously considered by the senate, but finally rejected.

The obvious Eastern Greek influence in Etruscan religion and art from the emergence of the civilisation in the 8th Century BCE, can be interpreted either as evidence of the Etruscan origins in Lydia, or as the influence of subsequent Greek settlement in the prosperous region of Etruria. However it is interpreted, the Etruscan religion was fundamentally unique to the region.

The Etruscan Religion was, like Christianity and Judaism, a revealed religion. An account of the revelation is given by Cicero(On Divination 2.50) . One day, says the legend, in a field near the river Marta in Etruria, a strange event occurred. A divine being rose up from the newly ploughed furrow, a being with the appearance of a child, but with the wisdom of an old man. The startled cry of the ploughman brought lucomones, the priest kings of Etruria hurrying up to the spot. To them, the wise child chanted the sacred doctrine, which they reverently listened to and wrote down, so that this most precious possession could be passed on to their successors. Immediately after the revelation, the miraculous being fell dead and disappeared into the ploughed field. His name was Tages, and he was believed to be the son of Genius and grandson of the highest God, Tinia (or Jupiter as he became known to the Romans). This doctrine was known to the Romans as the Disciplina Etrusca.

From the writings of the Etruscan haruspex Tarquitius around 90 BCE, we also get a glimpse of the prophesy of the nymph Vegoia (Latinised form of the name). This is bound up in the Gramatici veteres, in a corpus of Roman land surveys, We have a passage in which a divinity, the nymph Vergoia, speaks to Arruns Velturnnus:

"You should know that the sea is separated from the earth. When Jupiter claimed the land of Etruria for himself, he decided and commanded the fields to be surveyed and the lands marked out. Knowing the covetousness of man and his worldly greed, he wanted the boundaries of everything to be marked by boundary stones. Those which at any time anyone has placed because of the greed of this eighth - almost the latest - saeculum, arrogating to themselves licence, men with wrongful deceit will violate, touch and move. But if anyone touches or moves a boundary stone, extending his own possessions or diminishing those of someone else, for this crime he will be condemned by the gods. If slaves shall do this, they shall be moved to a lower status by their owner. But if this is done with the knowledge of the master, the household will be immediately uprooted, and the whole of his family will perish. The people responsible will be afflicted by the worst diseases and wounds and their limbs will be weakened. Then even the land will be shaken by storms or whirlwinds and many landslips. The crops will be frequently laid low and cut down by rain and hail, they will perish in the heat of the summer, they will be killed off by blight. There will be civil strife amongst the people. Know that these things happen, when such crimes are committed. Therefore do not be either a deceitful or treacherous. Place restraint in your heart. ..."

The Disciplina Etrusca

The Disciplina Etrusca seems to have comprised three categories of books of fate. The first was that of the Libri Haruspicini, which dealt with divination from the livers of sacrificed animals; the second, the Libri Fulgurates, on the interpretation of thunder and lightning; the third, the Libri Rituales, which covered a variety of matters. They contained, as Festus says, "prescriptions concerning the founding of cities, the consecration of altars and temples, the inviolability of ramparts, the laws relating to city gates, the division into tribes, curiae and centuriae, the constitution and organization of armies, and all other things of this nature concerning war and peace.

Among the Libri Rituales were also three further categories: the Libri Fatales, on the division of time and the life-span of individuals and peoples; the Libri Acherontici, on the world beyond the grave and the rituals for salvation; and finally, the Ostentaria, which gave rules for interpreting signs and portents and laid down the propitiatory and expiatory acts needed to obviate disaster and to placate the gods.


So complex and all-embracing a doctrine naturally required long and laborious study. For this, the Etruscans had special training institutes, among which that at Tarquinii early enjoyed the highest repute. These institutes were much more than priests' seminaries in the modern sense. To judge by their range of studies they were a kind of university with several faculties. For their curricula included not only religious laws and theology, but also the encyclopaedic knowledge required by the priests, which ranged from astronomy and meteorology through zoology, ornithology, and botany to geology and hydraulics. The last subject was the specialty of the aquivices who advised the city-states on all their hydraulic engineering projects. They were expert diviners who knew how to find subterranean water and how to bore wells, how to dig water channels, supply drinking water in the towns, and install irrigation and drainage systems in the fields. In addition they could create artificial reservoirs and they collaborated with other priests who specialized in constructing subterranean corridors and tunneling mountains. In Etruria, as in the ancient East, theological and secular knowledge were not separated. Whatever man set himself to do on earth must be in consonance with the cosmos. Thus all the efforts of the priests were directed upon the heavens when it was necessary to discover the will of the gods in accordance with the sacred doctrine. The orientation and division of space were of crucial importance as much in divination from an animal's liver as in laying the foundation of a temple, in interpreting a shooting star as in surveying land and marking out a garden and field.

Rituals and Planning

Heaven and earth were imagined as being quartered by a great invisible cross consisting of a north-south axis called cardo and an east-west line called decumanus, to use the Latin terms. All ritual and religious observance was based on this division of celestial and terrestrial space. It alone enabled the priests to decipher and understand the signs emanating from the gods. And every sacral and secular undertaking on earth had to be coordinated with it. For the Etruscans believed that auspicious and inauspicious powers were irrevocably and for all eternity located in the four quarters of the sky, in accordance with the cosmic stations of the gods. The east was considered of good augury, because there the highest deities, those favorable to man, had chosen to dwell. The north east was the most auspicious and promised good fortune. In the south the gods of earth and nature ruled. The terrible and merciless gods of the underworld and of fate dwelt, it was believed, in the drear regions of the west, especially in the quarter between north and west, which was the most inauspicious.

