3 Jul 2009

More about egg symbols in Etruria and the rest of the classical world

There seems to be a constant resistance towards my previous articles on eggs and Etruscans. I've been getting a fair amount of 'egg-symbolism denial' - a kind of stubborn resistance to a historical fact that eggs were being used as an important religious symbol of the sun, cosmos and the immortal soul in classical times. Even a certain member of the online forum Aegeanet when I had joined months ago, all the while needlessly bragging to me about her knowledge in classical Greek history, had the audacity to deny the symbolism behind eggs being held up so obviously high in the air by reclining persons in painted murals of banquet scenes located in Etruscan tombs. Despite the fact that classical Greeks too used the same symbolisms, she insisted on a purely literal interpretation of the Etruscan murals which was more than a little naive for a self-described historian, if not edging terribly close to full-blown crackers in my honest opinion.[1]

On a very superficial level (superficial as in 'Paris-Hilton superficial'), it may sound a little humourous that Etruscans were venerating a tasty staple of the modern breakfast table and using it as a symbol of immortality. Perhaps it may seem akin to making an amulet out of Corn Flakes, but let me assure everyone that this is NOT something *I* dreamed up off the top of my hat. Historians, good ones, are widely aware of this historical fact as published in a pile of decent literature over the century. The common ritual of painting eggs during Easter is quite bluntly an offshoot of this earlier symbolism.

So the following are some more handy references to books on the existence of this motif. It's really not strange at all. It's strange that people aren't more aware of it, actually.

Behold! The Cosmic Egg link farm
Simoons, Eat not this flesh (1994), p.156: "In Rome, the egg, symbolic of life and fertility, was used in the rites of Venus and various deities associated with the earth and reproduction. Thus, an egg preceded the religious procession for Ceres, goddess of agriculture. Macrobius also wrote that in the rites of Liber, Roman god of fertility and wine (who was also called Bacchus and identified with Dionysius), eggs were honored, worshipped, and called the symbol of the universe, the beginning of all things. Eggs are represented on Roman sarcophagi, and funerary offerings of eggs, whether real or made of clay or stone, were common in early Greece, perhaps with the wish that the spirit of the departed may have a renewal of life."

Rykwert, The idea of a town - The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy (1999), p.126: "As the egg was a picture of the whole universe, so the telluric mundus became a representation of what the Pythagoreans were the first to call cosmos."

Hall, Etruscan Italy (1996), p.70: "In the Near East, eggs were considered symbols of fertility, life-giving power, and, ultimately, resurrection; and the Etruscans' paintings and artifacts suggest that they, too, viewed the egg as a chthonian motif."

[1] I've unplugged from the AegeaNet insanity permanently. There's still the matter of their handling of the Minoan bull iconography and Minoan language that still sends me for a tizzy. I must still write about that. I can get more from this blog and people's interesting comments here anyways than a stuffy and poorly moderated forum tucked away in a dusty corner of the internet. Bah! Lol.


  1. Hello Glen.

    You probably found this a long time ago.
    Just in case you did not:

    De Grummond: Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend.
    I found a mirror. On it are Turms, Hercle and Vila.
    Turms is holding a "round object",
    and Vila.
    The round object is, I think, an egg.
    Hercle holding "something".
    Hercle has a bended knee, standing on an amphora with his left leg.
    Just like Chalchas while inspecting a liver. (If I remember well. Where did I see this?)
    So it seems Hercle is performing haruspicy.
    It is totally unclear to me what Vila is doing. It looks like that side of the mirror has suffered from erosion. (turms and hercle can easily be read. When I saw Vila's name at first I read someting like cila0, with a dotted theta.)

  2. Yes, the bronze mirror from Caecina, displayed on page 184, hastily drawn as if by a kindergartener with an Etch-A-Sketch. A photo would sure be nice but Etruscanists seem to like to replace photos with pale imitations. Attempting to read Etruscan from drawings depends heavily on the artists ability to capture what they themselves can see from the real object. The letters are not drawn very accurately if they are to be read as Vile.

