14 Nov 2010

The Etruscan soul through Egyptian eyes


Continuing with some thoughts I pursued in What sort of 'soul' is the Egyptian ka? in which I searched for a more comprehensible understanding of the Egyptian concept of a three-part soul, I wanted to delve into the Etruscan notion of soul as it can be glimpsed by various clues in the historical record.

As stated in previous posts, the comparison between Etruscan and Egyptian ontology is motivated by the Egyptian influence quite apparent in Etruscan scarabs found as tomb offerings, invoking the Egyptian god Khepri which, because of the convenient pun in the Egyptian language between *ḫāpar 'becoming' and *ḫapúri 'beetle', had led to the creation of this curious beetle-headed entity representing the rebirth of the sun in the morning horizon and simultaneously also the rebirth of the human soul after death. Therefore, the source of this hope in the deceased soul's rebirth can be asserted with certainty to be Egyptian. Yet if so, this implies that other ontological concepts also were welcomed into Etruria from this North African civilization.

So if the Egyptian believed in the ka, ba and akh and if I'm further correct that they represent subsets of each other rather than equal portions of a soul, then what were the Etruscan equivalents if any?

If the ka is the soul when unified with the living body, with a representative image, with a statue or with some other sort of physical vessel (as per my previous entry), then it's interesting to note the difference of burial practices between Egyptians and Etruscans. To the Egyptian, the destruction of body in a cremation must have seemed horrible since it denied the ability for the deceased soul to ever reunite with its body again. Yet this consideration must not have fazed the Etruscans. The repeated mention in the Liber Linteus of cletram srencve 'lectica with icons', a portable litter filled with representations of their honoured gods, as well as the habit of leaving useful articles for the dead as if they lived on in the physical realm suggests that nonetheless the Etruscans must have believed that a soul, whether of a deity or a human being, had the ability to reside in physical things much like the Egyptians. The Etruscans believed in their own version of a ka.


With the ba translated as the spirit itself (regardless of containment within a physical host), we can be certain that the Etruscans believed this too and so this needs no further explanation. One of the Etruscan terms used for 'soul' appears to be sacni, literally 'sacred one'. We might also translate it as hinθial 'that which is below' which alludes to the soul's destined path through the underworld.


The most intriguing part of this comparison though is how the Etruscans might have perceived the Egyptian akh, the most obscure part of their conception of the soul which I suspect might be best understood as 'life-force' or 'will' and thus a component of the larger ba. Its connection with stars is particularly interesting because we know that Etruscans conceived of stars as nails hammered in the sky. We also know that nails were employed in ritual (nb. Roman accounts of the goddess Nortia) and that they had a connection with fate and the tracking of time.

We know that the nail was associated with the human soul but the confusing imagery of the death god Charun seemingly hitting dead people with hammers as if they were nails befuddles De Grummond who thinks that the hammer was "his weapon of choice" against all who die! Surely not. This is *not* to be taken literally or a sign of Charun's malevolence. This is simply a metaphor of death. Quite simply, when someone died, it must have been believed that a new star would be tapped into the vault of heaven. We can only sensibly interpret the hammering of the star-nail in the sky, the pulum, as being synonymous with the reception of the soul within the gates of the City of the Dead. Yet if so, this parallels the joining of the Egyptian akh to the field of stars that Egyptologists know as the Akhet.

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