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).

25 Apr 2011

What's the deal with Svutaf?

Who is the young, winged Svutaph or Svutaf in the above drawing of mirror ET Vs S.15?[1] Many attempts have been made to explain it. Some consider it a transcription error or the real name in reverse. No one has clear answers and the mystery lingers like locker-room odour.

It turns out that Vesuna is an Umbrian goddess.[2] Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante suggested an "Umbrian influence" on the subject matter of this mirror.[3] Since word-final -f or is uncommon in Etruscan, it seems likely to me that Svutaφ is Umbrian too. Proto-Italic *-ns became Umbrian -f.[4] So this fricative occurs in word-final positions quite a lot in that language and can help explain the unexpected spelling in this name.

If we consider an Umbrian origin, it's interesting to note the common comparison of this name with Latin suādēre 'to persuade'. So is this all suggesting an underlying Umbrian deity named something like *Svādaf? On that note, we should recall a Roman goddess of persuasion named Suāda.

[1] This rough illustration was published in De Grummond, Etruscan myth, sacred history, and legend (2006), p.120.
[2] Opuscula romana, vol 31-32 (2008), p.22; Iguvine Tablets, 4.11-12: Vesune Puemunes Pupřikes 'To Vesona of Pomonus Poplicus'.
[3] Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan language: An introduction, 2nd ed. (2002), p.210.
[4] Schwartz/Arbeitman, A Linguistic happening in memory of Ben Schwartz: Studies in Anatolian, Italic, and other Indo-European languages (1988), p.389: "Parallels exist for the change of final *-ns to -f, e.g. Umbrian sif ACC PL 'pigs' < *sūns."

22 Apr 2011

Augury and redundancy

There's a curious sentence in Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition (1892), p.344:
"They invented astrology and Etruscan divination, augury, oracles, magic, mythology, and moreover taught men how to make ornate and feigned images of exquisite beauty of kings long passed away, and endowed them with other names." (bold-face mine)
This is the definition of augury. This is the definition of divination.

In what way is augury meaningfully different from divination? In what way are oracles somehow unincluded in the notions of both augury and divination?? Have my reading skills dulled??? Is the LSD catching up with me? Because I could swear that these first three nouns in the above list are reducible to one and that this Victorian-Age writer was trying too hard.

Here's another enigmatic passage I found from
Buckland, The fortune-telling book: The encyclopedia of divination and soothsaying (2003), p.xi

Again, is the author aware of what augury (ie. "the practice of foretelling by means of signs"), divination (ie. "act of foretelling future events") and soothsaying (ie. "the practice of foretelling events") really means and the ridiculous semantic similarities of all these words? His title seems to insist that there's a difference but I'm stumped because the dictionaries are saying something different. Comical stuff!

After Duane on Abnormal Interests mentioned his different understanding of augury as 'bird divination' instead of what I understood to be general omen-seeking of an augur, I came across a bunch of these confusing lines of text in Google. So I wonder, are we all on the same page about the term augury? Are there secondary "niche definitions" lurking about in the crowd that I should be aware of? It seemed to me that Etruscanists are using augury to refer to priestly divination in a general sense while other specialized terms of omen-seeking exist such as auspicy (bird-divination), brontoscopy (divination of lightning and thunder) and haruspicy (liver-divination).

Using augury as a synonym for auspicy on the other hand is simply confusing and, to me, ahistorical. Though I wonder if it has something to do with a long-standing folk-etymology that tries to derive au- in augur from avis 'bird', as is true in auspex, only to be left with an unanalysable portion, -gur. This etymology is certainly a tall tale. Augurs did more than just ornithomancy.

19 Apr 2011

Dice, divination and a third

In Paleoglot: The dicey proof of Etruscan numerals, while a general *tendency* existed for two opposing sides on classical rolling dice to add up to seven, I explain that it wasn't a hard-fast rule in the past. Other possibilities existed.[1] Nonetheless, quite a few Etruscanists and avid hobbyists will still leap to the over-assertive conclusion that the Etruscan dice *must* follow this pattern. From these sorts of precarious arguments, śa continues to be misinterpreted as 'four' instead of 'six', and huθ is misinterpreted as 'six' instead of 'four'.

