28 Apr 2011

The "Tages mirror" superimposed on the Piacenza Liver

I'm back on that Etruscan mirror again from before when I talked about how I was wondering what exactly the haruspicial priest in the center of the scene was looking at. Is he just looking at the liver in general or is there something more specifically being pointed to? What is the overall message of this mirror? Since its contents remain a frustrating mystery to specialists, it won't hurt if I suggest a few new thoughts of my own.

One thing that I've been contemplating for a while is the idea that the artist of this bronze image worked into the back of the mirror had purposely but subtly divided things into an inner section and an outer section. I've highlighted the two sections of the image that I perceive above in different colours. I notice that the central portion pertains to the mortal world, especially if the character assumed to be Tages (without clear proof, mind you) is really just a human priest afterall. Then the outer portion shows a surrounding entourage of four gods, the metaphysical world of the holy.

This outer portion, if I'm seeing this correctly, is rather interesting because it now reminds me of the outer portion of the Piacenza Liver, the bronze liver model used by haruspexes to divine the future. Yet since this is precisely what the priest is doing in the above scene, divining the future with a sheep's liver, this connection seems all the more tantalizing. Is the outer portion symbolic of the horizon and of the four directions just as it's symbolized on the liver? Is the artist symbolically equating the mirror with the cosmos itself?

Taking this notion further, the four gods surrounding the scene may very well be alluding to the four directions, the same directions according to which the Etruscan priest was obligated to align himself in order to perform his rites faithfully at all. The god above is quite clearly the sun and his chariot, appearing much like Sol Invictus. So let's start with what we know.

Consulting the Piacenza Liver as I understand it now, the border shows among other things that Tinia (as sun) represents both the highest position of the sky according to a vertical axis, and also at the same time, it represents south according to a horizontal axis. The position of Tluschva faces that of Tinia on the opposite side of the liver, suggesting that he similarly represents the watery deeps of the universe while also lord of the north. This south-focused orientation, odd as it may seem to us today[1], properly relates the position of the god of the dead inscribed with Fufluns (an epithet of Pacha, ie. Bacchus), with the west. The west is the direction of the setting sun and by extension the direction of departing souls. Then finally Cilens, god of darkness, is to the east reminding one of classical creation myths where a primordial darkness was envisioned for the beginning of time, much as every morning begins with darkness.

Since the highmost god in the outer portion of the mirror above is without a doubt the sun and can then be identified with Tinia riding in his quadriga, then according to this symbolic comparisons, the bearded Velthune is easily explained as synonymous with death. We might interpret the sun right next to him as the setting sun, the sun of the west, the sun of departing souls. The mirror itself like many of these recovered mirrors, might I remind, was intended as a grave offering and so this interpretation is perfectly à-propos. The youthful god marked as Rathlth (pronounced with two syllables as /'ɾɑtʰl̩tʰ/) to the left then is the east, coincidentally the direction of birth and youth. I'm encouraged by the many interesting matches here. Finally the winged god must be Tluschva, god of depths and the north.

With the left and right deities being connected with East and West, Birth and Death, respectively, my thoughts focus back on our lady Ucernei hiding shyly behind her husband. Does the sun set behind Velthune to convey that she was fated to die? Is this her mirror of destiny?

[1] Egyptians also oriented their geography according to the south. See Moret/Davy, From tribe to empire: Social organization among primitives and in the ancient East (1926), p.279 (see link); Brewer/Teeter, Egypt and the Egyptians (2007), p.18 (see link).


  1. a) Varro (de lingua latina) indicates that south is "parte anteriora" and north "parte postica", so from the point of view of the person looking at the mirroir, south indeed would at the top, and north at the bottom
    b) the figures sketched are really precise and realistic in shape, figure and attitude; the figure head at the top really looks female and young, not a mature god such as Tinia would be, and this cannot be a mistake or approximation of the artist; I would rather think she (as a she indeed) would be Celeritas solis filia, which is mentionned in "house VI" of the tables of Marcianus Cappella , where she sits together with Mars Quirinus (ah ah, the man with the spear?) and Genius (the youngster???)
    c) the liver is held with the bile pouch side down, they look indeed at the upper part at zones associated with Tluscva or LeӨns

  2. addendum so we end up with the following equations:
    Veltune=Mars Quirinus ; parva Tarχies= (Celeritas) filia Solis and hence Tarχii=Sol, Raθlθ=Genius; thanks be bestowed unto Martianus Cappella

  3. Regis, I know how popular it is to compare the Piacenza Liver model with Martianus Capella's post-Etruscan work De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii written in the 5th century **CE**. Every Etruscologist trying to be somebody predictably writes a book referring to it as if it were THE key in cracking the mystery. This is nonsense.

    A poetic and philosophical piece is hardly primary to the question of Etruscan world-view and any decent historian knows that more direct comparisons with Babylonian haruspicial traditions and other noteworthy themes of the Near East have far more weight to decide the matter.

    As for Celeritas and Filia Solis, this is based much on various modern interpretations of hearsay written by ancient Roman authors. We can't accept anything in Martianus Capella on its surface.

  4. And by the way, there is no "parva Tarχies" attested. It's properly pava Tarχies and parva is an unrelated Latin word meaning 'small'.