The Religion of the Etruscan People

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The Gods and Goddesses of the Etruscan Pantheon: Rituals and Ceremonies in Etruscan Religion.

The Etruscan civilization, which flourished in central Italy from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE, is known for its impressive achievements in art, engineering, and governance. However, one of the most fascinating aspects of Etruscan culture is their unique and complex religious beliefs. From their pantheon of gods and goddesses to their elaborate funeral rites, the Etruscan religion offers a glimpse into a worldview that was both sophisticated and deeply ingrained in all aspects of daily life.

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They had a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses, with each deity representing various aspects of life and nature. Their religious practices included divination, prophecy, and the interpretation of omens. They also believed in an afterlife, and their tombs were elaborately decorated with frescoes and sculptures.

The Etruscans were polytheistic and attributed a central role to religion in both private and public life. The focus of religious life was the temple, which developed autonomously and with peculiar characteristics compared to traditional Greek temples. Etruscan temples were erected in urban contexts (particularly on acropolises), in extra-urban places of worship (such as the Portonaccio Sanctuary in Veio), and in frequent transit points (ports and passes). Prayers, sacrifices, and libations, performed in temples and on altars (including domestic use), aimed to obtain the benevolence of the gods.

The centrality of religion in the daily life of the Etruscans emerged especially from a ritualistic and superstitious perspective: it was believed that rigid respect for religious norms favored the well-being of the individual and the state and that through the interpretation of divine “signs” (divination) it was possible to determine the will of the gods, conforming private and public choices to it. Such interpretation was the task of specific priestly figures:

  • Augurs (Latin: augures): priests who interpreted the divine will through the study of bird flight (a practice more commonly spread among the Romans);
  • Haruspices (Latin: haruspices): priests who dissected and investigated the entrails (liver and intestine) of animals;
  • Fulgurators (Latin: fulguratores): priests specialized in the interpretation of lightning.

The complex set of Etruscan religious norms was enclosed in what the Romans called the Etruscan discipline.

The Role of the Deities

The relationship between the Etruscan man and the divine was dominated by fear (in Latin, metus). In the Etruscan concept, the individual was in a state of complete submission to the will of the gods, which could only be understood and suffered. Indeed, it was the gods who determined the fate of men (and also that of the states). The only opportunity granted to men was to scrutinize and predict their fate in advance by identifying and analyzing the signs that the gods periodically sent to earth. It was also possible to try to alter fate slightly by performing acts capable of pleasing the divinities. Finally, it was necessary to observe strict behavioral rules to avoid offending the gods. Little is known about the Etruscan gods during the earliest stages of their civilization. Similarly to other Mediterranean cultures, they were probably initially conceived as entities with an entirely or partially animal appearance, controlling every manifestation of nature and the destinies of men. Only with the orientalizing phase (during the 7th century BC), under the cultural influence of the Greeks, did the Etruscan divinities assume an anthropomorphic appearance.

The three most important gods were: Tinia (corresponding to Jupiter/Zeus), his wife Uni (Juno/Hera), and their daughter Menrva (Minerva/Athena). Other important gods were: Aplu (Apollo), Turms (Mercury/Hermes), Turan (Venus/Aphrodite), Fufluns (Bacchus/Dionysus), Nethuns (Neptune/Poseidon), and Voltumna, to whom the federal sanctuary of the twelve Etruscan peoples (fanum Voltumnae) near Volsinii (Orvieto) was dedicated. In addition to the superior gods, there were also underworld divinities (in particular Aita, corresponding to Dis Pater/Pluto/Hades of the Greco-Roman religion, and Phersipnei, equivalent to Proserpina/Persephone, his wife) and demons of the afterlife, including the Vanth and the Charun.

