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Etrusco Ritu: Case Studies in Etruscan Ritual Behaviour

Etrusco Ritu: Case Studies in Etruscan Ritual Behaviour

By L. Bouke van der Meer (Monographs on Antiquity 5). Pp. viii + 167, figs. 33. Peeters, Leuven and Walpole, Mass. 2011. €78. ISBN 978-90-429-2538-0 (cloth).

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As the subtitle indicates, this volume contains case studies selected to illustrate specific types of behavior within Etruscan society. Since the field of Etruscan studies has grown so rapidly in the last decennia, this is a wise choice, but also one that may present difficulties for a reader who is trying to gain an understanding of the overall concepts.

In a brief introductory chapter, van der Meer presents the terminology for “rites” and “ritual” in Greek and Latin, as well as in Etruscan and Umbrian. As an illustration of evidence for continuity of rituals from ancient times to today’s practices, the author gives examples from Roman Catholic and other religious traditions.

The second chapter is intended to provide background for the study of Etruscan rituals and includes references to some recent books and articles. While it is useful to have such references, the comments are quite disparate in length and contents, and a beginning student would especially benefit from a longer and in-depth summary and evaluation of the bibliography. While some books may by now be outdated in terms of the archaeological reference material, they often provide information on early scholarship that is still valid and important.

The third chapter introduces references to studies of ritual in different cultures, beginning in the late 19th century. Although a theoretical approach has its place in a scholarly analysis, it would seem equally relevant to discuss the dichotomy of the modern viewer’s ability to “read” and understand the past and the danger of applying modern ways of thinking to cultures with completely different mindsets. We not only have the contrast between ancient and modern rituals but also within the ancient world, where textual evidence from the Roman empire is used to illustrate visual representations from the Iron Age, up to 1,000 years earlier.

Chapter 4 briefly outlines the questions and method of the study. The nine questions mentioned focus on identifying the importance of ritual behavior in Etruscan society and the means for identifying such behavior. Seven types of sources are listed, ranging from material culture to ethnographic comparisons. In the following chapters, a distinction is made between rites, identified as “single activities,” and rituals, regarded as “a series of rites.” The topics chosen include family, funerary, and public rites and rituals, but not sacrifices, with the exception of funerary ones.

Chapter 4 covers family rituals, including weddings, birth, transition to adulthood, immersion and healing, perinatal rites, adoption, divination, and consecration. For each category, van der Meer introduces examples from different media and contexts. As can be expected, new evidence will continue to provide more information that may strengthen or weaken his arguments. For example, the statement that “there are no representations of real birth rites in Etruscan art” (24) will need to be modified in view of the depiction of a woman giving birth on a bucchero fragment from ca. 600 B.C.E. found at the site of Poggio Colla (Vicchio) north of Florence (M. Allen, “Ancient Etruscan Childbirth Image Unearthed at SMU’s Poggio Colla is Likely a First for Western Art,” SMU Research [18 October 2011] It should also be noted that much of the supporting evidence for Etruscan rituals comes from Roman sources, both texts and images, as, for example, the use of the “bulla,” or pendant.

At other times, the evidence for a supposed Etruscan tradition comes from very late (medieval) sources, as discussed in the section on immersion and healing. Here, references from the Passion of St. Gaudentius (bishop of Arezzo, martyred under Valentinian I) and the Life of St. Bernardino of Siena suggest the continuity of a pagan cult at the spring known as Fonte Tecta in the outskirts of Arezzo. Evidence for a grove and a cult of Apollo is, however, tenuous, and van der Meer’s statement that “[t]he name Fonte di Apollo therefore evidently refers to an old Etruscan water cult” (33) and that the cult continued to as late as 1428, when St. Bernardino visited here and destroyed the pagan traditions, needs to be evaluated in terms of the archaeological evidence from the area.

It is clear that the author’s choice of examples and topics is based on his vast knowledge of Etruscan culture, but it should be acknowledged that different interpretations might exist. So, for example, is the topic of adoption introduced with examples from Etruscan mirrors (not illustrated) showing the Adoption of Hercle (Herakles) by Uni (Juno). A parallel is cited from the Caucasus in the 19th century, but neither would seem to apply to actual events in the life of Etruscan families.

