13 Sep 2007

Suri, the saga part 2

(Continued from Suri, the saga part 1.)

I couldn't help myself and had to draw a diagram to illustrate the merry-go-round I find myself on whenever I try to find information on this supposed Etruscan deity, Suri. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. It's a caveat that applies to historical research in general. Hope you enjoy:

So as I explained previously, we know that this Etruscan deity called "Suri" has no defined mythological function (i.e. He's the sun and the underworld.), has no defined gender (i.e. referred to as both a "god" and a "goddess"), and is tied to a bunch of Latin word lookalikes based purely on folktales, not proper linguistic methodology (e.g. sors, Soracte, Soranus).

This in itself is proof of a low academic bar of excellence, but I'm afraid it gets much worse because:

  1. Anecdotes from Roman authors are misrepresented and mangled.
  2. Quotes from Romans and idle assumptions are confused as true evidence for a cult of Suri.
  3. The deity's image however has never been found to date on any Etruscan artifact.
To prove the existence of Suri, Etruscologists cling to a few vague references in Vergil's Aeneid or to its commentaries by Servius written a few centuries after Vergil. It shouldn't have to be said that the Aeneid is primarily a tale and only secondarily a historical reference to begin with. Hardly dependable for historical accuracy. The fact that anyone would cite Servius quoting Vergil telling his tale so clearly laced with flamboyant artistic licence as positive proof of some historical practice is as screwy to me as people quoting Genesis to disprove evolution.

Let's however pretend for the sake of arguement that these are valid sources of information on Etruscan mythology. Etruscologists mention the priests called Hirpi Sorani and the deity known as Apollo Soractis. It's common practice for historians in this field to carelessly mangle the names together to produce unattested hybrids of their own like *Hirpi Soracte and *Apollo Soranus[1]. This is what ad.Aen. 11.785 states word for word:

"[...] et superos Arruns sic voce precature: "Summe deum, sancti custos Soractis, Apollo, quem primi colimus, cui pineus ardor acervo pascitur et medium freti pietate per ignem cultores multa premimus vestigia pruna."

"[...] and to the heavens Arruns thus cries out: "O chief of the gods, sacred guardian of Soracte, Apollo, whom we worship foremost, whom is fed a heap of burning pines and into the blaze passing through the fire we plant firmly our soles on burning coal."
It clearly says Soracte (the mountain), not Soranus, and the connection of mountain worship to sun cults is self-evident: standing on a mountain brings you closer to the Sun. While an Apollo cult is indicative of Greek influence, what does this concretely have to do with Etruscans?

The tale of the Hirpi Sorani is equally misrepresented. Erika Simon claims[2]: "In cult, as Giovanni Colonna has shown, Aplu could be equated with Suri (= Latin Soranus), who, like Aita, had the wolf as his attribute." Basically, she is quoting secondary or tertiary sources, perhaps for no other reason other than to namedrop impressive scholars. The primary source we should focus on here is in fact Festus (Fest. 93,25), not Colonna, who speaks of certain local priests: "Irpini appellati nomine lupi, quem irpum dicunt Samnites; eum enim ducem secuti agros occupavere." which translates as "They are called irpini, the name of the wolf, which the Samnites call irpus; following a wolf they arrived at their later domain." But just because a deity is worshipped in Sora or on Mount Soracte doesn't mean that it is the same as another deity in Sora or on Mount Soracte. The connections here are too simplistic and sweeping. There's not even a guarantee that the accounts are accurately recorded or exaggerations by these authors. Finally, I really don't understand why an account about Samnites is assumed automatically to reflect on Etruscan practices, but I suspect that it has something to do with the Victorian Age when Etruscans were mistaken to be Italic peoples. Quite frankly, if we worry about all these trivial distractions, we'll never learn a darn thing. So it's best to shake our heads, start afresh, and look for primary sources. And when I emphasize primary sources here, I'm talking about actual Etruscan artifacts and inscriptions and only those things. Not tales from Romans, not hearsay by modern authors. I'm talking about Etruscan artifacts.

Sadly, there are none. If you don't believe me, then believe Nancy De Grummond herself, who both pushes this cult of Suri but then admits to her discredit on page 133 in Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend (2006):

"As for Suri, it is most unfortunate that we do not have any inscribed images of this deity nor do we know his appearance."
It's perhaps most unfortunate to the reader who has to read through this big heap of confusing rhetoric before being directly and honestly told this important fact.

So then, the remaining question about the cloudy deity is what people are talking about when they speak of "votive inscriptions to Suri". What inscriptions? Are they really what they claim they are or just more assumptions? Stay tuned.

(Continue reading Suri, the saga part 3...)

[1] Francesco De Angelis in summer 2006 edition of Etruscan News, a newsletter edited by respected Etruscologist Larissa Bonfante out of the University of Massuchussetts, refers to "Apollo Soranus(sic)" which he says is "in the Faliscan territory, with its peculiar priests able to walk on hot coals". He's clearly referring to Vergil but he's being too loose with his paraphrasing.
[2] De Grummond/Simon, The Religion of the Etruscans (2006) on page 57 under Aplu/Apulu.


  1. I know this isn't your field, but this is what I'd like to know... http://i195.photobucket.com/albums/z213/

  2. but for your audience, I should have probably changed the second scene to have an administrator come (but standing outside the circle) in and say the line about Vergil... then omit the next two lines, but add a single, "fuck." -effing

  3. Haha, your reinterpretation of my diagram is awesome! I know you couldn't help yourself but quite frankly, neither could I if I was in your shoes. Lol!

    Actually, your diagram hints at a plebeian-patrician class war where the rich prevail and the campfire of the poor are "snuffed out", as it were, by lack of funding and copyright infringement. Hehehe, nice.

    Oh and by the way, Nancy De Grummond is starting up a contest to see who can come up with the best representation of Suri because she's too busy writing books about the deity to actually dig up relevant artifacts :P (Ouch! Time for my morning coffee...)