Before the conquests of Rome, the Etruscan civilization dominated the Italian peninsula, starting around 1200 BC and reaching a peak in the 6th century BCE.
Although the Etruscan culture assimilated into the Roman culture in numerous ways, their unique language disappeared by 30 A.D. However, their alphabet derived from the Greek one influenced the Latin script. Today, we use words that are possibly Etruscan in origins, such as Rome, people, person, and element.
To this day, the origins of the seagoing Etruscans remain debated, but they referred to themselves as the Rasenna. In 2007, mitochondrial DNA studies indicated they may have migrated from somewhere in the Near East. However, more recent studies suggest they were related to local Italic populations, including their archenemies, the Romans.
Etruscan Gods and Goddesses
The Etruscan belief system was also unique and eclipsed by the Greeks and Romans. Before 600 BC, their worship centered on faceless deities and the Moon and Sun. But then, contact with the Greeks led to a belief in deities more like the Olympian pantheon, as with the Romans. Nevertheless, the Etruscan gods had distinct differences and a more egalitarian approach to gender relations.
More liberal in their views, they were criticized by other predominantly male-dominated societies.
“Though Roman historians played down their debt to the Etruscans, Etruscan culture permeated Roman art, architecture and religion. The Etruscans were master metallurgists and skillful seafarers who for a time dominated much of the Mediterranean. They enjoyed unusually free social relations, much remarked on by ancient historians of other cultures,” writes the New York Times.
Today, most of what is known of the Etruscan beliefs comes from the view of Greek and Roman writers. Sadly, the corpus of a collection of sacred texts, the Etrusca disciplina, was lost, possibly deliberately by early Christians, according to World History.org.
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Hidden Etruscan Gods – The Dii involuti
In Etruscan religion, the god Tinia, ruler of the sky, seemed on the surface like Zeus. However, Tinia’s authority and power were moderated by “The Secret Gods of Favour,” while Zeus was known to be impulsively violent, hurling thunderbolts.
The Dii involuti, “veiled” or “hidden gods,” were not depicted or directly worshiped. Perhaps, they could represent an ancient “principle of divinity” or “the very fate that dominates individualized gods.”
There were also “young female figures similar to the Greek nymphs known as Lasa” and “winged females known as Vanth who seem to be messengers of death,” according to World History.
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Balanced Gods and Goddesses
Unlike Zeus and Hera’s adulterous and troubled relationship, Tinia and his wife Uni may have had a more balanced and loving marriage.
Next in importance, Menrva inspired the Roman Minerva, goddess of wisdom, a counterpart to the Greek Athena. Menrva was said to have a relationship with Hercle, the Etruscan version of Heracles.
“Menrva…an immensely popular deity, was regarded as a sponsor of marriage and childbirth, in contrast to the virgin Athena, who was much more concerned with the affairs of males,” writes Britannica. “Many of the gods had healing powers, and many of them had the authority to hurl a thunderbolt.”
Although Etruscan gods could hurl a thunderbolt, they favored harmony.
“In general, Etruscan gods were more restrained, peaceful, and all-around functional when compared to their Greek counterparts,” states Kings and Generals. (see video below)
A Prophetic Nymph Called Vegoia
One author of the Etruscan religion is a sibyl, prophet, or nymph called Vegoia (Etruscan: Vecu). Another is a baby who revealed wisdom beyond his years.
“The Etruscans believed that all this wealth of information came from a divine source, two in fact: the wise infant Tages and grandson of Tin, who miraculously appeared from a field in Tarquinia while it was being plowed, and the nymph Vegoia (Vecui). These two figures revealed to the early Etruscan leaders the proper religious procedures expected by the gods and the handy tricks of divination,” the site states.
Religious ceremonies involved animal sacrifices honoring gods in the heavens and underworld deities. Notably, people of all classes and sexes offered votive offerings. In addition, they practiced augury, reading omens from lightning strikes, birds, and haruspicy, divination by examining animal entrails.
Etruscan burial practices featuring chariots and goods would indicate a belief in an afterlife. However, there isn’t evidence that they believed in hell or punishment.
“There is no evidence the Etruscans believed in any sort of punishment in the afterlife, and if art is to be considered, then it would seem that the hereafter was, starting with a family reunion, an endless round of pleasant banquets, games, dancing, and music,” writes Mark Cartwright.
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God of the Sun – Goddess of the Moon
As noted, early Etruscan beliefs centered on the Sun and Moon. By 475 BCE, there were bronze figures of Usil, god of the sun and Tiur, the Moon. (Greek Selene and Roman Luna) Surrounding Usil’s head is a defined halo.
Although the Roman Sol and Greek Helios parallel Usil, the god could be represented as male or female. Across the world, such concepts are found in some accounts of the Peruvian sun god Viracocha. While Usil could be depicted with a halo rising from the sea holding a fireball in each hand, Viracocha held two staffs.
While Usil is depicted most often as male, there are also feminine depictions equating Usil with another indigenous Etruscan goddess, Catha, which is often interpreted as having a solar character,” writes Ancient Times.
Notably, Catha is often paired with the Etruscan Flufluns, associated with the Greek Dionysus (Roman Bacchus).
Ancient relics include bronze figures of Usil, which may have been attached to chariots and funeral carts. Thus, they depicted the deity driving a chariot of the sun across the sky. One could be reminded of the Egyptian Akhenaten riding his chariot with Nefertiti, living embodiments of the Sun/Aten.
Sun God Usil and Dawn Goddess Thesan
Sometimes, Usil is seen with Thesan, the dawn goddess.
“Usil is also shown in close association with Thesan, the dawn goddess, something almost never seen with Helios and Eos,” Ancient Times writes.
This goddess is associated with the Greek Eos and Roman Aurora, the personification of the dawn. In the city of In Etruria, Thesan received offerings along with Usil in the Liber Linteus, the only extant Etruscan linen book.
Interestingly, a tourist inadvertently purchased the “book” after buying an Egyptian mummy in Alexandria. Over three decades later, an expert discovered the mummy was covered in rare Etruscan writing. It’s a mystery why it covered an otherwise seemingly Egyptian mummy.
Video by Illyrian Tribes:
Etruscan Shepherd God/Goddess
Another deity fluid in gender, the shepherd god and goddess Pales, was regarded as male by some sources and female by others. Interestingly, Pales can be either singular or plural in Latin and could be described as a pair of deities.
Pales became part of ancient Roman religion, associated with the foundation of Rome. Each April 21, the Parilia festival would see cattle driven through bonfires.
In Etruscan society, women enjoyed more freedom and autonomy than in Greece or later Rome.
“Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom,” wrote the Greek historian Theopompos of Chios in the fourth century B.C. “Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. Further, they dine not with their own husbands, but with any men who happen to be present.” He added that Etruscan women “are also expert drinkers and are very good looking.”
They could attend sporting events, feast, drink wine with men, and own, inherit, and transfer property. Also, in religious life, Etruscan women were prominent leaders, serving as Oracles and priestesses with power in their own right. Their powers of divination held sway in matters of politics.
“Women in Etruscan art are depicted as equals to men, appearing at banquets and other public social functions in a way that scandalized their Roman and Greek contemporaries,” writes Haaretz.
While Etruscan priestesses could directly deliver prophecies, their counterparts, such as the Greek “Oracle of Delphi,“ required male priests as translators.
After the Etruscan civilization, their influence would remain forever. However, many religions and cultures leaned toward a heavily patriarchal and hierarchical structure ever after. Looking back, one wonders what the world would be like today if the Etruscan and Egyptian ways of life had prevailed against the Roman conquerors.
Video by Kings and Generals: