The Etruscan affinity for esotericism (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 3B)
I’ve remarked already on the sparsity of Etruscan inscriptions, but that might’ve given the wrong impression. There are actually thousands, although many are quite short—limited to just names of people or places. I related in Part 3A that the script is closely related to Greek and also quite close to Phoenician, the ancestor of both alphabets. Some letterforms and the reading direction suggest direct transmission from Phoenician. Still, Euboean Greeks (Εὐβοῆς) were present on the Italic Peninsula at the same time (at least by circa 700 BCE)¹ so there certainly could have been multiple influences. At any rate, because the Etruscan script is easily read and our understanding of the lexicon has improved greatly in recent years, most of these inscriptions can be easily read, with only the longest ones presenting some difficulties especially from the occasional hapax legomena, and even those can be guessed at from the context.
One of the best known of these comes from the Pyrgi tablets, which are important as a key to the Etruscan language and evidence direct contact between this people and the Phoenecians. The artifact comprises three gold tablets and a fourth fragmentary bronze one, with the third of the gold ones inscribed in both languages. It comes from the Tyrrhenian coast where the port for the southern Etruscan town of 𐌀𐌓𐌔𐌉𐌀𐌊 (Kaisra, L. Caere; for whatever reason, we only know the Latinized form of the Greek name of the port, Πύργοι) once stood. The tablets record the dedication in around 500 BCE of a shrine to a syncretized 𐤏𐤔𐤕𐤓𐤕-𐌉𐌍𐌖 (Uni-’Ashtart) by Kaisra’s king, 𐌔𐌀𐌍𐌀𐌉𐌋𐌄𐌅 𐌄𐌉𐌓𐌀𐌚𐌄𐌈 (T’efarie Welianas). ’Ashtart is an extension of the Sumerian Inanna (𒈹), “Queen of Heaven”, whom the Assyrians called Ishtar.
The alliance of the two peoples is shown by the fact that one of the most important events in the reign of Ἱέρων Α (Heiron I) of Syracuse (Συρακοῦσαι) was the defeat of an Etruscan-Phoenecian fleet at the battle of Κύμη (L. Cumae) in 474 BCE. The Syracusan tyrant commissioned Πίνδαρος (Pindar) to compose an epinician ode—his first Pythian Ode—recounting this deed and we have an Etruscan helmet inscribed in Greek and dedicated as a votive at the sanctuary at Ὀλυμπία (Olympia) for another attestation.
What is both remarkable as well as handy for my subject is that the overwhelming majority of Etruscan texts were of a religious nature. As Livy put it in his History of Rome:²
[…] gens itaque ante omnes alias eo magis dedita religionibus, quod excelleret arte colendi eas […].
[The Etruscans were] a nation which was devoted more than all others to religious practices, because it excelled in the art of cultivating them […].
Because of how influential the Etruscan culture was on that of the Romans, it can be quite difficult to disentangle the two. Nonetheless, Roman writers such as Livy and Cicero tell us about the things they borrowed from their neighbors, including that these people had a rather vast and detailed body of writing codifying their religious rites; texts referred to in Latin as the Etrusca disciplina. Although they are mostly lost, their names as rendered into Latin and general contents are known:
- Libri Fulgurales: divination from lightning
- Libri Haruspicini: divination from animal entrails
- Libri Rituales:
- Libri Acherontici: the afterlife
- Libri Fatales: founding cities and sacred places
- Libri Ostentaria: interpreting prodigies
There were also the Libri Tagetici and the Libri Vegoici, which included the revelations of the prophet Tarkhies (𐌔𐌄𐌉𐌗𐌓𐌀𐌕, L. Tages) and the prophetess Wecu (𐌖𐌂𐌄𐌅, L. Vegoia) respectively. Finally, according to one fourth century Latin writer, Maurus Servius Honoratus, there was yet another set that discussed animal gods.
Tarkhies is a particularly important legendary figure, who is said to have emerged from a plow furrow resembling an infant, but with adult features. He proclaimed his doctrine to a large assembly of leaders of the Etruscan people. This event occurred in Tarkhna (𐌀𐌍𐌗𐌓𐌀𐌕, modern Tarquinia) one of the oldest and largest of the civilization’s cities, whose name may also derive from that of the prophet.
Although the actual disciplina are elusive, there have been advances in study and newly unearthed artifacts that have begun to illuminate the period in which the books were originally set down and propagated. Firstly, this time has been identified as beginning in the 9th and extending to the seventh century BCE and many of the details about the disciplina are confirmed by secondary evidence.
Furthermore, as I have discussed, the art of haruspicy in particular is both a major element of Etruscan mysticism as well as a strong connection to the Mesopotamian origins of such practices across the ancient Mediterranean and indeed Europe generally. Just to return briefly to the etymological connections, Greek τέρᾰτᾰ, “signs, omens, portents” of uncertain origin in dictionaries, seems quite close to Akkadian têrtu, meaning “divine instruction” which was used specifically to refer to liver reading, also connecting to the name 𐌀𐌉𐌔𐌄𐌓𐌄𐌕 (Teresia), meaning “that from beyond”, found in Etruscan, and also in Greek as Τειρεσίας (typically Romanized as Tiresias), a long-lived blind Theban (Θηβαῖος) soothsayer of myth.
