14 Nov 2007

A little rant on the Etruscan Tree of Life motif

Let's start talking about details. There's nothing that drives me round the bend than yet another wishy-washy book about Etruscans that doesn't really reveal much and only skims the surface, often by cleverly burying itself in circumstantial pedantics. Usually however, these books give you a hint right on the cover as to how bad they'll be. When you've brought a book home from the store whose author has slipped the word "mystery" in the title such as "Those Mysterious Etruscans", "The Mystery that is Etruria" or "How Mysterious those Etruscans are", then sufficed to say, you've probably been ripped off.

I'm a hopelessly detail-oriented guy and perhaps I get a little bent out of shape when others don't enjoy details like I do but there's an entire world out there just waiting to be explored! How can that not be exciting? So let's talk about Etruscan Tree of Life symbolisms. Apparently it doesn't spring up much in books and I can't believe that people don't ask questions about these important artistic motifs. They aren't just decorative. They say something important about the structure of the Etruscan belief system.

There's a mirror indexed as TLE 399 or ET Vt S.2 whose image is shown below. It's an artifact from Volterra dated to around 325 to 300 BCE. It contains the inscription "Eca sren tva iχ nac Hercle, Unial clan, θra sce." or rather "This image shows thus when Heracle, Uni's son, suckled the breast." Perhaps it's a bizarre-looking scene but its mythological context is mostly taken from Greek mythos and this makes sense considering that Etruscans were always in contact with Magna Graecia, a large Greek colony to the south of Italy. Here, Etruscan Heracle is suckling his mother Uni's breast and it quickly tells us that Etruscan Uni and Greek Hera were considered more-or-less equivalent deities, although it's a common mistake to assume that they were perfectly identical in function.

Now let's depart from the surface and work our way deeper into visual metaphors. There's that teensy weensy little pattern on the legs of Uni's throne, much like temple columns, which I've blown up for you to see more clearly, in blue line traces. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to suspect that her throne was purposely fashioned with these columns by the artist in such a way as to illustrate a simple but powerful equation between the goddess' real-life temples in her honour and her divine and less tangible throne in the sky. But there's more because this pattern isn't just meant to be pretty. It has a message and the same visual theme shows up in many other places on Etruscan relics:

Here we have a different expression of the pattern, more similar to the Egyptian lotus symbolism, but nonetheless it's yet again a plant motif placed in center stage of a scene. This time, Tinia is sitting on the throne and is now holding the sacred plant. So, we have to start asking ourselves what is going on here and what this all means.

This is where I'm starting to realize that being a good specialist is potentially a detriment to being a good historian since it's not enough to know a single field of study to fully understand an ancient culture. We have to look outside the box and think laterally in various disciplines to get a handle on it all. Knowledge is a network that has always defied academic specialization that universities artificially impose.

Before I let the cat out of the bag, there are still authors publishing books about Etruscan with outlandish misrepresentation or even ignorance of the full facts. Check out this doozie from Barker/Rasmussen, The Etruscans (2000), page 44: "Virtually all archaeologists now agree that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the 'indigenous' theory of Etruscan origins: the development of Etruscan culture has to be understood within an evolutionary sequence of social elaboration in Etruria. Explaining this process, however, is still far more difficult than describing it. For example, contact with the outside world, particularly with the Greeks and Phoenicians, was certainly an important factor within the final stages of this process, but scholars disagree about the extent to which such contact was a cause of increasing cultural complexity in Etruria, or a result, or both." (I've bolded some of the text to highlight my contentions.)

This statement is an all-out lie using exaggerations like "virtually all archaeologists agree that..." to give the air of academic authority without the responsibility of facts or deeper insight. It gives readers the incorrect perception that there is no need to look beyond the boundaries of Italy to find the sources of Etruscan culture and that the impact of foreign influences on Etruscan culture was only a late process or relatively minimal. Yet, everything that we can ascribe to the label "Etruscan" is undeniably of foreign (i.e. non-Italian) origin, such as their alphabet, their manner of dress, their mythology, their hepatoscopic traditions, their symbolisms, everything. On a fundamental basis, Etruscans are almost purely of non-Italian origin in every respect. Genetically even, although there is certainly a native base, there is also a significant external contribution from Sardinia, Magna Graecia, Carthage and beyond. In a nutshell, many authors are carelessly confusing archaeological culture (i.e. Villanovans and similar digs) with ethnic culture (i.e. that of the Etruscans as we know them as an identifiable people, whose origins are a mixture of things but mostly from the East).

So from an archaeologist's narrowly specialized perception of history, Etruscans are "native" in the sense that there indeed was a slow and steady increase in oriental influence after 800 BCE, the so-called Orientalizing Period. As a whole, there appears to be continuity between the pre-Etruscan era and the establishment of the Etruscans. However, from a generalized, multi-disciplinary point of view, we see that Near-Eastern peoples were increasingly making their mark on Italian soil, including the people who would later be known as Etruscans. This would explain both the archaeology and the overall cultural and ethnic reality of the region. Standing outside of any one field, we start to see how sensationalist it is to pit Herodotus' Out-of-Lydia hypothesis against Dionysius' Autochthonous hypothesis concerning the Etruscan Origins debate. They are both essentially correct although in most aspects it is Herodotus who seems more informed about Etruscan ethnic origins while Dionysius almost speaks in the sense of genetics.

As for the patterns above, they are called the Tree of Life motif and while it seems to be fundamental to Etruscan belief, the symbolism is hardly unique to Etruscans at all. The following picture shows the Tree of Life figured in Akkadian works of art (from the Temptation Seal, dated to 2200 BCE):

And the following mystery image below shows a direct ancestor to the Etruscan motifs shown above. Can you guess where this is from?

I'll give you a hint. They weren't Etruscans and they weren't Italian. Good luck!


  1. Greek? Surely not Hittite or Luwian or their descendants...

  2. Hmm...that's a good one. Looks Phoenician to me.

    I'm always baffled why modern scholars simply won't take the ancient writers seriously.

    Early writers said they came from someplace and modern scientists go "You shut up, you're politically motivated/myth-weaving mystics, but we're hard scientists and will ignore you". Anyway, I'm laffin' ;)

    I would first look at the myths, then at the stuff I'd find....but I may be a bit kooky in that respect. At any rate, I'm not a scientist nor an archaeologist so I'll shut up now.

    "Right, where's my Iliad?". :D