Chapter 6 describes funerary rituals. Somewhat surprisingly, the first six sections of the chapter cover the chronology of burial customs from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period, whereas the seventh section is titled “Homeostasis,” referring to the tradition of grave goods throughout Etruscan history. The second half of the chapter provides epigraphic evidence (the Magliano tablet) and visual representations (including the bronze urn from Bisenzio, the Tragliatella oinochoe, tomb paintings from Tarquinia, and the Plikaśna situla). As with most Etruscan texts, the reading of the Magliano tablet contains many problems, and van der Meer navigates between the different interpretations in his text as well as in the footnotes.

In chapter 7, the author presents the evidence for public rituals, ranging from Etruscan texts such as the Capua tile and the Zagreb mummy wrappings to quotes in the ancient historical and literary texts, the bronze statuette of the l’Aratore (The Ploughman) from Arezzo, a terracotta disk from Monte Bibele, and the Iguvine tablets. The topics documented by the texts and objects include the foundation of planned cities, pilgrimage and procession, games, time marking, initiation, and apotropaic rites. Etruscan as well as Roman, Faliscan, and Umbrian sites are included as the locations for such public rituals, and events as late as 70 C.E. (refounding of the Capitoline temple in Rome) and the time of Constantine (Spello inscription) suggest a uniformity in place and time that would benefit from a closer and more nuanced evaluation.

Van der Meer presents his case studies well by carefully describing the objects he has selected and by providing comparanda, also described and sometimes illustrated. Although many of the texts quoted are well known to specialists, it is very useful to have them included in Latin with an English translation, and, for the Greek texts, in English. In the case, however, of some of the lengthy text passages, the reader may lose the line of argument presented in the narrative.

Throughout the study, the author includes interesting notes on the possible continuity of rituals in Tuscany, ranging from the “Grove of Apollo” south of Arezzo to the Rite of the Straight Furrow, still (in 2009) practiced at Valentino, west of Bisenzio. As tempting as it may be to accept a continued tradition for these and other examples, following in the tradition of Leland (Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies. Reprint [New Hyde Park, N.Y. 1963]. Original edition, Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition, 1892) and documented from western Texas, where 4,000-year-old rock paintings reflect traditions still recognized in the Huichol religion, one cannot automatically assume that ancient traditions have been carried forward into modern times.

In the presentation of different types of evidence, van der Meer usually describes the findspots of objects and the location of sites, and it seems that here he may be overlooking a potential source for rituals of location, passage, and transitions, similar to those described in, for example, the Iguvine tablets (91–2). Thus, in addition to the description of the Faliscan site of Civita Castellana (Falerii) (104–10), it would be interesting to visually follow the line of plowing (indicated by the l’Aratore bronze statuette [85]) around Arezzo, the connection between Capua and Monte Tifata (78), and the findspots of the Magliano tablet and related items (64–5).

Chapter 8 contains the author’s conclusions, to the effect that “ritual behaviour in Etruscan society was not overwhelming” (133), and a summary of the examples discussed in the previous chapters, with the addition of a section on churches built over or near ancient Etruscan sanctuaries. While the case studies represent one author’s selection and analysis illustrated by material remains and texts, there may well have existed many more rituals in Etruscan society that were not rendered visually or described in texts, and we may never know which types of rituals the Etruscans really considered important.

This monograph contains much material of great interest to students of Etruscan studies. It raises many questions of methods of interpretation and introduces many topics for further exploration. It is, however, not clear who the intended readers are, since a beginning student is likely to be overwhelmed by the variety of evidence presented, and a more advanced student will need to investigate further in the literature to get the complete picture of both objects and interpretations. For general readers, the book provides an introduction to a way of interpreting Etruscan evidence that invites further reading and comparisons with other approaches to the subject.

The format of the volume is user-friendly, and both text and illustrations are of high quality. The binding is solid and is likely to withstand heavy library use. The bibliography is extensive and can be used easily in spite of some misspellings and missing information. It is unfortunate that there are some misspellings of words and names in the text and that the choice of words at times is less than idiomatic.

Ingrid Edlund-Berry
Department of Classics
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712-1738

Book Review of Etrusco Ritu: Case Studies in Etruscan Ritual Behaviour, by L. Bouke van der Meer

Reviewed by Ingrid Edlund-Berry

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Edlund-Berry

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