1 Feb 2008

Finding structure in the Piacenza Liver despite academic claptrap - Part 1

I have an inkling to revisit the Etruscan Piacenza Liver artifact after reading some painful passages from a recently published book by Nancy De Grummond. I think I have a few new insights now and I need to speak out.

Reading De Grummond is like fingers to a chalkboard for me

"A good bit is known about the Etruscan concept of the structure of heaven and the location of the gods in the universe," or so exaggerates Nancy De Grummond in Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend[1]. The cold truth however is quite different and soon after she undermines her authority on the subject, as have others before her who are similarly over-boastful: "Roman writers tell us the names of six of the gods who might throw lightning, using Latin designations: [...] We do not know who the other three were." I guess we don't know "a good bit" afterall unless "a good bit" is meant to signify "a subatomic crumb". These nine gods, the novensiles by all accounts (Roman accounts, at least) are part of the basic structure of the Etruscan worldview. So if we don't know their names or what their functions were, what in Hades' name do any of us know about Etruscan beliefs? Keep in mind that De Grummond is the same academic who claims that the gender of Etruscan deities are often "ambiguous"[2], implying that she feels she can simply conceive of Etruscan deities however it suits her arguments. As such, she has convinced me that she has an anarchistic streak that has contempt for finding structure in ancient religion. But then again, so do all the other Etruscologists since how else can we explain how it's possible for so many experts to spin in the mud for decades without producing any real breakthrough in our understanding of Etruscan language and culture? I remain a hardened skeptic for a reason.

Going beyond academic claptrap

So in order to get passed this new-agey, anti-structure nonsense, we need to do some damage control. First off, it's naive to rely solely on Martianus Capella as De Grummond does to fill pages in her book. He was Roman, for one thing, not Etruscan, and he flourished in the fifth century CE, long after the Etruscans had been culturally assimilated into the Roman majority. Whatever Capella knew about Etruscan religion was second-hand knowledge at best. This is not to say that he can say nothing about Etruscan religion, but we do need to examine that poetic text with a bit of caution.

While De Grummond is too busy copy-and-pasting De Nuptiis Philologiae Et Mercurii (On the Marriage of Mercury and Philology) without any sort of insightful commentary, the rest of us should first be looking at the Piacenza Liver itself to see what it says about the structure of the Etruscan cosmos, before gazing onward to outside sources for potential red herrings. Second of all, her overreliance on Greco-Roman factoids to crack the Etruscan mystery makes it seem as though she is genuinely ignorant of the simple fact that the practice of haruspicy is derived neither from Italy nor from Greece but from the Near East. It's really dizzying to me to think that an "expert" has failed to learn this. So in effect, she looks to the wrong cultures when she should be making comparisons to Hittite and Babylonian religion. She's so wildly off the mark that it's hard for me to read her books without grumbling under my breath. When you note the similarity of the Piacenza Liver with a Babylonian artifact dated to the early second millenium (shown below), you'll understand where my tormented frustration is coming from in regards to De Grummond's research skills.

The connection between the Babylonian artifact and the Etruscan artifact is clear and undeniable. So I think there might be a more advanced way to look at the Piacenza Liver that brings in line various modern facts of ancient history and in a way that's more comprehensive.

(Continue reading Finding structure in the Piacenza Liver despite academic claptrap - Part 2.)

[1] De Grummond, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend (2006), p.44 (see link).
[2] See De Grummond/Simon, The Religion of the Etruscans (2006), p.3: "It expresses vividly the Etruscan tendency to be vague or ambivalent about the gender and other characteristics of a particular deity."


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