27 Feb 2007

Interpretatio Tusca: Thoughts on Etruscan world-view

In matters of classical religion, everyone likes to discuss concepts such as interpretatio graeca and interpretatio romana which describe the Greek and Roman tendencies to impose their own religious views upon their interpretations of foreign gods. However I have yet to read about any sort of interpretatio tusca (ie. "the Etruscan interpretation"). I believe that there is a case for one and that by finally defining one explicitly, it can shed illumination on a more intuitive understanding of Etruscan religion. We might define it as follows:
interpretratio tusca:
The Etruscan practice of freely using foreign deities and names to represent their own native pantheon.

While Greeks and Romans prided themselves on the nobility of their own civilization, every indication from the Etruscans shows us the humble opposite - the adoption of foreign aesthetics (ex.: pottery styles from Greece), assimilation of foreign customs (ex.: haruspicy & augury practices from Anatolia), and of course pan-Mediterranean trade. Through large-scale travel across the seas they profited on this classical economy and it was their vast trade in particular that made their amazing cosmopolitan acceptance of the exotic possible, perhaps even necessary. Afterall, good relations naturally protect and cultivate trade.

Their multiculturalism is so all-pervasive in everything they produced or partook that the idea that Etruscans freely assimilated foreign representations and names of gods into their native pantheon is a foregone corollary. However, it does not follow automatically from this that Etruscan religion had no structure or that Etruscans had no native pantheon at all.

Unfortunately many published Etruscologists indulge too often in the propoganda of mystery by using shallow analyses cloaked in pseudoscience, speculation and a perverse celebration of ignorance to shirk the responsibility of providing thorough, educated answers to long-standing questions. Mystery is a good technique for prostituting books and increasing marketability perhaps but overall it disempowers the public through miseducation.

Authors who make claims about the supposed lack of clear number or gender in the Etruscan pantheon, such as the speculations openly pursued by Nancy de Grummond (http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/exdegrel.html), are fundamentally groundless since they attempt to legitimize hasty overgeneralizations by way of a deceptive selection of out-of-context quotes from classical authors, some misinterpreted reliefs and paintings, and a handful of "gender-switching" legends some of which are ironically of Greek origin, not Etruscan. Other authors like Larissa Bonfante however do offer opposition to such views and so they should not be touted as unquestionable doctrine.

The varying numbers of gods such as those on a relief of a sarcophagus for Laris Pulena showing "multiple" Vanths and Charuns (pic here) is nothing more than artistic license showing a reduplication of underlyingly one Vanth and one Charun together in a single frame for the sake of symmetry. If we should take it literally, we are at a loss to convincingly explain why both Charun and Vanth appear elsewhere in the singular or why Charun is sometimes represented in a number greater than two. Interpreting any religious art in a literal sense exposes a naive misunderstanding of how religious art around the world abounds in non-literal symbolism and style. It should also be self-evident why Vertumnus, a god of seasons, should lend so naturally to shape-shifting since this is a common allusion to seasonal change. Compare the Navajo goddess Asdzaa Nadleehe. These loose threads are hardly a basis for assuming that all Etruscan deities freely switch gender. Afterall, there is no debate as to what the genders of Tinia, Turan and a host of other mythological figures well-documented in art are.

Instead of a lack of religious structure, Etruscans had a complex one as even expressed by classical authors who are clear about a pantheon with hierarchies and classes of gods such as the Dii Involuti and the Dii Consentes. The Piacenza Liver (a representation of a sheep's liver cast in bronze for use in haruspicy) is deliberately sectioned off with lines indicating the domains of individual gods with specific names. This demonstrates lucidly the established order of Etruscan cosmos which this hepatic microcosm served to represent. What's more, the Piacenza Liver is known to be preceded by a similar Babylonian model in clay made a millenium earlier (see here, here and here) . There is no shred of doubt that their set of divinatory beliefs are related and we also know that the Babylonian pantheon is rich and complex too. Hopefully then we can shed this insidious myth that Etruscan religion and pantheon have no native structure to study. They certainly do. So what then is this structure? Experts draw a blank.

To illustrate a proper application of interpretatio tusca, we might take the god Charun as an example. He was the god pertaining to death whose job it was to take the recently deceased on a journey to the underworld to meet the goddess Vanth. Yet while his name is transparently Greek in origin (derived from Charon, in turn based on Greek chara), some of the motifs that accompany him, such as the use of horses to guide the dead across land (cf. image of sarcophagus relief showing Charun and Vanth guiding the deceased by horse: http://www.ancientworlds.net/aworlds_media/ibase_1/00/05/72/00057208_000.gif) instead of a boat, must be genuine native concepts of the underworld. We then naturally wonder what the true Etruscan name of Charun could possibly be.

