religion, Etruscan

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Our information comes from archaeological evidence (reliefs, tomb paintings, statues, mirrors, altars, temples, funerary urns) and Etruscan inscriptions, esp. the ‘liturgical’ texts. Roman scholars produced at the end of the republic antiquarian treatises containing translations from Etruscan ritual books. The surviving fragments often show a curious mixture of Etruscan, Egyptian, and Chaldaean tenets. Of extant authors esp. important is Cicero.

Etruscan religion, unlike Greek and Roman, was a revealed religion. The revelation was ascribed to the semi‐divine seer Tages, and to the nymph Vegoia. Their teaching, with later accretions, formed a code of religious practices, Etrusca disciplīna, i.e. divination. It included books of three kinds, interpreted by diviners called ‘haruspices’.

The haruspical books dealt with inspecting the entrails of victims, esp. the liver. A bronze model of a sheep's liver found near Placentia has its convex side divided into 40 sections (16 border, 24 inner), inscribed with the names of some 28 deities. The liver reflected the heavens. Its sections corresponded to the abodes of the gods in the sky, and thus the haruspex distinguishing the favourable and inimical part of the liver and paying attention to the slightest irregularities was able to establish which gods were angry, which favourable or neutral, and what the future held.

The fulgural books concerned the interpretation of thunder (bolt) and lightning (fulgur); the portentous meaning depended on the part of the sky from which they were coming. Nine gods threw thunderbolts, Jupiter (Tin) three kinds: foretelling and warning, frightening, and destroying. The first he sent alone, the second on the advice of his counsellors, and the third with the approval of ‘the higher and veiled gods’ = the Fates.

The ritual books contained ‘prescriptions concerning the founding of cities, the consecration of altars and temples, the inviolability of ramparts, the laws relative to city gates, also how tribes, curiae (see Curia 1), and centuries are distributed, the army constituted and ordered, and other things of this nature concerning war and peace’.

We know many Etruscan deities, but their functions and relations often remain obscure. They mostly bear Etruscan names, but were early subjected to Greek influences. The highest was the thundergod Tin/Tinia (Zeus/Jupiter). Voltumna presided over the league of twelve Etruscan cities. Neth/Nethuns (Neptunus) was a water god. Apollo, Artemis, and Heracles kept their Greek names.

Etruscan religious expertise made a lasting impression upon the Romans. Livy called the Etruscans ‘a nation more than any other devoted to religious rites, all the more as it excelled in the art of practising them’.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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