    Since the boy has his left foot placed on what appears to be a stone just like augurs would do in Etruria (and like Kalkhas does in a scene on a bronze mirror that you're remembering), it stands to reason that the object that he's holding is none other than a sheep's liver.

    De Grummond says his foot is on an amphora but considering the replacement of informative photo with hasty sketch, she deprives the reader of their ability to verify or question her judgement. It irritates me to no end that all De Grummond, with all her seeming expertise on the matter, can remark on this is, "it is unclear what he holds in his hand (a cup?) [...]." Ugh! She must be putting us on. She's having a lark, right?

    As you say, Hercle is most definitely performing haruspicy because of his left foot raised to rest on what looks like nothing more than a stone, unbeknownst to mysterymonger De Grummond who mangles the meaning of the mirror with cutesy parenthesized question marks and disjointed artistic interpretations.

    At any rate, alas, there are no eggs here, only livers. Wrong culinary dish, my friend. Hehe.

  3. Since the boy has his left foot placed on what appears to be a stone just like augurs would do in Etruria (and like Kalkhas does in a scene on a bronze mirror that you're remembering), it stands to reason that the object that he's holding is none other than a sheep's liver.

    I remembered this one (more or less), with the grapes and the "amphora".
    Hercle seems to stand on an amphora, but of course it may wel be just a stone.
    Both mirrors suggest (nothing more) that vinum, mixed perhaps with some venena, was a great help in haruspicy.

    At any rate, alas, there are no eggs here,

    You surprise me!
    Turms is holding a round object.
    It is round, as almost all of these "human eggs" are (So far I found only one that was not round.).
    It does not have the shape of Hercle's liver.

    Wrong culinary dish, my friend

    I want to postpone my journey to Aita.
    Upon arrival I will present my beautiful white egg, protected from the beak of Tuxulxa, the hammer of Xarun and from much more dangerous flirtatious Van0 ;)
    So, no alcohol for me, and no cholesterol rich food.

  4. Oops, you're right! I'm a dumbdumb. I overlooked what Turms was holding in his four-finger hand in this badly drawn line drawing, being so focussed on Hercle and that "amphora stone".

    Yes, sorry, that could very well be our egg of immortality which makes sense considering that Turms, an underworld deity, is holding it. I'd have to see the original mirror to be sure though.

  5. I should add, Turms is likely the native Etruscan name for Charun.

  6. I should add, Turms is likely the native Etruscan name for Charun.

    I searched the Internet.
    Turms is mentioned as a psychopomp, but otherwise I could not find any Charun related texts*.
    Do you know any?
    This Turms not wearing winged sandals, but holding an egg, seems to be good evidence for him being Charun.

    More on eggs.
    I could not find many Etruscan eggs on the Internet*:
    We saw some three or four on Paleoglot.
    I remember an egg of Elinai and an egg held by (a son of) Hercle (I saw this before my first appearance as a commentor. It is a statue, Hercle holding a big white egg.).
    None of these eggs are really egg shaped.**
    Two of the eggs are big and round (The Turms egg and the Hercle egg as I remember it.).
    I hoped this would be the shape of swan eggs, but I found that swan eggs are almost ellipsoid***.
    So the swan deity you mentioned may not be a breeding one.

    Probably I am not good at searching.

    Egg shape:
    Locus P:
    PX+2PY=2ZY ; PZ etc being understood as the distance.
    This is a special case of Locus P: PX+PY+PZ=C.

    The foci of a swan egg, X, Y and Z being on a straight line,
    approximately XY:YZ=YZ:2XY.

  7. Xaru(n) is found in short inscriptions such as on this vessel or on this mural.

    "Egg shape: Locus P: PX+2PY=2ZY ; PZ etc being understood as the distance."

    This is overanalysis. Art isn't always realism. As far as most artists are concerned, it suffices that an egg is drawn round.

    Consider also that in Greek Orphic tradition, the bird of creation Nyx (literally "Night") is imagined as a great bird with black wings. Simply put, the required element in the production of this mythic ovoid is a bird, any bird, not just a swan necessarily.

