Coda Etrusca

A forgotten culture’s lasting influence (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 3A)

I’ve already done the research and writing regarding my hypothesis as to how magic moved from the Near East to the West, but I’m compelled to dwell a bit longer on the Etruscans. My reason for doing so is a simple one: I find them fascinating.

As with many things relating to the ancient world, my first real encounter with them was during the production of Gods & Heroes. For the game we included the culture but because of our timeline at roughly 230 BCE, it had been on the decline for nearly 300 years. Therefore we presented necropoleis, phantoms, demons, and a few ragged bands of Etruscans still managing to live at the margins of the burgeoning Republic of Rome.

I also wrote and directed voiceover in Etruscan. This was a meaty side project for me. I had worked with Michael Weiss, professor of Indo-European languages from Cornell to get a timeline-appropriate script in Latin, Greek, Gaulish, Oscan, and some other fun regional languages but he balked when I asked about Etruscan. Per my MO this was a challenge-accepted moment and when I showed him what I’d come up with he had to doff his hat. Here are a few samples:¹

mi tsinis mulakh’wa tur
I give you blessings.

For the temple!

ic ica rumakharasi
Thus to the Romans!

Handily, when the design team would come up with names for characters or places in the language, I could suggest they use the adjectival form of a word or tell them which genitive ending was appropriate to affix.

Structurally, the language is quite interesting, with agglutinative word endings as are found in Turkic languages and Japanese, together with inflections as we see in most European languages—most have one or the other, not both. There’s also a heavy stress on the initial syllables of words that led to a loss of word-internal vowels, or their replacement by sonorants or aspirates, though they seem to have been re-established later.

It also seems strangely forward looking, with features that were to emerge later in European languages: the ⟨q⟩ that we see as a form of /k/ that must be followed by ⟨u⟩—both likely due to an excess inventory of letters representing the /k/ sound and which occur across most modern European languages, the /t͡s/ sound for ⟨z⟩ we see in German and Italian, among others, and separate letterforms for ⟨u⟩ and ⟨v⟩.

Gods & Heroes used the Etruscan alphabet in the gameworld as well. It’s a form of Old Italic and a close relative of Greek. This means it’s quite readable even though it runs from right to left, or earlier in boustrophedon. It’s actually the forerunner of our own Latin alphabet, as well as having moved north where it evolved into Elder Futhark. Rendered in the Etruscan script, the above phrases would look like this:

𐌓𐌖𐌕 𐌀𐌅𐌗𐌀𐌋𐌌 𐌔𐌉𐌍𐌉𐌆 𐌉𐌌


𐌉𐌔𐌀𐌓𐌀𐌗𐌀𐌌𐌖𐌓 𐌀𐌂𐌉 𐌂𐌉

The reasons Weiss had such doubts about the possibility of working in Etruscan are manifold: not only is it a long-dead language, but it’s also difficult to reconstruct as it has few relatives—in fact the Tyrsenian group to which it belongs is a hypothetical one—and finally the corpus of the language is quite limited, with even scanter ones for others in the group such as Rhaetian and Lemnian.

There are various theories about the origins of the language and people, some agreeing with what I’ve previously discussed; Asia Minor, and others that they either predate the Indo-Europeans and may have related instead to Minoans and Lemnians or associating them with the Pelasgians, ancestors of the Greeks. In any case there was something of a sprachbund between the language and Greek and later Latin which ultimately confounds us etymologically as it’s often difficult to trace which language was the originator and which the borrower of any given word.

Nonetheless, many words and names we still use in English to this day descend from Etruscan. Basically things in Latin that don’t obviously trace from Ancient Greek or Proto-Indo-European, and even some that do, are likely to come from this mysterious language. Some examples are:

  • April: from 𐌖𐌓𐌐𐌀 (apru) via Latin Aprīlis, from Ancient Greek Ἀφροδίτη (Aphrodite)
  • atrium: from 𐌄𐌓𐌈𐌀 (at’re)
  • mundane: from 𐌈𐌖𐌌 (mut’) “world” via Latin mundus
  • palate: 𐌖𐌕𐌀𐌋𐌀𐌚 (falatu) “sky” via Latin palatum
  • person: from 𐌖𐌔𐌓𐌄𐌘 (p’ersu) “mask” via Latin persona

Even the word Rome seems to derive from the Etruscan gens 𐌀𐌌𐌖𐌓 (Ruma), seemingly meaning “teat”, and so perhaps linking to the origin myth of the twins suckled by a she-wolf.

