History of religion

Religions of Antiquity IV: The Etruscans

(Published in Grail World 36/2005)


Probably in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. a people immigrated to Italy whose origin is disputed. It mingled with the local population and other immigrants, came into contact with the Greeks and adopted their alphabet: The Etruscan.

Greek influences can be proven with them, but they built an independent culture, which in the first millennium BC was the most developed on Italian soil. Rome was probably an Etruscan foundation, the first kings of Rome are considered to be Etruscans, and some historians consider the famous bronze sculpture of the Capitoline she-wolf to be an Etruscan work.

Then there were battles with Carthaginians, Greeks, and the expanding Rome, which Etruria gradually conquered. The Etruscan culture merged with the Roman one, the Etruscan language disappeared, and only archaeological finds (e.g. graves), only partially understandable inscriptions and reports by ancient authors have survived from the once important, culturally high-ranking people of the Etruscans.

Colored, richly decorated tombs, some with sacrificial altars, suggest the importance of the cult of the dead for the Etruscans. Since they depicted their departed people pictorially, we have received impressive pictures and sculptures of Etruscans.

In ancient times, the Etruscans were considered to be a people who devoted themselves with special care to the cultivation of their religion, which is something special:
A natural religion and at the same time a high religion based on a written revelation.

According to tradition, near Tarquinia, the oldest Etruscan city, a peasant by name appeared Tarchon a strange being when plowing. This had the body of a toddler and the head of an old man. This strange earth being (or nature being?), Day called, dictated to the summoned king religious revelations, which were recorded. These records formed the basis of the Etruscan religion, whose first priest was the peasant Tarchon after which Tarquinia is said to be named.

The most important content of the writings called "Etruscan discipline" by the Romans was dealing with the will of the gods. Under Greek influence, the gods of the Etruscans became quite similar to those of the Greeks and Romans, but the work of the gods was viewed somewhat differently by the Etruscans.

In the holistic world view of the Etruscans, gods (and probably also natural beings) continuously worked into this world, with which even those who had left were still connected. So it was a matter of entering into communication with the gods, inquiring about their will and observing them; or to influence the will of the gods through rituals and sacrifices, on which the fate of the individual as well as of the entire state depended. According to Etruscan doctrine, fate, the future, the will of the gods are expressed in many forms in nature: in lightning, in the bowels of the sacrificed animals, in birds' flight, in tree signs, etc. Long after the fall of the Etruscans, the Romans still had Etruscan model augurs who tried to interpret the future from the flight of birds.

Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD), as a philosopher of the imperial era, comments on the Etruscan lightning interpretation:

“The difference between us and the Etruscans, whose greatest knowledge lies in the interpretation of lightning, is as follows: We think that lightning occurs because the clouds collide; but those believe that the clouds collide to create lightning. Since they attribute everything to the deity, they hold on to this opinion, as if the lightning bolts do not give a sign because they take place, but take place because they are supposed to be signs. " (2, p. 67).

A peculiarity of the Etruscan religion is the belief in a predestination, as it later became significant again in the predestination teachings of Islam and Protestantism.

For the Etruscans, the lifespan of the individual and the essential stages of his life were predetermined within relatively narrow limits. Even the state was only given a limited number of saecula (ages), the beginning and end of which were determined by divine signs such as lightning. Slight extensions seemed possible, for the individual by ten years, for the state by thirty years.

The priesthood, which alone was able to explore the course of the Etruscan ages (which, according to Roman authors, lay between 100 and 123 years), this belief helped to gain considerable power. At the same time one has to ask whether such a pessimistic view did not contribute to submission to the pragmatic thinking Romans, who did not know such scruples. When the time for the Etruscan people was drawing to a close by “divine predestination”, firm defense seemed pointless.

In fact, the history of the Etruscans began around the year 1000 BC. and ended at the beginning of the 1st century BC, almost exactly after eight saecula.

Roman authors call the religious traditions of the Etruscans "disciplina etruska". Their scriptures consisted of three books:
Libri fulgurales (lightning theory):
Descriptions of how to make predictions from lightning.
Libri haruspicini (intestinal inspection):
The method of divination from the liver or other intestines of sacrificial animals. Was taken over by the Romans.
Libri rituales (ritual books):
Description of the religious rituals.
Copies of these lost Etruscan writings were kept in the Alexandria library until the great fire.

In our time, in which the sciences have fanned out into many disciplines, it is difficult to relate to the thinking of the Etruscans, for whom cult, ritual, sacrifice, lightning observation, intestinal inspection were of fundamental importance in order to explore the will of the gods and perhaps also to influence.

As nonsensical as such a behavior may seem to us, it is based on an understanding of the world that has retained its meaning to this day: The unity of the world.

If everything is subject to uniform laws, if nothing stands on its own and everything is connected to everything - as one could for example deduce from ecology - then perhaps the greatest is also reflected in the smallest, human consciousness could achieve a very small share in the universal consciousness , and the "quality of time" can be read from the flight of birds, the forms of lightning during a thunderstorm, or from the liver of a sacrificial animal ...

This archaic belief of the Etruscans - be it completely wrong or at least true to a certain extent - did not die with them.

Anyone who is still advised by clairvoyants today, asks about the future in the horoscope, searches for answers to their questions with tarot cards or the i-went oracle, wants to determine by commuting a photograph whether the person in question is still alive House or business premises designed in a feng-shui-compliant manner is an unconscious legacy of the understanding of the world by ancient peoples. This worldview comes from a time when everything was considered animated, the whole world as a unit. The will of the gods is therefore reflected in everything and was to be inquired about by the most varied methods of mantic.

The Etruscan people have long since disappeared, perished or risen up in other peoples; but the art of fortune telling, excessively practiced by the Etruscans, still lives today in a variety of forms - mostly under other names ...

Continued Religions of Antiquity V.

(1) Pfiffig, Ambos Josef: "Introduction to Etruscology", Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt, 1972
(2) Prayon, Friedhelm: "The Etruscans", CH Beck, Munich, 2003
(3) Simon, Erika: “Writings on Etruscan and Italian Art and Religion”, Franz Steiner, Stuttgart, 1996