Wednesday, December 19, 2012


L. B. Van der Meer, Etrusco Ritu, Case Studies in Etruscan Ritual Behavior. Monographs on Antiquity, 5. Leuven, Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2011. Pp. viii, 167. ISBN 9789042925380. €78.00.

Reviewed by Jean MacIntosh Turfa, University of Pennsylvania Museum (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

So much research into Etruscan religion has appeared since C.O. Thulin's Die etruskische Disciplin (Göteborg, 1906) and Ambros Pfiffig's Religio etrusca (Graz, 1975) that a single, encyclopedic work on Etruscan religion is probably no longer feasible; certainly recent treatments, often generated by conferences, have focused on selected aspects of the field, for instance, J.-R. Jannot, Religion in Ancient Etruria (Madison, WI, 2005), N.T. de Grummond and E. Simon, eds., The Religion of the Etruscans (Austin, TX, 2006), L.B. van der Meer, ed., Material Aspects of Etruscan Religion (Leuven, 2010), and entries in the ThesCRA (Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum) and LIMC.

This slim volume might better be called prolegomena to a study of Etruscan ritual, since it offers, often with novel interpretations, a sampling of types of ritual behavior (8th-1st centuries BCE), seasoned with ethnographic evidence from the Roman through modern periods, for survival of Etruscan rituals (e.g., 137-138, ritual plowing rites in Italy in 2009). Following brief treatment of some theoretical approaches, specific ceremonies are analyzed with reference to archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources. Family ("private") rituals include rites of passage such as marriage, birth, coming of age, healing, adoption and consecration.

Funerary rituals are briefly discussed, although some aspects such as funeral games and performances (e.g. phersu-ceremony with masked dancer and bloodletting) are omitted. "Public" or state cult and ritual are considered in special cases, particularly where illuminated by ancient texts (for instance, rituals for foundation of cities), but some major themes such as the triumph are not covered. The fragmentary remains of lost Etruscan or Italic libri rituales are noted, in conjunction with literary references or Italic parallels. Two appendices furnish Livy's (5.22) description of the evocation of Juno (her statue) in the Roman conquest of Veii, and selected lines from the Umbrian Iguvine Tablets, with new English translations.

Many interpretations of Etruscan terms diverge from the translations that may be familiar to readers, for instance, a bucchero olpe from Cerveteri (22, fig. 8) is incised with Medea (Metaia) and six men bearing a long textile, labeled kanna. van der Meer likens this to the mantle or canopy (chuppa) of a Jewish wedding, and offers some comments on images that probably depict wedding or betrothal rituals with cloth and the "purchase" of each other by the betrothed couple (14-24) – here, and throughout, are very many Greek, Latin and other specialist terms (confarreatio, auspex, etc.) which will be familiar to classicists but difficult for other readers. Many speculative comments, stimulating for scholars involved in this research, could mislead the student or non-Etruscan reader, as in suggesting that cognizance of a "Lydian migration" to Etruria and kinsmen on Lemnos affected the choice of the Argonauts for the theme of this vase (23).

For another family ritual, birth (24-25), we may now add an Orientalizing image, excavated after the book was completed. At Poggio Colla near Florence, a fragmentary bucchero vase preserves a relief scene of a woman giving birth. (See R. Lorenzi, "Ancient Images of a Mother Giving Birth Found," in Etruscan News 14 (Winter 2012) 17, also illustrated on various websites.)

Some cases offer tantalizing suggestions but do not fully treat topics such as sacrifice (see, in addition, L. Donati and S. Rafanelli, "Il sacrificio nel mondo etrusco," in ThesCRA I (2004) 134-182 (cited in notes only). Van der Meer suggests consecration of children, perhaps associated with votive figurines, like the fine bronzes of baby boys from Montecchio, Trasimene and elsewhere (43 fig. 16; S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization, 2000: 362 fig. 285) – but the large quantities of terracotta figures of children from extramural sanctuaries seem like tokens of everyday healing vows, surely too many to commemorate the special dedication of a child to a cult indenture…?