Etruscan cup with head of Charun on display at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich

The peculiar role assigned by the Etruscans to divination was regarded with curiosity and perhaps with sarcasm by the Romans, as suggested by a passage from Seneca:

«Hoc inter nos et Tuscos, quibus summa est fulgurum persequendorum scientia, interest: nos putamus, quia nubes collisae sunt, fulmina emitti; ipsi existimant nubes collidi ut fulmina emittantur. Nam, cum omnia ad deum referant, in ea opinione sunt tamquam non, quia facta sunt, significent, sed quia significatura sunt, fiant.» (Seneca, Quaestiones naturales, II, 32.2)

«This is the difference between us and the Etruscans, who hold in the highest regard the science of tracking lightning: we believe that lightning is caused by the collision of clouds; they believe that clouds collide to provoke lightning. Since they refer everything to the divine, they believe that things do not have a limited significance just because they have happened, but that they happen to convey a message.»

Etruscan Sacred Books and Rituals

The Latin term Etrusca disciplina refers to the set of rules and doctrines that regulated Etruscan religion, mostly collected in a series of books that constituted a sort of “sacred scripture”. The scant information about the Etruscan discipline comes from Roman authors (such as Cicero), since all Etruscan writings have been lost.

«Quorum alia sunt posita in monumentis et disciplina quod Etruscorum declarant, et haruspicini et fulgurales et rituales libri…» (Cicerone, De divinatione, I, 72)

«Others of these are based on the works and the discipline which they call Etruscan, both the Aruspices Books, the Fulgurals, and the Rituals…» 

There are three main books, with the first two being related to the two branches of Etruscan divination, while the third is likely a compilation of different books that deal with religious rituals.

Libri Haruspicini

«… ut in Tageticis libris legitur et Vegonicis fulmine mox tangendos adeo hebetari ut nec tonitrum nec maiores aliquos possint audire fragores.» (Ammiano Marcellino, Res Gestae libri XXXI, 17, 10, 2)

«… as stated in the Tagetian and Vegoian books, where it is said that those who are soon to be struck to death by lightning appear so weakened that they cannot hear either the roar of thunder or any other loud sound.»

These are also known as the Vegoian books, named after the nymph Vegoia from whom they were believed to have originated. They dealt with the study of lightning. Lightning was considered the most important divine sign, as it was the material manifestation of the god Tinia. Depending on the part of the sky from which it was hurled (Tinia could make use of all sectors of the celestial vault and even delegate to other deities), as well as its color, distance, shape, and other aspects, efforts were made to interpret its meaning. The number of unleashed lightning bolts was also important; Tinia had three flashes: the first was considered a simple warning, the second was a sign of threat, and the third, more powerful one meant certain destruction.

Libri Rituales

These books contained a detailed list and description of the religious rituals to be followed on particular occasions. Typical was the founding ritual of a city: first, using the lituus (a curved staff used by the highest authorities and priests), two perpendicular lines (Cardo and Decumanus) were traced, forming what was called the sacred cross, at the center of which (at the exact point where the two lines intersected) a pit was dug (considered as the gateway between the realm of the living and the dead) and covered with stone slabs. Right at the exact point of the pit, the priest, facing South, had to recite the following formula: “This is my front, this is my back, this is my left, this is my right.” Then the city perimeter was traced using a bronze plow, making sure that the earth clods raised fell inside (marking the point where the walls would be erected, while the furrow marked the moat). At the city gates, the plow was lifted. Every city had to have a minimum of three gates: one dedicated to the god Tinia, one to the goddess Uni, and the third to the goddess Menrva (for whom there had to be dedicated as many temples and streets). The East gate was considered auspicious, while the West gate was the inauspicious one (through which the condemned to death were made to pass). Immediately inside and outside the perimeter walls, there was a strip of land called the pomerium where both cultivation and building were prohibited. Finally, inside the city, the streets were laid out parallel to the sacred cross, forming a grid (like a chessboard), where each square corresponded to a block.

The “Libri Acherontici” are a collection of books that discuss the world of the afterlife and the regulations that govern it.

«… neque quod Etruria libris in Acheronticis pollicentur, certorum animalium sanguine numinibus certis dato divinas animas fieri et ab legibus mortalitatis educi.» (Arnobius, Adversus Nationes Libri VII, II, 62.1)

“….and not what is promised in Etruria in the “Libri Acherontici”, where by offering the blood of specific animals to specific gods, souls become divine and are freed from the laws that govern mortals.”