Again, it’s hard to separate the Roman practices from the Etruscan ones as haruspices were fully integrated into the cultic practices of the former, but those rites seem to have been of clearly Etruscan origin. Despite a few fourth century prohibitions, this form of divination continued on into Late Antiquity (third–eighth centuries CE). Indeed, the influence can be seen in Greece where some of the Etruscan elaborations of the technical science appear in their rituals as well.
As I mentioned previously, the main reason the art seems to have remained Etruscan even after that culture’s absorption is that it was passed from father to son. This is explicitly described in many Roman sources, including repeated references by Cicero and explicitly by Tacitus, thus:³
[P]rimoresque Etruriae… retinuisse scientiam et in familias propagasse […].
Noble Etruscans retained this knowledge and passed it down to their families […].
And here we come to one of those rare but important pieces of the corpus of the Etruscan language. It’s also a primary source on the timeline of liver divination in Etruria: the third century sarcophagus of Laris Pulenas, (𐌔𐌀𐌍𐌄𐌋𐌖𐌐 𐌔𐌉𐌓𐌋) also from Tarkhna. Typically, these sarcophagi bear little more than the name of the deceased, but the sculpted image of this one includes Laris holding an inscribed volumen (scroll), with nine lines discussing his lineage, accomplishments, and offices.
The operative lines here are the opening ones:
Laris Pulenas, son of Larce, grandson of Lart’, grandson of Welt’ur, great grandson of Pule Laris Creice […] he wrote this book of haruspicy.
In Etruscan art, the practice is represented from circa 450–400 BC, with images of famous prophets appearing in the mid-fourth century and realia, such as liver models in the third and second centuries. Images on the backs of mirrors are common, such as the one I included in Part 2B, depicting the mythic soothsayer 𐌔𐌀𐌗𐌋𐌀𐌗 (Khalkhas, L. Calchas) in a characteristic pose with his left foot resting on a rock, holding the liver in his left hand and examining it with his right. Again, it’s clear that this strong continuity reflects a practice that has to have existed from the Archaic period (600–480 BCE) and have become progressively more widespread.
The inscription on Laris Pulenas’ sarcophagus also matches entirely with the idea of the heredity of divinatory art among the Etruscans, which, taken together with the other evidence, can only lead one to conclude that the art was well established and documented by the Etruscans at least as far back as the Roman Kingdom (753–509 BCE), making the Orientalizing period (ca. 730–580 BCE) seem still more probable as the point of its transmission from the ancient East.
Turning to the Ancient Near East (ANE), we also see a clear model for the hereditary tradition of esotericism in cuneiform documents:⁴
The secrets of ashipu-art, the knowing one shall show them to the knowing one; he who does not know does not see them; to your son whom you love, make him pronounce the name of god Asallukhi and god Ninurta, and show him.
This carries on into the Judaic tradition, a common occurrence as we have already seen. Such lineages are taken for granted to such an extent that Amos feels he must point out that his mystical abilities were not gained in this way:⁵
I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a cultivator of sycamores: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and said unto me, “Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.”
As to the other forms of divination that round out the disciplina, they again follow on models clearly present in the ANE, where the close observation and interpretation of natural phenomena as a system of signs from which knowledgeable priests could understand the will of the gods.
One of the loci for the direct transmission of the arts from the Near East to both the Greeks and Etruscans is a mixed population of these two peoples and Phoenicians in a community on the island now known as Ischia, but known then as Πιθηκοῦσαι (Pithekousai) or 𐌄𐌌𐌉𐌓𐌀 (Arime) both deriving from their respective words for “monkey”—presumably there was a Phoenician word for the place as well but it is lost to us. This settlement began in the eighth century BCE and was home to as many as 10,000 people by 700.
Votives point both forward as a common Graeco-Roman practice as well as back to those of the ANE. There is a large body of Etruscan anatomical votives, seemingly given at shrines in thanks for healing the corresponding part of the donor, as well as a variety of household goods. One sanctuary in Tarkhna held an axe head, a musical horn, and a round shield, the latter two of which were deliberately destroyed so that they could only be used by the god. The Chimera of Arezzo (Etruscan 𐌌𐌉𐌕𐌉𐌓𐌀 Aritim) stands as one of the finest examples of the culture’s art, but also served this function, as it was found with other votive objects, and its right foreleg bears an inscription reading:
Offering of Tinia
𐌀𐌉𐌍𐌉𐌕 (Tinia) being the sky god at head of the Etruscan pantheon.
As for the chimera, we’ve seen already that such beasts were favored in Mesopotamia and this one’s a doozy, which has a clear prototype from the Neo-Hittites in Carchemish dating from the ninth century BCE—instead of a goat’s head it incorporates a human one and it has wings, another common feature of ANE beasts. The rich and detailed demonology of the Etruscans also tends to contain many winged creatures.
So it seems that the magical traditions of the ANE found a particularly receptive audience in the Etruscans, who continued to refine and codify these arts. These were later adopted by the Romans, and to some degree the Greeks as well, eventually spreading across much of Europe.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes
Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection
Read Previous Articles in This Series
Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix
Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis
- This terminus ante quem comes in the form of an abecedarium from Marsiliana.
- Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Founding of the City), 5.1.6, 27–9 BCE.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Divinatione (Concerning Divination), 1.92, 44 BCE, Pro Caecina (For [Aulus] Caecina), sometime between 71 and 69 BCE, and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Annales (Annals), 11.15, c. 115–c. 120 CE
- M. Weinfeld, The Organizational Pattern and the Penal Code of the Qumran Sect, 1986.
- Amos 7:14, I’ve composited a few different versions for clarity.