Thus begins an illumination on the matter since Charun, being a traveller of sorts, mirrors aspects of Turms, already known to be equated with Greek Hermes and Roman Mercury. The name Turms appears to be native and we even have confirmation that the god had underworld connections (nb. the inscribed epithet Turms Aitas "Turms of Hades"). Furthermore, his foreign counterpart also serves as escort of the dead (http://www.utexas.edu/courses/mythmoore/imagefiles11/images11/orpheus.jpg).

So to represent Etruscan deities fairly, we should speak first and foremost of a native Etruscan god, such as Turms who is then to be understood to have been represented at times as Greek Charon as a symbol of his specific underworld responsibilities. In the case of Charun, perhaps it might then be said that he is an exonym, simply a functional subset or aspect of Turms. This analysis might further apply to other groups of natural equivalencies and deities with known overlapping functions such as Turan-Uni-Thalna, supreme goddess of fertility & motherhood, wife of Tinia. By focusing primarily on native definitions and structure of the pantheon, we can get to understand the Etruscan religion as the Etruscans would have seen it, instead of through the eyes of classical Greeks, Romans and modern-day pedants.

Societal depression, wikipedia, and mob-rule

This topic is a messy one. It's probably a "depressing" topic to begin the show with, but I know it will be thought-provoking and I prefer "thinkey/hard" over "flakey/easy". Plus, I need to vent and by my venting it will hopefully uplift others who I know are going through the same problems online. Societal depression is a real issue but few people know that it exists or appreciate its severity.

I've been online since 1994 talking to people on internet groups about linguistics. I love linguistics. I should have sought a degree in linguistics, but I was silly and thinking about "practicality" so can you guess what I picked?... Computer Science. Egad, how did I know that the IT crash was coming and would ship all the jobs to Romania as fascism became cool in North America? In hindsight, I should have listened to my heart instead of my brain because life, economy and events of the future are just too unpredictable to ever succeed at being practical.

I've watched helplessly as a collective ADHD slowly ate away at all of us with the rise of the immediacy of the internet, cellphones and the scourge of reality TV (see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5933775/). As a web designer and programmer, I'm all too aware of both the advantages and the perils of being "jacked in" 24 hours a day. That's why I always like to have long walks outside regularly.

In the most extreme, the internet can be a crack addiction where its victims no longer appreciate the reality around them without a constant fix of completely anonymous social interaction. Is there really such a dividing line between physical addiction and mental addiction? I'm not convinced that there is, nor do I think any of us is immune, but since we can't "snort a line of internet explorer", "smoke a roach of yahoogroups", or "down seven cans of wikipedia in a college chug-a-lug", many of us are deceived into thinking that the internet must be as harmless as a newborn puppy. And gee, ain't it cute, tho'?

When I first started talking to other empassioned individuals in public forums about my secret love-affair with comparative linguistics ten years ago, I never would predict that permanent archives of all my naive comments would stick around. Anonymous internet, my ass! :)

While I could cringe about them, I could also pat myself on my back on how far I've come and how much I've learned up to now: about linguistics, about internet, about life and love. But there's no end to learning, is there? No use sweating the small stuff. We all might wish those proverbial bell-bottoms of our past could be hidden in the darkness of our attic forever to give others the illusion of our flawless divinity. Pointless illusion. We all make mistakes and that's what helps us grow. The point is being mature enough to admit that we err and daring to explore, not mope about others or fret about past mistakes.

My latest mistake was participating on Wikipedia back in 2005 after trolls on online groups pushed me away in disgust thanks to lazy moderators who turned a blind eye to ad hominems and treated enthusiasm and participation of others as threats to their own egos. You might ask, "If my run-in with Wikipedia was a few years ago, why am I still whining about it?" Trauma, maybe? Hehehe. Well, because trolls still like to attack visible people like me, particularly on Wikipedia, with petty comments to this day and it's a merry-go-round mindtrip difficult to get off of once it starts. If I can forewarn others before they naively participate in Wikipedia madness, it's well worth it. What's worse, Wikipedia's moderation is entirely ineffective, lost in a sea of druidic beaurocracy and "Wiki policies" promoting neutral point of view, a way of making "Evolution is a lie" just as valid as "The universe is subject to logic". It makes me almost pine over the days of the old mailing lists where this stupidity was a way of getting booted out of the club.