These books likely contained a description of the various stages that the spirit of the deceased had to go through once they arrived in the afterlife, with the formulas to be pronounced and the actions to be carried out to continue the journey towards their eternal dwelling, to elevate the status of the deceased to the point of making them in communion with the gods. Therefore, their content and function would be similar to the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, which are characteristic of the Egyptian religion.

Libri Fatales” were books about the division of time and the duration of the life cycle of a human being and a state. According to Etruscan belief, the life of every living being was divided into cycles of seven years each (called “Settimane”), for a maximum of twelve cycles (84 years). The average life expectancy of an Etruscan man was about ten cycles (70 years), and in the last year of each cycle (considered the most critical), particular attention had to be paid to divine signs. The duration of states was also predetermined by the gods and was divided into cycles called “Secoli,” whose duration was not always one hundred years, but changed from time to time (as decided by the gods). A state could last for a maximum of ten cycles. At the end of each cycle, the gods sent clear and precise signs, such as the passage of a comet, epidemics, or other calamities. At that point, the Etruscans understood that an era (or century) had passed and a new one was about to begin.

Ostentaria” refers to a category of Etruscan religious texts related to the interpretation of omens and prodigies. These texts were consulted by the Etruscan priests to gain insight into the will of the gods and to predict future events.

Funeral rites

After death, the body of the deceased was washed, dressed, laid on a bed with the head raised, and sprinkled with perfumed ointments. Then began the phase of the display of the body (in Greek próthesis), in which the closest relatives and the Professional mourning women paid to mourn the deceased by singing neniae (funeral laments) and praising him with the sound of the tibia, sometimes scratching their faces and tearing out locks of hair, took part. This was followed by the transfer of the body to the tomb on a funeral carriage (in Greek ekphora), escorted by the procession of relatives and female mourners. In prominent families, the funeral included musical performances accompanied by dances and the celebration of commemorative games: athletic competitions (Tomba degli Àuguri, Tomba delle Bighe, Tomba del Colle Casuccini, Tomba delle Olimpiadi, Tomba di Poggio al Moro, Tomba della Scimmia), chariot races (Tomba delle Bighe, Tomba delle Olimpiadi, Tomba del Colle Casuccini, Tomba di Poggio al Moro, Tomba della Scimmia), and bloody games (Tomba degli Àuguri, Tomba delle Olimpiadi).

Eschatology

In Etruscan religion, death and the ultimate fate of the soul were of fundamental importance. Similarly to the Romans and Greeks, the Etruscans believed in the existence of an afterlife destined to contain the spirits of the departed, imagined not as an immaterial space but as a real and complex world. The presence of sacred wells in which solid and liquid offerings were thrown or poured for the gods of the afterlife, and similar information contained in ancient sources regarding the mundus, a gateway to the underworld that was open at the founding of a city (and also existed in Rome), clarify that according to Etruscan beliefs, the underworld was located underground, no differently than the Roman Inferi or the Greek Hades.

The Journey to the Underworld

The existence of the aforementioned Acherontic Books, whose name refers to the Acheron, a river in Hades well-known to Greco-Roman tradition, confirms the similarity between the Etruscan afterlife vision and that of classical religions. It also suggests that the complexity and dangers of the underworld were considered such that they required special ritual books containing likely formulas and accurate descriptions of every passage that the deceased spirit had to face in its journey to the eternal resting place (thus strongly resembling the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Coffin Texts). Figurative scenes depicting the journey of the deceased through the Underworld are contained, for example, in the Campana Tomb of Veio (end of the 7th century BC), where the deceased, naked and on horseback, traverse a landscape characterized by fantastic plant elements, guided by psychopomp demons of human appearance but larger (the foremost carrying a weapon reminiscent of Charun’s, the other holding the reins and having a long mane that characterizes it as a female demon, and thus as Vanth). There are also beasts resembling lions and panthers of various shapes and sizes, including a sphinx with a human head. The horses carrying the deceased symbolically head towards the door that separates the first from the second, innermost chamber of the tomb. A similar scene is depicted in the tympanum of the back wall of the first chamber of the Hunting and Fishing Tomb in Tarquinia (late 6th century BC), with the addition of two servants who follow the riders carrying necessary items and game for the long journey. In the Tarquinia Cardinal’s Tomb (3rd century BC), a deceased woman is transported in a carriage pulled by two winged psychopomp demons (apparently two Vanth); elsewhere in the same tomb, the Charun leads the deceased who advance on foot. In the Tifone Tomb (2nd century BC), also in Tarquinia, a demon with a large lit torch (a Vanth?) leads a procession of togas accompanied by another blue-skinned demon (presumably a Charun).