    You should focus more on where the symbolism of this creation myth is coming from. It's an expected belief for Mediterraneans, being largely marine-based, to come to reason by analogy that the world arose out of the sea, just as an island appears to similarly rise out from the waters when sailing. Since there is no land in this hypothetical beginning, what other than a flying or swimming creature could cope with this "time before time"?

    Hence a bird (any bird) and its egg (any kind of egg) supply the source of all creation in this worldview. That the bird is specifically a swan or that the egg is elongated are merely added details, straying us away from the source of the myth. Similarly, Egyptians appear to share the same creation tale as the Etruscans: the egg of Ra rising from the primordial waters envisioned as a watersnake called Nu.

    It's not meant to be completely logical but this is how they reasoned back then. Mathematics won't help you here.

  8. I just wanted to check the shape of a swan egg. You mentioned specifically the swan as a not well understood creature on mirrors.

    IF swan eggs were big, white and round, then we could expect this bird to be of more significance.
    But alas...

    I just go on.

    The egg is an almost universal symbol of creation / rebirth.
    I read about Dogon myths. Interesting.

  9. Xaru(n) is found in short inscriptions such as on this vessel or on this mural.

    I have seen many "beautiful" Xaruns.
    (This is a fun part of Etruscology!).
    I have been searching for evidence of Xarun originally having been Turms.

  10. Try reading Jannot, Religion in Ancient Etruria (2005), p.177 under the heading Several gods with a single name: "The ultimate oddity is that sometimes two gods function under the same name. Turms designates the messenger of Tinia, but the same name, attached to that of Aita (Turmś Aitaś) designates the envoy of the god of the dead."

    The "mysterious" phenomenon of several gods having one name or several names for one god however isn't a mystery at all. It's what happens when Etruscans, being cosmopolitan, try to equate foreign mythology with their own beliefs. Sometimes the connections they made were clumsy and even self-contradictory. See Paleoglot: Interpretatio Tusca: Thoughts on Etruscan world-view.

  11. From my high school days I remember Hermes guiding the dead to Charon, who then took over.

    Nothing wrong with the idea of Turms being Hermes AND Charun (especially Turms Aitas).
    Turms almost always wears the winged sandals and the winged helmet.
    However, I never saw him with Xaruns hammer.

    So I doubt Turms is Xarun.

    I could not read Jannot.
    I read your post on "interpretatio Tusca" again.

  12. As language enthusiasts, we know that languages can come into contact and affect each other, one often becoming substrate to another. Words are thus borrowed. This is no different than religious contact.

    In Asia, the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guan Yin, is often equated with the Catholic Mother Mary but these comparisons can only ever be partial at best. Guan Yin is considered a reincarnation of Buddha and therefore holds different and sometimes opposing philosophies to those of Catholicism. However, when restricted to the single quality of mercy, the comparison suffices since both Guan Yin and Mother Mary are indeed both strong emblems of human compassion.

    The penchant for Romans to refer to Celtic gods using only Latin names is no different. Read Koch, Celtic Culture (2006) under 'Interpretatio Romana' (p.974) for more details.

    Always these comparisons are incomplete and in many ways inadequate but they're constantly made between one culture's dominant religion and another's regardless, much like the equations drawn from the apparently overlapping functions of Greek Hermes and Etruscan Turms.

    So Turms as Hermes inarguably retained all of the symbolisms of its Greek source (like the winged cap), while nonetheless representing specific functions or myths pre-existent in Etruscan belief. This must never be misinterpreted to imply that Hermes *is* Turms in entirety.

    Likewise, while artists creatively blurred the distinction between Tin and Roman Jupiter or between Tin and Greek Zeus due to the shared quality of being head of their respective pantheons, drawing the conclusion that Tin must be exactly like Jupiter or Zeus (ie. that Tin must share all of his qualities with those found in Jupiter and Zeus) is a very faulty deduction.

