13 Jul 2007

Religion in Ancient Etruria: A comedy of errors that keeps on giving

Imagine an Egyptologist who knows little of Middle Egyptian grammar, or a Mayanist who is unfamiliar with the Yucatec ejective stop. I hope we can all agree that it is an obligation of historians to learn everything they can about the ancient culture that they study... including the language of that culture. If language is the very voice of a people, being ignorant of that voice is as unproductive as trying to follow the plot of a full-length movie with the volume turned to zero.

Jean-René Jannot, a professor emeritus of history and archaeology from the University of Nantes in France, has recently published an English language book called Religion in Ancient Etruria (2005), a translation by Jane Whitehead (assistant professor at Valdosta State University) of his Devins, dieux, et demons: Regards sur la religion de l'Etrurie antique.

Judging by the shallow reviews of his and many other books regarding Etruscan history online, we'd be led to believe that his opus is a trimph of human knowledge.

In reality, when understanding just how tainted this book is with simple errors and self-contradictions just on the Etruscan language alone, it seriously calls into question the extent of his knowledge in other areas like Etruscan history and religion.

Prominent Errors in Religion in Ancient Etruria
  1. On page 140, a most famous artifact, the Apollo of Ferrara, is transcribed as:

    mi : flereś : spulare : aritimi : fasti : ruifriś : t(u)rce : clen : Cea

    Yet on page 144, even despite being next to a very clear photograph of the inscription, Jannot transcribes it differently:

    mi : flereś : spulare : aritimi : fasti : rufriś : t(u)rce : clen : ceχa

    The reader is left to decide which versions if any are true. (Hint: Consulting that photograph he provided and just ignoring what he says is more productive.) Jannot mispells the name as *Riufri for correct Ruifri in his falsifiable translation: "Fasti, wife of Riufri (sic!), consecrated me to Spulare Aritimi in thanks for her son." The translation itself is false because it ignores everything written about Etruscan grammar to date. A reading of "to Spulare Aritimi" is not possible if it's marked in the locative (marked in -e or -i) which only signifies "by, at, on, with". Likewise, "for her son" necessarily requires the noun to be declined in a dative or genitive, but instead, clen is entirely unmarked, signalling the default nominoaccusative case, used for the subject or direct object of an Etruscan sentence.

    The complete bastardization of this artifact's transcription combined with agrammatical flights of interpretative whimsy are not becoming of someone flaunting a doctorate.

  2. Many careless transcription errors, often involving the interchange of letters (such as the confusion of san & sigma or of chi & kappa), show a lack of attention to detail. For example the inscription TLE 900 is recorded on page 13 showing Selvans sanχuneta while on page 199 under note 41 of chapter 8, another version is cited: Selvans sancuneta.

  3. Jannot writes out the inscription on Laris Pulena's sarcophagus (TLE 131) on page 199 as:

    cathas pachanac a/umna the hermu

    He claims this to mean: "having performed in a place (named alumna) the cult(?) of Catha and Pacha". The third word is wrong for two reasons, one being that the slash should be an "l" and also because, considering alumnaθuras in line 8 of the same text, Jannot is clearly making things up as he goes along. Dividing words by whim (i.e. a/umna the) rather than careful analysis of context is not demonstrative of competence in or respect of linguistics.

  4. On page 158, an error shines out of the very title of a subsection, one of the most embarrassing and telling of all his errors:

    "Cautha, Cath, Usil, Cathesan (the sun) and Thesan (the dawn)"

    If Jannot had not put "(the sun)" next to his fictional name *Cathesan and place it in unmistakable association with the name Cautha, the error could be chalked up to careless editing. However, since he clearly misunderstands the meaning of the actual phrase ca θesan "the dawn" (from TLE 340, a bronze mirror from Ortebello), despite Massimo Pallottino having published the meanings of both ca and θesan over forty years ago (see The Etruscans, 1975, pp 226 & 228), he destroys any credibility he may have had as an expert of the Etruscan language. For that matter, by misunderstanding *Cathesan as a single name, he also exposes his confusion on Etruscan religion itself and his apparently twisted notions of history.[1]

I could go on listing every error Jannot commits but there are more constructive things to do, like consulting other sources of information and taking poorly edited literature with a pinch of salt. Caveat lector.

[1] More strangely, when flipping to page 160, despite the flawed title, he actually translates ca θesan more appropriately as "this is Thesan (the dawn)". Jannot apparently lapses in and out of consciousness since how else can the reader make sense of his consistent self-contradictions?


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