Vanth (source)

Inhabitants of the Underworld

The Etruscan underworld is ruled by a pair of monarchs, often depicted on thrones, Aita and Phersipnei. Other names attested, however, seem to refer to these two figures, in the same way, that in Latin the ruler of the underworld is indiscriminately called Dis Pater or Pluto.

Aita (Hades): is the ruler of the underworld, represented as a bearded god with a peculiar headdress made from the head of a wolf. His companion is Phersipnei (Persephone).

Cavatha: the deity of the underworld comparable to Phersipnei, remembered as the consort of the god Śuri.

Manth: the deity of the underworld comparable to Aita. The name Manth is derived from the city of Mantova.

Phersipnei (Persephone): queen of the underworld and wife of the god Aita; represented as a young woman with serpents in her hair.

Śuri: the deity of the underworld comparable to Aita. His name probably means “The Dark” and almost certainly corresponds to Soranus, a minor deity of the Roman pantheon whose cult center was located on Mount Soratte, which is named after him. His companion is Cavatha.

Typhon: a titan of such strength that he temporarily defeated Zeus himself. Struck by the latter as he was about to hurl Sicily against the king of Olympus, he was crushed by the weight of the earth raised and remained imprisoned in the underworld; his fury manifests itself in volcanism. For these reasons, he can be considered one of the infernal deities and is represented as such in the Tomb of Typhon in Tarquinia, holding up the ceiling of the tomb.

Triton: unlike the Greek Charon, an old, hoary demon, the figure of the ferryman of spirits through the marshes of the underworld seems to be embodied by a winged monster with a human appearance in the upper part but with legs in the form of a fishtail, whose representation is similar to that of the Triton of the classical tradition. He usually holds a rudder with a threatening attitude. He is found represented, for example, in the Tomb of the Reliefs in Cerveteri, the Tomb of the Siren in Sovana, and on urns and sarcophagi.

Demons

Characteristic of the Etruscan religion is the importance given to demonic figures that inhabit the afterlife, often represented around the spirits of the deceased during their journey to the underworld or present in scenes related to killings, where they function as omens of the unfortunate fate that awaits the doomed character. Another peculiar aspect is the frequent multiplication of Vanth and Charun in depictions, indicating that they are not singular demonic entities but classes of demons.

Achrumune: a blue-skinned, axe-wielding winged demon. The name seems to contain the same root as the term Acheron: Ach(e) rumune could therefore be the lord or guardian of the Acheron river. Reproduced in the Tomb of the Charons in Tarquinia.

Cerberus: the famous three-headed monstrous dog that lives in the underworld. It is depicted in the Tomb of the Reliefs in Cerveteri.

Cerun (Geryon): a monster with the appearance of a man with three heads. It appears in the Tomb of Orcus in Tarquinia.

A depiction of Charun painted on an Etruscan artifact. The killing of a Trojan captive by Ajax under the eyes of Charun is shown. Late 4th century-early 3rd century (source)

Charun (Charon): a demon with a monstrous face and blue skin, often depicted as winged; he is armed with a long hammer and, in the Tomb of the Charons in Tarquinia, also with a short sword. Although etymologically connected to the Greek Charon, he does not have the function of ferryman of the underworld but appears as a simple psychopomp. The hammer probably serves to strike the spirits that rebel against his directions during their journey to the afterlife.

Tuchulcha: a terrifying winged demon whose face is composed of parts of different animals, including the beak of a bird of prey. In his hands, he holds two bearded snakes. In the Tomb of Orcus in Tarquinia, he is placed as a guard of Theseus and Pirithous and therefore does not seem to have a psychopomp role.

Vanth: a winged demon with the appearance of a young woman; she generally holds a lit torch with which she benevolently guides the spirits in the afterlife.

Featured image: Mural in the Tomba François, Vulci, source

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