Looking for a complete introduction to Etruscan mythology in just a few minutes? You’ve come to the right place! Read on !
People of ancient Italy, who prospered from the VIIth century BC, who were then subdued by the Romans. They called themselves Rasena, Rasna; the Romans called them Tusci or Etrusci, and the Greeks Tyrrhenians or Tyrsenes. The Etruscans are Indo-Europeans who landed in Umbria and in the north of Lazio, coming from Asia Minor by sea as Herodotus tells us.
Their religion was marked by the revelation made by the nymph Begoia (or Begoia or Vegoia) and by the genius Tagès .
Its content, divided into four books, deals with the Haruspices, the Lightning, the rites and the Afterlife. They will inspire the first inhabitants of Rome
Etruscan mythology, Small history of a great civilization
The question of the origin of the Etruscans has been debated for a long time, and this debate has contributed to the fascination that they continue to exercise.
The Greek historian Herodotus, who calls them “Lydians”, reports the legend of their coming from the East. In 2007, scientific analysis conducted by Professor Piazza of the University of Turin on the DNA of inhabitants of Tuscany confirmed commonalities with Turkish genomes.
Archaeologists date the appearance of the Etruscan civilization to the so-called “Villanovian” period in central Italy in the 9th century BC.
Their way of life evolved in a century, in particular thanks to the contacts made with the Greeks and Phoenicians who came to trade and even to found colonies in Italy. The Etruscans began to write, thanks to the alphabet that they borrowed from the Greeks to transcribe the sounds of their language. A new aristocracy took power: monumental palaces were built, like in Murlo near Siena.
A dozen independent city-states were formed, such as Véiès, Tarquinia or Cerveteri, each ruled by a king who also governed the territory surrounding its walls. The “dodecapole” (the confederation of the twelve cities) gathered every year in Volsinii to decide and carry out common operations.
In the 6th century B.C., Etruria became the most powerful region in Italy, politically, economically and militarily: the territory expanded as far as Campania in the south, Gaul in the north and even Corsica, from where the Etruscans and Carthaginians drove out the Greeks around 540 B.C. at the battle of Alalia.
It is also at this time that, according to Livy, three Etruscan kings would have reigned over Rome: Tarquin the Elder, to whom Rome owes the sanitation of the forum by the creation of the Cloaca maxima (main sewer of the city), Servius Tullius, who enlarged the city walls and Tarquin the Superb, who built the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol and the tiers of the Circus maximus.
The account of the Latin historian is in many ways a legend, but the influence of the Etruscans on the development of Rome at that time is undeniable.
This civilization also shines by its craftsmanship: the ground is rich in minerals (copper, iron, lead) and the Etruscans excel in metallurgy.
Their bronze objects (weapons, statues, mirrors…), but also their ceramics (the “bucchero negro”, fine and black terracotta) and their wine, are exported in all the Mediterranean world.
Goldsmithing was particularly refined: the Etruscans made marvelous gold jewels thanks to the technique of granulation, which consisted in creating decorations by placing tiny balls of gold next to each other.
Many of these objects can be admired today in national museums in Europe: in the Etruscan Museum in Rome of course, but also in the Louvre in Paris, Berlin or London. They were found in tombs: the wealthy Etruscans had indeed the habit of decorating them like real houses. In the huge necropolis of Tarquinia for example, some have several rooms, as well as furniture and are decorated with frescoes. The cover of the sarcophagus represents the deceased as if they continued to bank after their death! The Etruscans believed in an afterlife.
The religious life of the Etruscans in Etruscan mythology
Like most people of antiquity, the Etruscans were polytheists. They assimilated several Greek gods, such as the triad “Zeus, Hera and Athena”, honored under the names “Tinia, Uni and Menerva”. The couple “Turan and Laran” corresponds to Aphrodite and Ares, while “Fufluns” is the equivalent of Dionysus. The hero Herakles, renamed “Herkle”, was very popular, to the point of being represented on pottery facing the Minotaur … instead of the traditional Theseus!
The religious life grants an important and singular place to the art of the divination. For the Etruscans, the will of the gods was revealed by natural phenomena. Priests, specialized to interpret these omens, were consulted before any important decision. The augurs and the auspices observed for example the flight of the birds in the sky, divided in sixteen sections, their song and way of feeding. The haruspices read the omens in the entrails of animals. Rarely in antiquity, this knowledge and science was recorded in sacred books (the Libri rituales, aruspicini, fatales), whose existence we know from the Romans.
The language in Etruscan mythology
The language of the Etruscans disappeared from antiquity: except for some scholars – among whom the emperor Claudius, fascinated by this civilization and whose first wife was of Etruscan origin – and haruspices, who still used it in their ritual formulas, the Romans themselves from the first century AD did not understand it anymore. We have numerous inscriptions (on linen strips, jewels, vases or even funerary inscriptions) but they are all quite brief and repetitive: they usually indicate the name of the owner or the deceased, possibly his lineage, a name of a deity… They are therefore quite disappointing for archaeology. This Etruscan language was not of Indo-European origin. If we know how to read it today (because the Etruscans borrowed from the Greeks the characters of their alphabet), we cannot on the other hand understand it: only the names of gods for example, the numbers and some words of the lexicon of the family were deciphered.
The end of the Etruscan civilization in Etruscan mythology
The Etruscan civilization disappeared slowly from the 5th century BC. The city-states underwent attacks from neighboring peoples: Samnites in Campania, Greeks in Cumae, Gauls in the Po plain and above all Romans, who embarked on a determined policy of conquest. Rival between them and having to regulate also internal rebellions, they do not manage to resist. The Etruscan territory is reduced as that of Rome extends! The last Etruscan king was driven out of Rome in 509 BC; in 396 BC, Véies was taken after ten years of siege, and Volsinii, the last city-state, fell in 265 BC. At the end of the first century B.C., all Etruria became Roman: even if some traces still remain, and in particular the use of the alphabet, this people and its language sink for centuries into oblivion.
The Etruscans were only rediscovered in Italy during the 15th century, and the tombs, which for a long time constituted our main archaeological source, were often victims of the looting of the “tombaroli”! New excavations are advancing our knowledge of this people, as in 2019 the discovery of an exceptional tomb in Aleria: for archaeologists or new “Champollions”, the way remains open.