Much ritual remains to be discerned statistically in burial ceremonies: note objects offered by mourners of the opposite sex in Iron Age burials (49-50), and the removal of one handle from urns made with two. The notion of the urn reconstituting the body of the deceased is now even further supported by new research into the burials of eighth-century Narce, where a razor was placed on a man's cheek in inhumation or on the "cheek" of a cremation urn's lid; special women were buried with an axe-blade on the forehead or on the urn (J. Tabolli, paper, AIA Annual Meetings, January 8, 2012, from L'abitato e le necropoli "I Tufi" e "La Petrina" di Narce… dissertation, University of Rome "La Sapienza," in press 2012.)

For rare bronze vessels with narrative ornamentation such as the "death demons" in the form of wolves, dogs, bears etc. (68-70): how can we be sure that such things were made for the funeral? (Many scholars assume this funerary interpretation, but this might be only the final destination of a wedding gift or civic presentation piece.) At Pisa a cenotaph with trident incorporated in the monument is read (54) in the usual interpretation of marking a deceased seafarer, but an important variant, backed by a wealth of Anatolian and Near Eastern evidence, is as a symbol of lightning, marking a priest's or diviner's status– see F. Sciacca, "Per una nuova interpretazione del tridente in bronzo dal Circolo del Tridente di Vetulonia," Archeologia Classica 55 (2004): 269–282.

More might be said of the ritual of the dii animales ("spirit gods"), a sort of status upgrade for the deceased, obtained by a blood sacrifice (63-64 reiterates the late ancient sources, Macrobius and Labeo). Animal bones in tombs may represent cooked food, but young mammals cremated with the human cadaver must reflect some special sacrifice when found in Iron Age through Hellenistic urns from Narce, Chiusi, and Montebello (M.J. Becker, J.M. Turfa, B. Algee-Hewitt, Human Remains from Etruscan and Italic Tomb Groups in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Biblioteca di Studi Etruschi 48, 2009: 104-108.) Intensive analysis of urn contents should improve our understanding of this phenomenon.

Van der Meer presents many curious issues to inspire future research, for instance, why are the most canonical (to us) ancient rituals not depicted artistically until the 5th or 4th century BCE? The oldest securely attested image of divination (haruspicy) is the Chalchas mirror from Vulci (430-400 BCE, 37). (We may push the date of formal haruspicy back based on the Iron Age fibula type worn by haruspices, but the votive figurines depicting this are fourth-century or later…) The oldest śuthina inscription marking objects as "grave goods" is only fifth-century (60), and most are later, but perhaps this is more a political situation than religious, marking objects not to be claimed by the state (especially Volsinii).

For most evidence, alternate interpretations have been proposed in past scholarship, such as (81) a very different reading of the famous Admetus-Alkestis vase in Paris (contrast G. and L. Bonfante, The Etruscan Language. An Introduction (2nd ed., Manchester, 2002) 146-147 no. 24).Van der Meer gives (64-68) the text and his translation of the spiral Etruscan inscription on the fifth-century Magliano lead plaque, apparently describing offerings to certain gods and ancestors, although other readings are certainly possible for this difficult text. Another famous text, the so-called Capua "Tile" looks like a "roofing tile" (78) but is not: it is one of a lost set of tablet-like pages stacked in place with dowels through holes in their protective margins. The interpretation (71-74) of the Tragliatella oinochoe (630-600 BCE), with incised scenes of a militia, maze-game, hieroi gamoi, and noble family, associates the female character, Thesathei, with recent DNA studies that purport to show male Etruscans deliberately acquiring wives from the Near East(!)

Van der Meer (35-36) only touches upon another topic, under "perinatal rites," the seemingly casual or even sacrificial burial of infants (children up to about 5 years old) within the city boundary or in special features such as urban sanctuaries (Tarquinia Pian di Civita). Evidence has increased dramatically for burial inside the confines of a city (Tarquinia, Veii, ager Faliscus, etc., but much is yet to be explained. (A beginning is the special issue of Scienze dell'Antichità 14, 2007-2008, eds. G. Bartoloni and M.G. Benedettini, "Sepolti tra I vivi. Evidenza ed interpretazione di contesti funerari in abitato," from a conference in 2006.) Guidelines for identifying ritual burials as opposed to crime scenes, disturbed cemetery contexts, etc., have yet to be formulated.