These rabid dogs like to hound random victims like anarchist misfits from Clockwork Orange with comments that follow only a few key themes. (Perhaps the only themes that these monkeys can remember by heart.) They legitimize their intelligence with names like "sniffpuppy2000", "jollyrancher", "chittychittybumbum". Here are some jingles they like to sing:

  1. You mispelled something... you're an idiot! Loser!
  2. I'm in junior high, no wait, I'm a university professor, yeah, and I know more than you!
  3. Where's your references??!!! You're stupid! I'm too lazy to look anything up myself.
  4. You violated Wikipedia's "Neutral Point of View" rule and therefore you're stupid.
  5. I'm a Wikipedia admin and I'm god. I hate you, everyone hates you, trolls hate you, therefore you're stupid.
See the pattern? Nowhere in any of this can you talk about a subject without being hijacked by manic sadists with too much time on their hands. Yet, Wikipedia remains the most sought-after way to get slandered online because, for every sane person in the world, there are a hundred crazies donating their piggybanks to the cultic Wikipedia Foundation to keep its slander machine running for years to come. All in the name of an "encyclopedia" that's more like a urine-stained wall of gangland graffiti. John Siegenthaler knows all about internet slander, as do countless others from musicians to scientists to regular people, both famous and not-so-famous, who find that their local laws on libel have completely abandoned them. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm).

Instead of laws doing their jobs to protect individuals, collective digital maoism and lunatic degrees of permissiveness help prop up the very things that keep us all down. Democracy is thus remoulded and contorted, slowly, quietly, into an apartheid between a Big Brother majority and an underrespected minority of truth-armed dissent. Wikipedia is even having mentally handicapped babies of its own like the barely-pronounceable project called Citizendium that seeks to reach out to the very academic institutions that it permanently offended through the inanity of its parent project (http://www.citizendium.com). Mediocrity is well funded.

And this comes back to what we're all really experiencing as a whole in the end. Societal depression, the source and power of online mob-rule to prolong the brutal tyrants of relativism and ignorance by enforcing the torture upon ourselves, not just online but offline as well. (Consider Kansas and its recent anti-evolution hysteria: http://www.cnn.com/US/9908/12/kansas.evolution.flap/.) With nihilist self-defeatism and petty politics used to dismiss deeper reasoning, we seek to drug ourselves with the immediacy of the narrow current in order to distract us from the wider stream of the intricate profound.

We have a choice. Rejecting our societal depression has always been our choice, starting with individual self-empowerment. It's a matter of how long we hold on to a self-indulgent addiction before we finally get bored in our own skin and seek positive change.

Linguistic conventions on Paleoglot

This blog strives to use the same established conventions as you would find in some snooty, ol' book in a university library. These snooty, ol' books have something that mob-rule sources of information like Wikipedia or Yahoogroups have never yet encouraged: long-term thought based on careful, logical reasoning. (Ouch!) Have you hugged your local librarian today?

In order to make this text visible online for readers with various computers and operating systems around the world, I need to use standardized fonts that you may not have installed on your computer yet. However, don't worry. They are available for free to download. If you see strange boxes instead of text, you might want to consider downloading these small font files and installing them for your ease.

Free downloadable fonts used by Paleoglot

  • Code2000 - Used for special linguistic symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which I may use for topics concerning language reconstruction or phonetics.
  • Coptic - Used for writing the Coptic language, a direct descendent of Ancient Egyptian. It was spoken as late as the 17th century but it's still used today in the Coptic churches within Egypt.

Words with a single asterisk before them

This means that the word is reconstructed (eg. PUr *käxli 'tongue'). A reconstructed language is often called a proto-language and usually is the parent of one or more later languages. Some linguists attempt to reconstruct substrate languages in cases where a language is suspected to have been replaced by another, with indirect evidence such as loanwords in differing languages of the same area.

These languages are reconstructed in part to help linguists remember and understand the subtle phonetic or grammatical relationships between languages. They are also a beneficial complement to archaeology and historical facts since they give us added glimpses of the general society and way of life of the people or peoples who spoke these tongues in a way that other disciplines may not be able to provide.

As an example, Latin novem, Greek ennea and Sanskrit navá all mean 'nine' and these three languages are known to be related to each other. The reconstructed parent language of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit is called Proto-Indo-European, a language thought to have been spoken about 4000 BCE in the areas north-west of the Black Sea. The original form of the word is therefore agreed upon by academic consensus to be *(h₁)néwn̥ 'nine' due to a strict methodology involving such things as analysing sound correspondences. For more details on the "comparative method" that linguists use here, read this article: Language Families [pdf].

Words with two asterisks before them

A double asterisked word means either that the word is really conjectural or it's terribly unlikely. It implies that the form in question is not agreed upon by academic consensus but an open matter of debate. For example, one might suggest a light-hearted idea that since so many languages around the world often have 1st person pronouns starting with 'm' that perhaps they all derive from some common pronoun many thousands of years ago. Let's say for fun, something like **mui. In such cases, the double asterisks signals the informed reader that this is not a valid reconstruction based on careful examination of facts as is the case of Indo-European *(h₁)néwn̥ but rather an idle or whimsical conjecture meant by the author to stimulate further discussion. A double asterisk to a single asterisk is like a vague idea you thought of while showering to a carefully thought-out theory that you've been researching for months or years.