In Paleoglot: Truth will shine forth (2), I outlined the Etruscan solar trinity that's directly shown on the Piacenza Liver by the names Tinia Cilensal ('Sun of Darkness' = Jupiter Sommanus), Tinia Θufal ('Sun of Oath' = Jupiter Fidius) and Tinia Θneθ ('Thundering Sun' = Jupiter Tonans). As far as I know, no specialists have bothered to explain these three entities as I have done, nor to even translate their names. All indicates an Etruscan solar triad, parallel to what can be found among the contemporaneous Egyptians (ie. Khepri, Ra and Amon).

Now let's take these two previous ideas and mash them together. We may understand the classical dice in question as exhibiting opposing sides that differ by a value of '3', rather than adding up to '7', making śa = 'six' and huθ = 'four'. Knowing that 'three' is a symbol of the solar triad and that Tinia was a deity governing divination and intellectual illumination much like Greek Apollo or Babylonian Shamash was, could the difference of 'three' between opposing sides of the dice then be a deliberate feature by the die-maker, conceptually linking games of chance with divination?

[1] Trosset, An Introduction to Statistical Inference and Its Applications with R (2009), p.16 (see link); Trager, Studies in linguistics, vol 19-22 (1968), p.65 (see link); The Athenæum: A journal of literature, science, the fine arts, music, and the drama (1874), p.146 (see link); Bonfante covertly admits uncertainty in Bonfante, Etruscan life and afterlife: A handbook of Etruscan studies (1986), p.229 (see link) when she begins, "If the arrangement of dots on Etruscan dice is the same as on ours, [...]" (italic mine).

16 Apr 2011

The inscription of TLE 773

The Etruscan inscription known as TLE 773 (aka ET OA 3.8), written on a red-figure kylix, is said to read as follows:
marce . svincinas . alpan . puts
I have yet to see a picture of this artifact however. I would like to simply trust Rix and others in their ability to transcribe an artifact properly but I've seen enough iffy or downright incorrect transcriptions to feel that skepticism is warranted.

In this case, we have an odd last name that occurs only once in the entire record. There are no similar forms listed in Rix's Etruskische Texte. The name seems to pop up out of nowhere. Arnaldo D'Aversa treated it as of uncertain origin[1] and quite frankly I'm stumped too... unless... the repeated transcription as shown above is a bit off.

You see, I have an itching to compare this otherwise mysterious name with Vincnai in ET Cr 1.152 but in order to get away with that, we need to figure out whether the first and last name in the inscription in question is properly parsed. So is it truly Marce Svincinas 'Marce Svincina' (the last name contains the genitive, effectively '[he] of the Svincina [family]') or is it Marces Vincinas 'Of Marce Vincina' (ie. 'Of Marce of the Vincina [family]')? Hopefully somebody will cough up a "googlable" photo of TLE 773 one of these years.

If only archaeologists and historians with primary access to these finds weren't so stingy on sharing the photos with the general public and were more connected to the internet age and its communicative benefits. Why does this info still need to be stuffed in a dusty museum or obscure journal?

[1] D'Aversa, La lingua degli etruschi (1979), pp.237 & 409 (see link).

12 Apr 2011

Around the African world in 730 days

Here's an interesting tale of explorational adventure in the classical world according to General History of Africa II, Ancient Civilizations of Africa, vol 2 (1981), p.448:
"According to Herodotus (fifth century), the Egyptian King Necho (c. -610 to -594) sent Phoenician mariners to sail down the Red Sea and thence to circumnavigate Africa. They are said to have taken two years on the journey, having twice halted to sow and reap a crop of wheat. Herodotus believed that the voyage had been successful and it is not impossible, but it had no repercussions at the time; if it took place, the vast size of the continent thus revealed must have removed any ideas of a route from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians who, again according to Herodotus, believed that Africa could be circumnavigated, must have known of the venture, and of another of the early fifth century."

