2 Sep 2007

Etruscan fler, flere and fleres

It always amazes me what crazy translations Etruscan specialists think up that are so wildly divorced of their contexts as to be pitiful. We have another problem concerning the words fler, flere and flereś. With these words, what's particularly amazing is how a group of specialists over a number of decades couldn't seem to figure out that it was just the same word with different inflections. I suspect they're still clueless about it today.

It's terribly irritating to me that Massimo Pallottino, despite recognizing that -e is a locative marker, just wasn't astute enough to realize that flere is the locative form of fler. Instead, through a recurrent amnesia of Etruscan grammar, Pallottino gave a number of seperate translations to words that were so clearly morphologically related (see The Etruscans, 1975, p.234):

  • fler = "offering, sacrifice" (with inflected form: flerś)
  • flere = "god" (with inflected forms: fleres, flereś, flereri)
  • flerχva = "sacrificial rite to a god or the total offerings"
  • flerθce = [derived verbal form]
There are so many logical gaffes with these claims that I'm not sure how to proceed in unravelling this gigantic mess. Bonfante only apes Pallottino but adds further complication by claiming that flereś specifically means "statue", on top of the other readings of "god" and "sacrifice" (Reading the Past - Etruscan, 1990, p.60). The first thing you've hopefully noticed about most Etruscologists is that they don't like to consistently reference the vocabulary they cite to actual artifacts. Instead we're supposed to just magically know where they come from.

Pallottino adds extra burden onto the reader's laborious search by incorrectly transcribing attested flerθrce as *flerθce which does not exist anywhere. Unless we specifically have Pallottino's flawed works before us, we may not catch on and will be searching for this imaginary word forever and ever. This is from TLE 334, a black-finish vase, whose picture I've supplied below, complete with red arrow where Pallottino's severe myopia deceived him. Keep in mind that Etruscan rho (i.e. Etruscan "r") looks like a 'P' or even a 'D' to those used to the modern Roman alphabet.

One would think that Pallottino, a man that indexed all of these inscriptions into his famous Testimonia Linguae Etruscae (or TLE for short) would have put on glasses before publishing this misreading even 20 years later[1].

So as usual, these "experts" are here to screw with our minds and we are forced to either join in their madness or venture off on our own vision quest to understand this language better. Back to logic, fler is most certainly the core of this conundrum. Let's state the obvious that flere, flerś and flerχva are the locative singular, genitive singular and nomino-accusative inanimate plural respectively of this root fler. Common sense says that if the word is marked with the inanimate plural -χva, giving it the meaning of "god" is unbearably false. The word must refer to gifts offered gods as is the consistent context. Even the illustrated artifact above shows Alcsti (Greek Alcestis) is being offered to the god of death by Atmite (Greek Admetus) and so she is here in effect a fler, an offering to the gods, not a statue and not a sacrificial rite. I find the value of "sacrifice" to be a stretch for reasons that follow.

In the Liber Linteus, we encounter a phrase in association with libations of wine (LL 4.xiv: Vinm trin flere. "Wine is poured as a gift."; LL 8.xvii: trin flere Neθunsl une mlaχ "(they) pour as a gift to Neptune with a blessed libation"). If this were the only context, we might mistake this word to refer to libational offerings, however we can clearly see that Alcestis is not a "pourable" kind of gal. We also consistently see a derivative form flereś marked on statuettes, but statuettes can neither be poured nor sacrificed unless we stretch meanings with loose artistic license.

The only way I can make sense of all of these instances then is to generalize the purported meaning of fler to simply "gift" or "offering" with flereś being a diminutive using the elsewhere attested derivational ending -iś, which would be rather appropriate in describing small statuette offerings. In all its instances, however, I've never seen it refer overtly to an actual animal sacrifice, leading me to suspect that there are other, more appropriate words for this like tesiam as I have listed in my free pdf on Lulu.

[1] The rationale behind his purposeful myopia probably has something to do with trying to make the word fit his preconceived notions of grammar so that he could get a perfective denominal verb form *fler-θ-ce. This illustrates the dangers of allowing our own personal biases and preconceptions to affect, or for that matter, infect the clarity of our understanding. With the extra "r" here, his implied analysis is impossible. Rather, the word may simply be a compound verb fler-eθar-, syncopated to flerθr- here, and composed of fler "gift" and eθar- "to receive" plus perfective preterite -ce. Hence "(Acheron) has received gift".


  1. Bonfante only apes Pallottino but adds further complication by claiming that flereś specifically means "statue", on top of the other readings of "god" and "sacrifice".

    I see no real problem with statue and god being the same word really. In fact it is quite common, for example in Hittite texts, statuettes of gods, and gods themselves were considered on and the same thing, and therefore we find enormous amounts of texts that say 'we carried the god (Insert name here) into the temple, and sacrificed (insert sacrificial item here).' It would seem unlikely to most people the Hittites had actual deities they could carry ;)

    Nevertheless though, sacrifice being synonymous to god is absolutely idiotic, and I can't think of any similar occurrence
    in another language ;)

  2. Finding idiocy in print is oodles of fun! My first and main objection is that there are just too many translations on the go here: "statue", "god", "sacrifice", "sacrificial rite". Etruscologists are clearly not analysing the language methodically at all, despite their claims otherwise (see Nancy De Grummond, Etruscans, Sacred Myth and Legend, 2006, p.16 for a chuckle on that matter).

    What I expect in a normal human language is that the great majority of its vocabulary has core, basic meanings. Primary meanings. Sure, they may be extended with secondary usages, but there is nonetheless a core meaning we should be searching out for each and every word. So the question I'm really posing here is: What is the primary meaning of fler?

    You're absolutely right that one could refer to a statue as though it were a living god. Thanks for mentioning that fact. However, even so, fler appears to be a Type-I inanimate noun. Ergo, the inherently animate notion of "god" isn't the optimal solution at all, particularly given the word's many other contexts.

    As I mention, it's hard to read "god", "statue" or even "sacrifice" in the phrase vinm trin flere where it's found in the locative case and accompanied by the mediopassive verb form trin (< unmarked *tra; note the participle form in LL 4.xxii: vinum trau) which appears to be used exclusively with liquids.

    So, none of the translations supplied by the experts thus far are working.