Originally posted in March, 2011:
Last night I attended a wonderful lecture at our local public library. It was put on by the Archeological Institute of America. The lecturer was Larissa Bonfante, a professor of classics at New York University who specializes in Etruscan culture. She showed us a whole raft of color slides, images of wall paintings and sculptures from Etruscan tombs. Any mistakes in this post are mine, not to be attributed to Prof. Bonfante.
Here are a few of the things I learned. First, Etruria existed from around 1200 b.c. to 100 b.c. That’s a long time ago, around the time Homer’s epics were being written. They were influenced by Greek colonists who came in search of minerals and other material wealth. The Etruscans used Greek script and Greek myths for their own ends, often putting an Etruscan spin on a familiar Greek story.
For example, today we aren’t sure why Sisyphus had to roll that stone up the hill. According to Bonfante, we don’t have a Greek explanation. The Etruscans, however, believed it was because he’d moved the boundaries of the underworld. To the Etruscans, boundaries were extremely sacred and not to be messed with. The gods had to punish him for that transgression, so they made him push a huge rock up a steep hill. Over and over and over, forever.
The Etruscans were aristocratic, and most of the information we have about them comes from the tombs of the aristocracy. They divinized their ancestors, and built houses in which to keep their remains. In some city-states, that meant tiny house-shaped urns for ashes. In others, people built large above-ground tombs complete with beds for the dead, fancy wall paintings, and dishes and other utensils for their banquet.
The banquet was an important social activity, and in the Etruscan underworld, it’s what everyone did. So the dead were buried with everything they would need to host a grand banquet.
Blood for the Dead
The Etruscans believed that blood fed and refreshed the dead. Therefore, it was good to give blood sacrifices to the ancestors. At one time, they practiced human sacrifice (as has virtually every civilization at one time or another), but they gave that up. Even animal sacrifice was eventually converted to artistic representation. Instead of actually shedding blood, they would commission paintings for the tomb walls. The paintings would feature elaborate scenes of violence — either war, the execution of prisoners, or predatory animals attacking their prey. This effectively substituted for real death and gore.
Gods, demons and angels
One of the things I found most fascinating in Professor Bonfante’s lecture was when she described the dangerous journey the soul had to undergo in order to reach a safe haven in the underworld. The traveling soul met with terrible monsters on the way, but there were also guides to help him or her find that banquet hall where they would be with their deceased family members.
One of these demonic/divine guides was named Vanth. She looked like an angel to me. She was dressed in classical fashion, and had large, multi-colored bird wings, just like a typical (modern) angel. Her male counterpart was named Charu. He carried an enormous hammer that he used to pound open the gates of the underworld in order to admit the newly deceased soul.
This talk of demons might seem scary, but we have to remember that the Etruscans were a pagan people and they didn’t have any concept of hell. The underworld had its dangers, but it wasn’t a place of punishment. If the soul could find its way to the banquet hall, it would be alright– happy, even — and able to enjoy the company of its family, just as it had in life.
What a cheerful image, especially when contrasted with the Greek underworld, which was mostly damp, dark and chilly. Shades wandered around eating tasteless food and having a generally boring and depressing time. I think I’d rather be Etruscan!
Besides, the women banqueted right along with the men, instead of being tucked away in the women’s quarters like Greek women were. All in all, a congenial people who had a love of beauty and a great talent for creating lively art.