28 Nov 2007

TLE 900: Sancus, yet another Etruscan "mystery god"

It's never hard to sniff out the "brown sugar" (a.k.a. "b.s.") in the field of Etruscology. All we have to do is randomly pick an inscription from a hat and do a little digging into its history. We will easily find a truckload of competing hypotheses, all just as absurd as the next, all just as weakly defended as the next. This is why I could go on for 20 years to come, writing this blog on Etruscans alone, perhaps to the ennui of my readers. I finally nabbed a relatively clear picture online of TLE 900, from the ancient city of Volsinii, and this is another can of worms that we should open up and examine. The inscription is usually claimed to read as follows (for example, as shown in Morandi, Epigrafia di Bolsena etrusca (1990), p.64):

selvans // sanχuneta // cvera

And here's a picture:

For now, try not to look too closely at the last word which doesn't quite seem to match the transcription that most experts claim. Let's pretend for the moment that such details aren't important and if it helps, drink some whiskey to dumb your mind down. What many academics usually do to work around this pesky detail is to just pretend that the word isn't there. Oh look, poof! It's gone: Bisang, Aspects of Typology and Universals (2001), p.122; Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan Language: An Introduction, Revised Editon (2003), p.205; De Grummond, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend (2006), p.149. As you can see, the last word is easily forgotten in the shadow of a mighty god named Selvans Sanchuneta.

But who is Selvans Sanchuneta? Nobody can say. In a nutshell, it's another "mystery god" invented by an unchecked department of academia who use pseudolinguistics to invent a long story that will fill up a book with their name on it. Colonna sought out to prove that an otherwise unknown hapax sanχuneta refers to an obscure Roman god Sancus. No particular reason, really, other than the fact that they begin with similar sounds. Of course, academics can't just admit to coining new folk etymologies because then they'd look foolish, but in the end it really is just another modern game of word association. While many claim that Sancus is of Etruscan origin, the claim isn't founded on anything substantial and could just as easily be etymologically related to Latin sanctus "holy" and thus of Italic origin. However, all of this misses an opportunity to intelligently analyze the grammar of the inscription. The word or name sanχuneta is in fact in all likelihood two items: sanχune-ta "the [sanχune]" (with trailing enclitic demonstrative -ta functioning as a definite article). It appears then that the status quo is yet again way off-base. There is no question that the first word is the god Selvans, but the second word claimed to be part of the epithet of this god is too problematic to be considered secure. What do we make of the unanalysable -ne or -neta ending if we are asked to entertain the notion that Latin Sancus begat Etruscan sanχuneta?[1]

Now after you've drunk your whiskey to kill the pain, what about the last word? Well, that's another kit-and-kaboodle, isn't it? When you look at the picture above, we see clearly a zeta (which looks like a modern "i" in serif font) following the epsilon and the trailing rho and alpha are upside-down. Ignoring the change in direction of the text, we would have cvezra, not cvera. Nonetheless, all the Etruscologists continue to state that the word here says cvera, a reflex of cver assumed to mean "image" by some.

I wish I had answers, yet all I have is one question after another. Nevertheless, a good question is always better than a shakey answer.

[1] Dorcey, for one, openly questions the validity of similar claims by Pfiffig linking it to a title Sanctus, albeit it in a cowardly footnote. (see, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion (1992), p.11, fn.17)

(Nov 28 2007) We could perhaps in theory salvage the idea of Silvans Sancus but only if one analyses the phrase Silvans Sanχune-ta as underlying *Silvans Sanχuna-ita "(The) Silvans of Sancus" (with the deictic form -ita rather than -ta to explain e < *ai). One would then presume that Sanχuna is an adjective formed on a hypothetical Etruscan name *Sanχu "Sancus" using the suffix -na which is used in other adjectives and nominal derivatives. Even if this is so, I'd love to see the final word explained properly to finally tie this all together.


  1. I think there's a possibility that you're imagining the Zeta. When I first looked at the text, I read cvera. Although now, that you've pointed it out, I do see something like a shape which might be a Zeta, I believe it might just be some damage. Especially because the space each letter takes up is about the same every time, and this Zeta takes up much less horizontal width than the rest.

    I don't deny the possibility of there being a Zeta, but I'm not entirely convinced that it's there.

  2. I don't mind putting aside the "zeta issue" for a moment because there are plenty of delicious facts I can use from this inscription for my blasphemy against academia >:) I don't think I covered it all with this ranting article of mine.

    Take Mauro Cristofani's translation of cvera as "as a gift" in Gli Etruschi: una nuova immagine (1984). If this is true, and if it were also true that sanxune-ta means "he who pertains to Sancus" later on in the same book, then we get the following really weird translation: "Silvans, he who pertains to Sancus, as a gift". And what gift? Surely Silvans isn't the gift but rather the recipient so why isn't the god's name in the genitive case, the case used for recipients, rather than the nominative case used for the subject?

    Hunh?? Why would Silvans "pertain" to Sancus if they are supposed to the one and same god?? And furthermore, if Silvans is by far the least obscure and provably worshipped while the supposed cult of an Etruscan Sancus is elsewhere unseen, shouldn't it be the other way around: "Sancus, pertaining to Silvans"?

    So no matter how you slice it, there's something deeply wrong with the current interpretations of this artifact. I have a funny feeling that this nonsense about Sancus has something to do with claptrap of yore that confused Sabines and other Italic speaking peoples with Etruscans (who are evidently not Indo-European).

    Were the last word cvera, it would make more sense that it reads something to the effect of "(To) Selvans, the 'sanxune' as a gift." and the epithet hypothesis would have to be rejected. However, this picture would bring even that into question leaving no satisfactory solution at our immediate disposal.

    Isn't that delish? :) Almost everything is wrong with this inscription! It's stupendously joyous!