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Etruscan Religion

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Topics: Early Etruscan Inscriptions     Etruscan Religion

According to Livy, the Etruscans of the 5th century BC were “devoted beyond all others to religious performances, because they excelled in the method of conducting them”.  They were to preserve this reputation even after other aspects of their civilisation had been overtaken by Romanisation.

The Etruscans seem to have believed that the gods were immensely powerful beings who exercised complete control over human destiny.  These gods revealed their wishes in a series of written works that the Romans called the “disciplina Etrusca”.  These covered the interpretation of omens, including lightening and the reading of animal entrails.   They also specified the appropriate rituals for the founding of cities and for marking the division of property. 

Cicero gave an account of the mythical origin of the the disciplina Etrusca:

  1. “The tradition is that, once upon a time, in the district of Tarquinii, while a field was being ploughed, the plough went deeper than usual and a certain Tages suddenly sprang forth and spoke to the ploughman.  Now, this Tages, according to the Etruscan annals, is said to have had the appearance of a boy but the wisdom of a seer.  Astounded and much frightened at the sight, the rustic raised a great cry; a crowd gathered and indeed in a short time the whole of Etruria assembled at the spot.  Tages then spoke at length to his numerous hearers, who received with eagerness all he had to say and committed it to writing.  His whole address was devoted to an exposition of the science of soothsaying.  Later, as new facts were learned and tested by reference to the principles imparted by Tages, they were added to the original fund of knowledge.  This is the story as we get if from the Etruscans themselves and as their records preserve it, and this, in their own opinion, is the origin of their art” (“De Divinatione’, 2:23). 

According to Varro, Veltune (the Roman Voltumna or Vertumnus) was “deus Etruriae princeps” (the most important god of Etruria).   This deity, who was probably a god of vegetation, is usually assumed to be male, although this is uncertain: he/she is alternatively known as Veltha.  This mirror (ca. 300 BC) found at Tuscania (now in the Museo Archeologico, Florence) shows the decidedly male version (identified by inscription) standing on the right, looking on as Tages teaches the son of Tarchon (the legendary founder of Tarquinia) the rules of haruspicy.

There were a number of other specifically Etruscan divinities, including the sun god Usil and the goddess Nortia.  By the 5th century BC, the Etruscans had begun to add the Greek gods to their pantheon, although their religion continued to differ profoundly from that of the Greeks.  These Greek divinities included Tinia (Zeus), Uni (Hera), Vei (Demeter) and Larans or Maris (Ares, Roman Mars), as well as Aita and Phersipnai (Hades and Persephone), the god and goddess of the underworld.  The Etruscans also Varro the Greek heroes, including and the heroes of the Trojan Wars.

The Etruscans probably first worshipped their gods in sacred groves, but temples began to appear in the 6th century BC, and once again the rituals for their foundation and liturgical practices were set out in the disciplina Etrusca.

The Etruscans were quite fatalistic, believing that the life spans of men and also of the Etruscan nation were predetermined.  They seem to have believed that the dead faced a difficult journey to the underworld but that, once there, they would meet their ancestors at an eternal banquet.  Success in the journey was determined by the rites that the relatives and friends of the deceased observed on his or her behalf, as set out in the disciplina Etrusca.  These included ritual games and dances and the use of appropriate grave furniture.  A male and a female demon, respectively Charu and Vanth guarded the gates to the underworld.  The former was named for Charon, the Greek ferryman but generally armed with a hammer rather than (as in Greece) with oars.

At least by the time of its destruction by the Romans in 264 BC, Volsinii seems to have been the religious capital of the Etruscans:

  1. The regular meetings of the representatives of the Etruscan cities took place at a shrine that the Romans called “voltumnae fanum” (the sanctuary of Veltune/Voltumna), which was probably near Volsinii.    

  2. According to Livy, “Cincius, a careful writer on such monuments, asserts that there were seen at Volsinii also nails fixed in the temple of Nortia, a Tuscan goddess, as indices of the number of years”.

Both of these deities seem to have been “called” to Rome when the city fell.

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Ancient Umbria     Etruscan Volsinii and Perusia     Upper Sabinium and Nursia

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Topics: Early Etruscan Inscriptions     Etruscan Religion

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