The book would have benefitted from assiduous copyediting, for instance, "throning" (20) should be "enthroned," and "flying Gauls" (22) should probably be "fleeing;" Dutch "of" sometimes appears instead of English "or." Caught by the author too late for correction (115) is important new evidence of a freedwoman's dedication in the fanum Voltumnae, now recognized (by most of us) in the site of Campo della Fiera, Orvieto. Her inscribed stone base should read "Kanuta larecenas laute/nitha aranthial pinies puia turuce/ tluschual maruethul faliath/ere…" Ca. 500 BCE Kanuta married into the noble Pinie family (later generations built the Giglioli Tomb, Tarquinia). (See S. Stopponi, "Campo della Fiera at Orvieto: new discoveries," in N.T. de Grummond and I. Edlund-Berry, eds., The Archaeology of Sanctuaries and Ritual in Etruria [JRA Suppl. Series 81, 2011] 16-44. See in the same volume, G. Bagnasco Gianni on Tarquinia-Ara della Regina and "Bibliography of sanctuaries and ritual in Etruria" by S.A. Collins-Elliot and I. Edlund-Berry).

The public ritual for city-foundation (82-104) is traced here in orthogonal plans and inscribed markers at Capua, Marzabotto, Spina. Van der Meer notes (85) that the Aratore d'Arezzo, a famous statuette of a priest plowing, cannot depict the pomerium foundation rite as we know it: the team are both bulls/steers, not a bull and a cow, as in ancient descriptions! For the find of a probable sulcus primigenius at Veii-Piazza d'Armi c. 650 BCE, see G. Bartoloni, "Véies: Recherches récentes sur la 'citadella' de Piazza d'Armi," Les Dossiers d'archéologie 322, 2007: [22–29] 26. An unusual terracotta disc from the Monte Bibele settlement founded c. 400 BCE, is presented (89- 91, fig. 27) as a sundial, related to Etruscan cosmology.

Interesting suggestions are made about Bacchic cult at Orvieto/Volsinii: at Bolsena, a smashed terracotta throne with erotes astride panthers was buried under the triclinium threshold of Domus I (House of the Paintings), near an underground complex including a cult-room with red-painted, domed ceiling. It may be that a nearby Bacchic temple was dismantled and the throne ritually concealed, following the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus of 186 BCE.

Divination (37-42) is confined to liver scrutiny and lightning strikes. If (39) Athenian Greeks obtained their hepatoscopy from Etruria, c. 530 BCE, the date of its depiction on ABF vases, the topic cries for more research.

The "conclusive reflections" (133-138) are of course not proven conclusions. Van der Meer suggests that Etruscans were not after all "the most religious of people" (Livy 5.1.6), because the quantity of archaeological, epigraphic or artistic evidence for rituals is very low, and the meager literary sources indicate most rituals were responses to catastrophe or family events such as birth, marriage, death. I would hesitate to judge the depth of Etruscan ritual behavior by negative evidence, however, or by our limited ability to recognize ritual in material evidence. Yet in many cases, van der Meer's conclusions could well be correct, simply impossible to prove to exacting standards.

This book is a challenge with many intriguing nuggets for specialists in early Italy or ancient religions, like the list of Etruscan temples overlaid with early Christian churches, many still in place (137). Its dense specialist Greek, Latin and Etruscan terminology could pose obstacles for students or readers from other fields. It should be useful for scholars in the history of religion, Etruscology and pre-Roman Italy, but also for Classicists studying the intellectual climate of Late Republican Rome, when Etruscan arcana were used – and abused – by the intelligentsia and politicians, on varying levels of belief or understanding. Van der Meer gives strong reminders that, whether we have texts or not, we invariably are dealing with real people for whom the "scriptures" were real: the sanctuaries were alive with processions and sacrifices, vows and ritual acts, and we can only understand the surviving evidence if we keep this in mind.

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