The Etruscans even evolved a system of town planning based on these religious concepts, which were likewise reflected in the elaborate ritual prescribed for the foundation of a new city. In Etruria the town laid out in accordance with the sacred rules was considered a minute portion of the cosmos, harmoniously integrated with an all-embracing order governed by the gods.

The priest, after fixing the north-south and east-west lines by the sky, turned to the south and pronounced the words: "This is my front, and this my back, this my left and this my right."

Then wearing his conical hat (which survives today in the form of the Bishop's mitre) and holding his lituus (the Bishop's crook), he solemnly marked out the cross of the cardo and the decumanus.

Belief in Predestination

The Etruscans believed in predestination. Although a postponement is sometimes possible by means of prayer and sacrifice, the end is certain. According to the Libri Fatales as described by Censorinus, Man had allocated to him a cycle of seven times twelve years. Anyone who lived beyond these years, lost the ability to understand the signs of the Gods.

The Etruscans also believed the existence of their people was also limited by a timescale fixed by the gods. According to the doctrine, ten saecula were allotted to the Etruscan name. This proved very accurate, and it is often said that the Etruscan people predicted their own downfall.

Etruscans & Religion (from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Etruscans believed theirs to be a revealed religion, communicated to them by the gods of the sky, earth, and the underworld. These forces spoke to mortals through nature and its events: the flight of birds, the sound of thunder, the strikes of lightning bolts, and the entrails of sacrificed animals.

The many modes of learning the gods’ messages brought forth different kinds of prophets. Augurs, for example, read the flight of birds. Haruspices scrutinized the livers of sacrificed sheep for signs of divine disapproval. Etruscans were famous for the way they carried out this rite: unlike their contemporaries, they removed the liver from the slaughtered animal before they examined it. After the divination, the animal’s remains were divided among gods, priests, and people, and consumed.

At Etruscan sanctuaries, grateful worshippers heaped offerings on altars or in special pits. An offering might be a piece of jewelry or other prized possession, but it might also be a special kind of object made for votive use. Bronze or terracotta figurines or models were common: images of gods or goddesses, of suppliants, perhaps of a wished-for baby. Most common of all were terracotta models of the body parts for which healing was sought.

The Etruscans knew many kinds of gods, from spirits of nature and the underworld and invisible sky gods to deities who took on human form. Some of the Etruscan gods who were seen and depicted in human form were shared with Romans and Greeks.

Etruscans: Religion and mythology (from

A History of the Etruscan people including their cities, art, society, rulers and contributions to civilization

By Robert Guisepi 2002

The essential ingredient in Etruscan religion was a belief that human life was but one small meaningful element in a universe controlled by gods who manifested their nature and their will in every facet of the natural world as well as in objects created by humans. This belief permeates the Etruscan representational arts, where one finds rich depictions of land, sea, and air, with man integrated into the ambient. Roman writers give repeated evidence that the Etruscans regarded every bird and every berry as a potential source of knowledge of the gods and that they had developed an elaborate lore and attendant rituals for using this knowledge. Their own myths explained the lore as having been communicated by the gods through a prophet, Tages, a miraculous child with the features of a wise old man who sprang from a plowed furrow in the fields of Tarquinii and sang out the elements of what the Romans called the Etrusca Disciplina.

The literary, epigraphic, and monumental sources provide a glimpse of a cosmology whose image of the sky with its subdivisions is reflected in consecrated areas and even in the viscera of animals. The concept of a sacred space or area reserved for a particular deity or purpose was fundamental, as was the corollary theory that such designated areas could correspond to each other. Heaven reflected Earth, and macrocosm echoed microcosm. The celestial dome was divided into 16 compartments inhabited by the various divinities: major gods to the east, astral and terrestrial divine beings to the south, infernal and inauspicious beings to the west, and the most powerful and mysterious gods of destiny to the north. The deities manifested themselves by means of natural phenomena, principally by lightning. They also revealed themselves in the microcosm of the liver of animals (typical is a bronze model of a sheep's liver found near Piacenza, bearing the incised names of divinities in its 16 outside divisions and in its internal divisions).

These conceptions are linked closely to the art of divination for which the Etruscans were especially famous in the ancient world. Public and private actions of any importance were undertaken only after having interrogated the gods; negative or threatening responses necessitated complex preventive or protective ceremonies. The most important form of divination was haruspicy, or hepatoscopy--the study of the details of the viscera, especially the livers, of sacrificial animals. Second in importance was the observation of lightning and of such other celestial phenomena as the flight of birds (also important in the religion of the Umbri and of the Romans). Finally, there was the interpretation of prodigies--extraordinary and marvelous events observed in the sky or on the earth. These practices, extensively adopted by the Romans, are explicitly attributed by the ancient authors to the religion of the Etruscans.

Etruscans recognized numerous deities (the Piacenza liver lists more than 40), and many are unknown today. Their nature was often vague, and references to them are fraught with ambiguity about number, attributes, and even gender. Some of the leading gods were eventually equated with major deities of the Greeks and Romans, as may be seen especially from the labeled representations on Etruscan mirrors. Tin or Tinia was equivalent to Zeus/Jupiter, Uni to Hera/Juno, Sethlans to Hephaestus/Vulcan, Turms to Hermes/Mercury, Turan to Aphrodite/Venus, and Menrva to Athena/Minerva. But their character and mythology often differed sharply from that of their Greek counterparts. Menrva, for example, an immensely popular deity, was regarded as a sponsor of marriage and childbirth, in contrast to the virgin Athena, who was much more concerned with the affairs of males. Many of the gods had healing powers, and many of them had the authority to hurl a thunderbolt. There were also deities of a fairly orthodox Greco-Roman character, such as Hercle (Heracles) and Apulu (Apollo), who were evidently introduced directly from Greece yet came to have their designated spaces and cults.

No comments: