Riding the wave

Etruscan art and mythology

In this section, devoted to religious and mythological beliefs of the people around the Mediterranean Sea, the Etruscans can't be neglected. They were a mysterious people, now intensively studied, whose civilization flourished in northern and middle Italy in pre-Roman times, starting in the ninth century B.C.

Likely coming from Asia Minor, they settled on the Tyrrhenian coast and adjacent inland, and became mediators between Italian and the older greek-Middle East cultures, contributing to the development of Western civilization.

Their cities were built in a dominant position on the hills, with massive walls of tufa, solid houses and temples decorated with polychrome pottery, showing a consolidated architectural expertise.

Gold cup

They also excelled in goldsmith and ceramics, and their customs are recorded in the murals, inspired by convivial scenes of hunting, dancing, sport competitions.

Patera Patera , ie a vessel of bronze, with slightly flared rim, used for ritual libations. The handle consists of a sculpture in itself, typically Etruscan, while Roman paterae were mostly ceramic and without a handle, resting on a small base.

Particularly valuable is a gold cup with handles decorated with all round small sphinxes, less than 8 cm high. Comes from the Bernardini tomb of Palestrina, and is kept at the National Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome.

Of their artistic production remain bronze castings, ornaments in precious materials, chandeliers, lamps, balsam, but also some furniture - the ancients generally used sparing furniture - often decorated with embossed metal plates.

Mirror with Calchas Mirror Vulci: Calchas is examining a liver. IV cent. BC (Vatican, Gregorian Etruscan Museum )

In attempting to recover a picture of spiritual orientations, standards and practices that constitute the religious world of the Etruscans, the problem of sources is essential. These are direct (the original texts, inscriptions on objects, scenes engraved on the mirrors, the remains of temples, tombs, paintings and sculptures), or indirect, as the news that we have from Greek and Latin writers of imperial or post-classical ages.

These indirect sources must be subjected to a critical review, because in a matter as delicate as that of beliefs and rituals, contamination of the original elements is very easy, if not inevitable.

Tomb of the reliefs "Tomb of the reliefs", in Cerveteri, dated between the fourth and second century BC, particularly important because it is full of accurate reproductions of everyday objects in colored stucco, perhaps belonging to the deceased, and documenting the daily lives of the Etruscans

Even the direct sources can not provide extensive information, because they consist of texts either too short or not fully translatable, and representations that since the beginning of figurative Etruscan art were sourced on Greek mythology. It seems in fact that the Etruscans accepted the divine figures and myths of Greece, as many deities of their pantheon appear with Greek names just changed, and others, while retaining an Etruscan name, are identified with the greek gods, or bear a name of Latin origin and correspond to the classical greek-roman divine figures.

However, from what can be gained from an examination of both direct and indirect sources, the Etruscan religion shows characters distinctly different from those of the Hellenic religion. One of these is a strong tendency to ritualism.

As we know from Roman writers, who spoke of Etruscan discipline, ie the complex rules that govern relations between gods and men, the Etruscans had a vast literature dealing with divination, and divination occupied a prominent place in their religion.

The two most typical methods of divination were based on the interpretation of lightning and of entrails of sacrificial victims. The liver of the sacrificed animal was considered an image of heaven, of which every point was chaired by a deity or deities of different groups: of this we have a precious testimony in a bronze model of a liver with inscriptions, the so-called "liver of Piacenza ". In the observation of lightning, the point in sky where the lightning appeared was most important.

The strict subdivision of the sky in regions with their divine inhabitants, according to Pliny and Martian Capella, manifested itself in other fields of religion, but also the time was carefully divided and organized, and to this pattern of organization of the cosmos is attributable the attention paid to numbers.

All this ritualism and theology are alien to the spirit of the classic greek polytheism and rather recalls the religion of the ancient Near East. In the whole, the Etruscan religion was clearly different from the Greek one, although it adopted its anthropomorphic representations.

Also typical of the Etruscans is the sociological characteristics (which is reflected in the importance of some figures of female deities in religion) by which women had a significantly more important role than in the rigidly patriarchal society of the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, they attached an enormous importance to the cult of the died and and to the afterlife. This is proved by monuments and tomb paintings, and is much different from the greek world, that make us match the Etruscan religion to those of pre-Hellenic Mediterranean world.


An important testimony is, as an example, a canopy designed to contain the ashes of the deceased: the oldest specimens have a covering in the shape of a mask, and thereafter the object took anthropomorphic forms, with loops that look like arms and the cover is a ceramic head.

The foculi are trays of bucchero - a typical black and shiny ceramic - for ritual offerings. The sample shown here contains everyday items, testimonies of everyday life, and is decorated by a series of heads. (National Archaeological Museum of Chiusi)

The Municipality of Piacenza published, in 2000, The liver of Piacenza, edited by Annamaria Carini and Elizabeth Govi, a comprehensive guide to the understanding of Etruscan mythology, from which the images above are taken.