24 Aug 2007

The Etruscan afterlife is scary... only in Hollywood

And all this time, I thought Etruscans didn't have sexy marketing appeal. Recently, I ended up learning something new. Not necessarily something useful, but something new. I recently discovered that a surprising number of filmmakers over the decades have tried sincerely to make their big break in bloody horror films by capitalizing on the "mystery" of our lovable ancient people as a perfect reason to hack up body parts on the big screen. I learned this from the Eternally Cool blog and I have to agree: We need an Etruscan film festival. I'll get the snacks but bring your own booze.

The image above is selected from a funerary painting in the Tomb of François. Scenes like this continue to be misinterpreted by both experts and laymen alike as proof that Etruscans were brutal, blood-thirsty people or that their conception of the afterlife was somehow depressing and scary. Yet considering the sheer volume of human blood spilled during the Crusades and the innumerable depictions from faithful artists over the more recent centuries covering the topic of Purgatory and Damnation, we would have a much stronger case of saying this about Catholics. (And the scary thing is, while the Etruscans are long gone, the Catholics are still among us... [cue creepy music]...)

The real reason for these bloody paintings can be read in Etruscan Myths (2006) by Etruscologist Larissa Bonfante and her British Museum curator sidekick named Judith Swaddling. Therein, it is explained that in place of ritual animal sacrifice, which would occur in solemn occasions such as this, a visual depiction of blood-spilling was just as holy as an offering for bribing the powers of the underworld into protecting their loved ones. Greeks also used this visual device as a form of protection (e.g. "The Evil Eye") and considering the tight economic and cultural ties between these two peoples, it's natural that Etruscans were doing the same thing. However, what Bonfante says is not groundbreaking because I discovered that the topic of apotrope in Etruscan art was already published in 1977 by the Folklore Society. As you can see, progress in Etruscan studies is glacially slow and frustrated at every turn by a sea of dim-witted scholars which I will talk about below.

Part of our ignorance on Etruscan religion lies in the very wording used to describe some deities in the Etruscan pantheon which are in the end relics of Christian religiocentrism as it existed in North America and Europe in the 19th century. There are few other deities so consistently distorted as the god Charun who, even in modern times, continues to be mischaracterized as a "demon", "death-demon" or even more ignorantly as "monster". You'd expect this emotional rhetoric from loons on the street or independent scholars perhaps, yet the very people pushing this spin are in fact supported by famous university publishers thereby adding weight to their pop-history rhetoric in the minds of the many unquestioning readers who are surprisingly impressed by this sort of empty backing: Louisa Banti, Etruscan Cities and Their Culture (University of California, 1973); Herbert Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases (Oxford University Press, 1997); Charles Gates; Nancy De Grummond & Erika Simon, The Religion of the Etruscans (University of Texas Press, 2006).

Imagine an Egyptologist, as an example, who publishes a like-worded book today and in it has enough bold ignorance to distort Osiris into a "blue death-demon" or describe the jackal-headed Anubis who also is present in afterlife scenes as "monstrous" simply because of his surreal, anthropomorphic representation and sharp, canine teeth. Worse yet, imagine some would-be expert describing a modern polytheistic religion in this careless manner. A parallel sentence to what we often find in books on Etruscan religion would be something nonsensical like "Ganesha is a hideous, half-elephant-half-man death-demon who chops the deceased with his trusty axe and spears them with his menacing trident." Now imagine how long such a fool's university career might last or how many angry letters they deservedly will receive. Yet when we compare this absurd hypothetical situation to the actual and equally absurd vacuousness printed in page 13 of Death and Burial in the Roman World, by Jocelyn Mary & Catherine Toynbee of John Hopkins University, we might ponder on how low the bar is in Etruscan studies.

Now that my rant is done, let's watch the cheap movie!


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