9 Apr 2011

Phoenician-Etruscan comparisons of iconography

U of Penn's Professor Holly Pittman offers a long list of artifact images for us to peruse at her website. Under one directory, there are two interesting pictures, one labeled "Neo-Assyrian, Nimrud, NW Palace Harem, Pit AJ, Sacred Tree, 8th Phoenician Style" and the other "Neo-Assyrian, Nimrud, Ft Shalmaneser, SW12 Plaque, Phoenician Style". I show both photos below and they show a persistent Tree of Life pattern.

They're very similar to what's found on an Etruscan mirror suggesting Punic artistic influences via ancient Carthage.

Evidently then, if we want to crack the riddle of Etruscan mythology as a whole, we must learn to look past the "safe" but limited Roman and Greek comparisons. Egyptian, Hittite, Babylonian and Phoenician comparisons are also fair game because the Classical Mediterranean boasted a complex network of interrelated cultures which were very good at distributing ideas across surprisingly large distances.

6 Apr 2011

What is that Tages looking at?

The explanation of this mirror is always the same among Etruscanists and consistently comprised of the following elements:
  • Pava Tarχies is assumed to mean 'Child of Tages' (cf. Latin puer 'child' and Tages).
  • Veltune is assumed to be Roman Vertumnus, god of seasons and change.
  • Tages is assumed to be teaching Aule of Tarchon (Avl Tarχunus) the art of haruspicial divination.
  • The woman marked by Ucernei is a mystery.
  • Raθlθ is another head-scratcher.
First, I will not accept the value of pava as 'child' based only on these idle look-alikes with an unrelated language like Latin. This is unmethodological. I take pava to mean instead 'prophecy' or 'divination' and thus 'The Prophecy of Tarchiie'. This fits much better with context and grammar. Note that Tarχies ends in the type-I genitive ending and so it can only ever mean 'X of Tarchiie', whatever value we decide to give pava. Certainly then, the phrase neither means 'Child Tages' nor 'Child of Tages' which both conflict with context and/or grammar. So clearly this hypothesis is already suspicious.

Second, how are we certain (aside from depending on more idle phonetic look-alikes) that Tarχies refers somehow to 'Tages'? Another hypothesis based on the much frowned-upon eyeballing technique, hmm? How to explain the missing 'r' then in the reported Roman name?

Lastly, it annoys me that despite describing the mirror repeatedly over the decades, all authors I've read insist on leaving the overall meaning of this mirror an unexplained mystery without bravely asking new questions or providing new interpretations. If the same unproven assumptions are repeated over and over without progress (as among Jean-René Jannot, Nancy De Grummond and Suzanne Rasmussen), maybe we're not asking enough questions.

Quite honestly I remain a little confused about this mirror myself but I have questions that I don't see anyone addressing so I'll just throw out some ideas I've been pondering on recently:
  • What do the two nude male deities represent? They seem almost to suggest opposites: one young, the other mature; one on the left, the other to the right; one is attached to Apollonian icons (eg. laurel), the other to Martial ones (eg. spear). Are they the "young sun" (beginning of the year) versus the "old sun" (end of the year)? Are they Jove versus Anti-Jove (Veiovis)? Peace and War? North and south?

  • Is the haruspex looking at something more specific than just the liver as a whole? I've been noticing that he's looking at a specific region of the liver more closely. Perhaps he spies the pyramid region displayed prominently on one side of the Piacenza Liver. Do the prophecies from this particular region of the liver suggest a more specific kind of prophecy such as the future of a city and its ruler?

  • Is the sun rising in the east or setting in the west? How can we determine the orientation of this scene knowing that Etruscans considered the proper orientation of cardinal directions important to their rites? Is this a specific rite meant to convey something specific? Does it need to be performed at a certain point of day for a symbolic reason?

2 Apr 2011

In the name of Atlantis

I'm appreciating Ancient Tides by George LeFever who notifies us of events happening in archaeology. However in a recent post he tells us that Evidence Points to Atlantis Site in Spain without even a hint of sarcasm or doubt. Egad.

Balanced or blind reporting?

In all due respect, something needs to be remarked on the social evils of blind reporting, reporting in absence of informed commentary that would strive to contextualize and distinguish fact from garbage. While others have a glib attitude about how media affects all of us, I'm not so naive which is why I'm always concerned and conscious of it. I want to do better than the status quo. I hope you do too, reader.