A moderately educated Roman during the early Republic would have known Etruscan and Greek as well as their native Latin. Greek was the language of learning to some extent, but also because of their extensive colonial presence in the southern Italic Peninsula and Sicily, known as Magna Graecia. They’d know the first language not only because of proximity—so close that the shore of the Tiber directly across from Rome was formerly called Ripa Etrusca, ”the Etruscan Bank” (modern Trastevere)—but also because the Republic was established only after the overthrow of the Tarquins (𐌀𐌍𐌗𐌓𐌀𐌕, Tarchna, which was also the name of an important Etruscan city), an Etruscan succession that took over at the end of the Roman Kingdom period (753–509 BCE).

It’s important to note that all of the Roman Kings are semi-legendary, beginning with Romulus, who founded the city with his brother Remus, who he of course later slew. Generally, as their reigns are unnaturally long, it is agreed that these kings likely represent a greater number of individual rulers who have been conflated to focus on those deemed most important. The kings were elected by the senate rather than being dynastic and the failure of this system under the Tarquins, who skipped the voting part, is what led to the crisis in kingship and abolition of monarchical rule that was to last until Julius Caesar.

Along with the language, several other things typically thought of as Roman were introduced under the Tarquins. These included clothing such as the toga praetexta—white with a broad purple border, the paludamentum—a cape worn by military commanders, and the trabea—a typically red or purple overgarment, as well other accoutrements like senatorial rings, phalerae—military awards, the tuba—not our modern one, but a long, straight horn, the kingly sceptre, the curule chair, and even the fasces (note none of the preceding terms are italicized as we still use them in English). Important edifices also date from the Tarquins’ reign: the city’s first defensive wall, the Cloaca Maxima, the Circus Maximus, and the Capitoline’s temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Regarding the gods, most think of those of Rome as being borrowed from the Greeks, but many are actually Etruscan versions of those gods and still others are actually native Etruscan gods only later syncretized with Greek ones. Still others seem to have been natively Roman, such as Jupiter, though his other name Jove seems to match the known Etruscan “anti-Jove” 𐌄𐌅𐌉𐌄𐌅 (Weiwe, Latin Veiovis). The first group includes:

  • Apollo: from Ἀπόλλων via 𐌖𐌋𐌐𐌀 (Aplu)
  • Bacchus: from Βάκχος via 𐌀𐌗𐌀𐌐 (Pakha)
  • Charon: from Χάρων via 𐌖𐌓𐌀𐌗 (Kharu)
  • Hercules: from Ἡρακλῆς via 𐌄𐌋𐌂𐌓𐌄𐌇 (Hercle)

And a few in the second group are:

  • Juno: 𐌉𐌍𐌖 (Uni)
  • Mars: 𐌔𐌉𐌓𐌀𐌌 (Maris) via an Oscan deity based on the Etruscan god of change.
  • Minerva: 𐌀𐌅𐌓𐌍𐌄𐌌 (Menrwa)
  • Mercury: 𐌗𐌓𐌄𐌌 (*Merkh) from an epithet of 𐌔𐌌𐌓𐌖𐌕 (Turms) in his role as the god of trade, and incidentally the origin of the English word merchant.
  • Neptune: 𐌔𐌍𐌖𐌈𐌄𐌍 (Net’uns)
  • Saturn: 𐌄𐌓𐌕𐌀𐌔 (Satre)

And, as we already have seen, the Etruscan divinatory arts were also adopted wholesale by the Romans together with Etruscans as practitioners thereof. In Part 3B I’ll wrap up with a more in-depth discussion of these.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis


  1. As usual, I’m using a nonstandard Romanization to describe the language. I’ve aimed for easy readability and pronunciation, eschewing letters like ⟨χ⟩, ⟨φ⟩, and ⟨θ⟩, as well as slightly more familiar ones such as ⟨ś⟩, ⟨v⟩, and ⟨z⟩, as well as the use of digraphs like ⟨ch⟩, ⟨ph⟩, and ⟨th⟩, which also mislead as these are all aspirated in Etruscan, and not English /tʃ/, /f/, and /θ/. So ⟨kh⟩ is used for   ⟨χ⟩/⟨ch⟩ with the value /kʰ/, ⟨p’⟩ is used for ⟨φ⟩/⟨ph⟩ with the value /pʰ/, ⟨sh⟩ is used for ⟨ś⟩ with the value /ʃ/, ⟨t’⟩ is used for⟨θ⟩/⟨th⟩ with the value /tʰ/. I’ve used ⟨u⟩ or ⟨w⟩ to represent ⟨v⟩ as a vowel or consonant respectively (and whose values are /u/ and /w/), and ⟨ts⟩ represents ⟨z⟩ with the value /t͡s/. As I’ve alluded to above, the letters ⟨k⟩, ⟨c⟩, and ⟨q⟩ all have the value, /k/, but I’ve let this peculiarity stand. I’ve also put in conjectural vowels in parenthesis where the original orthography omits them. Finally, it’s also worth noting that, as with any dead language, no one really knows exactly what Etruscan sounded like—the map is not the territory, except in the case of the 1:1 map of the empire.