    In summary, the functions of each Etruscan deity must be deduced separately from the functions of similar deities found in surrounding influential cultures. Trying to pick apart which name in Etruscan record is genuinely native and which name is imported is a good start to putting this sacred jigsaw puzzle back together again.

  13. Certainly your "Interpretatio Tusca" post must have helped some of your readers. The overlapping functions of Turan-Uni-Thalna and other groups of entities, like perhaps Turms Aitas-Xarun are indeed part of a big jig saw puzzle.
    There also must have existed ancient pantheons of the other peoples of the peninsula that were later assimilated by the Romans, like the Sabines.

  14. In:
    De Grummond: Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend, page 57,
    I found a Turms-with-hammer.

    I must have overlooked it the first time.

    Evidence of Turms being Xarun.

  15. Yes, and the hammer/mallet icon is a derivative of the labrys, the symbol of the underworld, the symbol of the labyrinth. The labyrinth is the Minoan conception of the underworld, the winding entrails of the earth (cf. extispicy).

    Some Etruscanists take the symbolism far too literally and dwell on the act of hitting dead souls with mallets, which I find makes me want to hit them with hammers! Ugh. :o) Okay, I'm calm now, hehehe.

    So at any rate, I think we can all see that there's a danger in Etruscanology in fabricating duplicate gods from mere epithets.

  16. Yes, and the hammer/mallet icon is a derivative of the labrys, the symbol of the underworld, the symbol of the labyrinth. The labyrinth is the Minoan conception of the underworld, the winding entrails of the earth (cf. extispicy).

    Are these your own ideas?
    Comparing the hammer with the Minoan labrys
    Comparing the mythological (Cretan) labyrinth with the (Egyptian?) idea of the entrails of the underworld

    I think this is dangerous.
    It looks like wanting to see something that may not be there at all. Something the Germans call "Hineininterpretieren".

    Personally, however, I like this.

  17. The opposite of Hineininterpretieren is being so afraid of new, "dangerous" ideas that the scope of one's knowledge stagnates completely.

    I'm not au courrant on who keeps what position. If my head was filled with this presentday, political nonsense, I'd never have time to explore what really matters - history. So I honestly don't know whether I'm the "only one" that has combined these views, but certainly if it hasn't been done already by others, then shame on you people! :o)

    Stepping away from the details here, one can see a general pattern with Etruscans. It's well known that Etruscan haruspicy (ie. divining the future from sheep's livers) can only have derived from Anatolia where it was also practiced. It was, as you can see, a very specific and unusual practice and so its origin in Babylonian ritual is guaranteed. Herodotus had claimed that Etruscans were from the area known as Lydia (West Anatolia). It seems practically everything of Etruscans has already been shown historically to originate from the Near East despite any denials from a few narrow-minded historians: divine hammer/mallet/labrys, haruspicy, the alphabet, architecture, pottery styles, world-view, etc. It's just too consistent to deny, and there's a good chance that the Etruscan and Rhaetic languages are from the Near East too.

    Surely the Minoan labyrinth pattern symbolizes nothing other than the "entrails of the earth" mythos. From where else would it originate? And what other sensible meaning can be ascribed to the labyrinth than a chthonic, underworldly one?

    And who else but the Sun Himself travels this labyrinth at night according to this world-view, to emerge the next morning on the other side (cf. Khepri, the dung beetle)? And what better explains the origin of the practice of haruspicy/extispicy than this world-view which establishes at once why it is that entrails are used for divination (ie. its connection to earth and the dead, all that is hidden) and why the Sun, who sees all, is considered keeper of divine knowledge (cf. Shamash, Apollo, Ra)?

  18. I'll supply you some leads to references as well.

    A link between the labyrinth and its labrys on the one hand and the underworld on the other is impossible to not trip over in literature (eg. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (1998), p.36).

    Others have made connections between labyrinths and entrails before (eg. McCullough, The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes (2005), p.17).

    These two fragmented ideas are hard for me to not put together into a working model of a common Near-East mythological package that helps to unravel the irritating and partly artificial mystery of the Minoan religion.