Perverted versions of balanced reporting are sisters to this issue that the History Channel has sold out to. It's the classic scam of provoking interest through absurdity, emotional rhetoric and faux mystère. Unlike merely posting links, contextualizing is the truly valuable service to viewers or readers. It's a priceless human input that can't be automated. It's a sieve to filter out the nonsense of our media-soaked world. If you're doing anything less than adding your own insights concerning the topics you post, you risk being replaceable and irrelevant to readers, a secondhand news source.

One more case for anti-credentialism

Sufficed to say, there simply can be no purely literal "Atlantis", nor can it be in Spain. What Professor Richard Freund "discovered" may still be historically relevant, but the hype of Atlantis attached to it is intellectually draining and offensive. The educated consensus, for good reason, has already determined that if Atlantis is based at all on a true story, it alludes to the Minoan civilization a millennium prior to the classical Greek world into which Plato was born. This is not some idle suggestion nor does it need to be constantly opened up to shallow debates like that which plague the case-closed topics of evolution and the devastating effects of human pollution. This thought is determined by a web of facts that must be understood before yelling "Eureka! I found Atlantis" like a raving fool.

Since it's apparently a "professor" under the cloak of the University of Hartford that heads this fruitless quest for Atlantis, either ignorant of the story's full context or callously manipulating media for his gain, it makes it all the plainer to see why a PhD can hold no weight when gauging someone's credibility or expertise. One must stick to the difficult "hard way" of questioning all one reads with facts, the old-school method, purposely oblivious to a person's status instead of taking shortcuts by judging books by their glossy cover or people by their certificates.

Now for the real news

Luckily we don't need to pretend that Atlantis chasers and other nuts are the important headlines. It's far more mentally stimulating to meditate directly on the account of Atlantis in Plato's Timaeus.

If one follows the link I provide, one will see a side-by-side translation of the Greek text on the right into English on the left which makes the problem of modern misunderstanding so clear. Begin by pondering on the great potential for inaccuracy and distortion in the translations of some key Greek words in the legend:
  • Εὐρώπη ≠ 'Europe'
    This is not referring to the entire continent of Europe as we are aware of it today. Semantic shift is at work.
  • Ἀσία ≠ 'Asia'
    Again this doesn't refer to the entire Asian continent but only to Asia Minor (Turkey).
  • ἤπειρος ≠ 'continent'
    Certainly the classical Greeks knew nothing of tectonic plates or the modern notion of "continent", so the value given here is anachronistic and misleading. It's also unnecessary. 'Coastline' or 'land' is its more accurate and fundamental meaning, ie. land as opposed to water. This alters the translation significantly, but for the better.
  • ἐκ τοῦ Ἀτλαντικοῦ πελάγους ≠ 'out of the Atlantic Ocean'
    This by far is one of the more horrible translations because, based on straight-forward context, 'out of the Atlantean Sea' is far more apt, that is, the sea surrounding Atlantis. What would the Classical Greeks know about the difference between 'sea' and 'ocean'? Again, by forcing πέλαγος to specifically mean 'ocean', its more general meaning is clumsily overlooked: any large body of salt water rather than fresh water. Stripping us of this mistranslation, Freund's search near the Strait of Gibraltar deserves chastising.
  • Ἡρακλέους στήλη ≠ 'The Strait of Gibraltar'
    Fools will assume blindly that these Pillars of Hercules *must* refer to the Straight of Gibraltar. Yet this mythological term could quite honestly refer to any geographic location perceived of as great sky-pillars, including islands emerging from the open sea or mountains rising to the sky.
The list of Greek terms able to be contorted into incorrect English values is endless. Combine linguistic distortions with historical ones and we have a seriously compounded problem. However if we read the entire account from beginning to end instead of reading snippets, the emerging context we learn can insulate us against the unending gullibility of popular media. In fact, by reading the entire story, one can see for oneself why interpreting Atlantis, if anything, as a relic of a Minoan past is most preferred by historians and the only one that connects to reality.