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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia. The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world. If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond. Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money. Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).
Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented. The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs. Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come. Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).
Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be. Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well). To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning. I wonder where question marks came from.
(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)
Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument. Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today). Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.
The Etruscans might be my favorite painters of the ancient Mediterranean world: their frescoes are filled with animals, feasting, music, fruit tress, dancing, and magic. Every gesture and brushstroke of their ancient paintings still conveys unique vivacity and joie de vivre. Even the scenes of death and violence have a sensuous and winsome beauty. When one looks at their tomb paintings from more than two millennia ago, the air seems to fill with the strange music of shepherd’s pipes and long-gone lyres. Perfumes fill the tombs and the classic world comes to life. In the days before Rome rose to power, the unknown artists of Etruria laid out an epic banquet and anyone who loves splendor, pleasure, and loveliness may still sit down at their feast.
The dancing musicians at the top of the post and the mixed company of men reclining at a great funeral banquet are from the tomb of the leopards in Tarquinia (which is found in the great Necropolis of Monterozzi). The guests dine al fresco among flowering vines and fruiting trees. They wear wreaths and drink deep in memory of their friend. At the right corner, one of the diners holds up an egg—the timeless symbol of resurrection and regeneration.
Here is a chthonic serpent monster from the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot. Look at how much personality the stylized snake heads have as they contemplate the dark god driving a chariot through the underworld (which is on the opposite wall). The purple color, red crests, and un-snakelike beards are all inventions of the artist. For all of its and technical beauty, Greek art—even during the Hellenistic period has a kind of stiff formalism. Art historians are fond of attributing western art to the Greeks, yet I think that Giotto, Titian, and the masters of the Italian Renaissance may owe a greater debt to the Romans, who in turn took their painting and their concept of beauty and pleasure from the Etruscans. We are still sitting at their feast.
This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.
Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.
To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:
Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.
Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.
Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.
Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.
Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!
Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.
Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.
Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.
I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!
Thanks to metal mines which provided iron and copper to buyers all around the Mediterranean, the Etruscans were very wealthy. The murals from Etruscan tombs make it abundantly clear that they also liked to enjoy all the luxuries which wealth makes possible. This love of opulence combined with their mastery of art in an unrivaled tradition of goldsmithing. The Etruscans were master jewelers (and the unique beauty of their pieces regularly spawns modern Etruscan jewelry revivals).
Among the pieces frequently discovered are beautiful gold crowns and diadems in the shape of leaves, berries, acorns, waves, and geometric patterns. The Romans were well known for their love of crowns and golden wreaths–which marked various triumphs, victories, or successes. It seems likely that the Romans took this trait from the Etruscans (although the Etruscans may have copied these crowns from Greek or Middle Eastern antecedents). I found these photos of beautiful gold headdresses around the internet. Since the pieces are in such fine repair (and so numerous) I suspect they are from Etruscan tombs. Look at how subtle and elegant the goldsmithing is on some of these crowns. Etruscan craftsmen were famous for their mastery of various stamping, hammering, molding, and filigree techniques (which are very much in evidence here).
In the years after the Etruscan tribes developed into sophisticated states (but before they became crude republics) political power fell into the hands of various kings and tyrants. These strongmen may have marked their political ascendency with crowns and tiaras. It also seems likely that Etruscan nobles wore such adornments for sacred occasions…and to show off their wealth and status.
This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.
Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence. Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.
It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.
This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.
Ferrebeekeeper has described all sorts of gods and goddesses of the underworld—we have covered deities of plague and of darkness, gods of death and betrayal, and all sorts of dark rulers of the next world, however there were also gods of the criminal underworld. In the Roman pantheon, the goddess Laverna was the deity of thieves, dishonest tradesmen, cheaters, and frauds. Although stories about Laverna are scant (since her worshippers did not necessarily want to flaunt their devotion) she is mentioned in the works of Plautus and Horace and her sacred sanctuary was near the Porta Lavernalis (a gate in the Servian walls which opened from the Aventine into a thief-infested grove of trees). Various unsavory stretches of highway and dangerous urban groves throughout Italy were sacred to Laverna as well. It has been speculated that she was originally a chthonic goddess of the Etruscans.
Laverna’s attributes were darkness and secrecy. Her worshippers are said to have poured out libations to her with their left hands only. There is a (probably apocryphal) myth about Laverna which illustrates her nature. She appeared disguised as a beautiful noblewoman to a rich devout man and asked him to grant her lands to establish a temple to some other more mainstream Roman deity. She earnestly promised the wealthy patron to honestly uphold her duty by swearing an oath upon her body itself. When she received control of the lands, she robbed them blind, sold everything worth any gold, and then sold the land itself before disappearing with the lucre. Her patron was distraught and he appealed to the Olympians to bring her to justice (based on the strength of the oath she swore). The gods heard his prayers and they sought out Laverna to make her pay, but when they caught up with her she was only a head—having used thievish magic to make her body incorporeal. Having no body (at least temporarily) she was free from the onus of her contract (although she probably looked pretty weird as just a flying head).
Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld. As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life. Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead. Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music. Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes. Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.
Hercules of course used brute strength. In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right. Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit). Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog. Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons. When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations. Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.
Dante also described Cerberus. The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun. Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:
In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.
It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.
Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster. Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet. You all are truly the best.
Sorcier (David Teniers)
I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon. So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!