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The Religion of the Etruscans
October 2007 (111.4)
The Religion of the Etruscans
By Nancy Thomson de Grummond and Erika Simon. Pp. xiii + 225, figs. 145. University of Texas Press, Austin 2006. $50. ISBN 0-292-70687-1 (cloth).
In the first chapter of this new, well-written overview of Etruscan religion, coeditor Thomson de Grummond writes that “it is a little odd, given the acknowledged importance of this subject, that there are relatively few general, sustained accounts of Etruscan religion, and there is as yet none today in the English language” (1). Although the latter is no longer the case, since Whitehead’s English translation and update of Jannot’s Devins, Dieux et Démons came out in 2005, shortly before the appearance of the present book, such a minor detail in no way detracts from the significance of this new volume. Not only does The Religion of the Etruscans fill what was once a striking and hard-to-explain void but also it represents a valuable contribution to the field—an essential read for scholars, students, and nonspecialists alike, particularly those with limited knowledge of foreign languages.
After a brief preface by Tatum, who discusses some of the challenges inherent in any study that seeks to “recover the nature of the Etruscans’ beliefs and practices” (xii), readers are presented with eight concisely written scholarly essays, ample illustrations, mostly in the form of drawings and black-and-white photographs, a glossary of terms, and two appendices. Because each essay contains numerous cross-references both in the text and in the footnotes, readers can also easily follow up on specific concepts as they are discussed elsewhere in the book. As such, it effectively fulfills its principal function as an introductory handbook with wide scholarly appeal.
The topics of each essay correspond to the expertise of their individual authors. Thus, Bonfante discusses a wide range of Etruscan inscriptions, noting most significantly that while all of them can be read, “not all can be understood” (9). She argues not only that “writing defined and fixed the established channels of communication between gods and mortals” (21) but also that “the act of writing itself was important and defined the character of rituals or sacred law and the very nature of the religion concerned” (23). In a similar vein, de Grummond discusses prophets and priests, bringing to life the stories of Tages, Vegoia, and Cacu and summarizing our knowledge about the Etrusca disciplina; MacIntosh Turfa provides an excellent overview of the Etruscans’ principal votive contexts and activities, emphasizing the experiences of both the elite and the poor. Finally, building on her previous publications about ritual spaces, Edlund-Berry convincingly demonstrates that “the deities of boundaries were as important in the Etruscan pantheon as was the Etruscan belief that all matters were in divine hands,” and that their “network of sacred spaces and boundaries in the skies as on earth ensured the stability of the society and its belief systems,” so much so, in fact, that when these were “trespassed or just crossed by outsiders” such as the Romans, “the Etruscan world of religion, and therefore life, was shattered” (127).
Also insightful are the essays by Simon, Krauskopf, and Colonna, especially since these authors usually publish in either German and/or Italian. Using evidence from “linguistics, comparative studies of religion, observations of cult practices, and the topography of excavated Etruscan sanctuaries” (45), Simon provides a new assessment of the Etruscan pantheon, arguing that its deities were, above all, devoted to “seeking a balance in the universe, of striving for peace and harmony, a paradigm for men as well as gods” (57). Her essay concludes with a useful, though general, glossary highlighting the basic attributes, origins, and cult centers of key divinities. Although the absence of sound textual evidence makes understanding Etruscan beliefs about life after death especially challenging, Krauskopf proposes a new concept about the afterlife, suggesting that it “can be thought of as a banquet” (78). She also reinterprets the symposia scenes in late sixth/fifth century B.C.E. Tarquinian tombs as taking place in the realm of the dead, not the living, and suggests that the sacrifices and games performed by survivors both “secured a safe journey to the hereafter [and] gave the souls of the dead the possibility to come back” (78). Finally, Colonna’s essay not only introduces viewers to the four main types of Etruscan sacred architecture but also presents many of his latest discoveries from the sanctuary at Pyrgi. He compares the evidence from this site with that provided by both well-known and newly excavated structures in Tarquinii, Orvieto, Veii, and other places, and his discussion of altar types, particularly those made of rough stones, is especially informative and is the first publication of this material in English.
Following the essays are a glossary of key terms and two extremely beneficial appendices. The first, by MacIntosh Turfa, presents the Etruscan brontoscopic calendar in both Lydus’ Greek version and the author’s English translation, while the second, edited by de Grummond, contains a number of pertinent Latin and Greek texts that are reproduced in their original language and in English. Both appendices further enhance the volume’s status as an excellent handbook and resource for both scholars and students. Although a third appendix—“Concordance of Etruscan Inscriptions”—does not appear in the text (it was incomplete at the time of publication), it is now available online (www.utexas.edu/utpress/excerpts/degrel-concordance.html). This minor inconvenience, however, in no way detracts from the overall value of the book, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in either Etruscan religion or this unique Italic culture.
Department of Humanities, Arts, and Religion
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-6031
Book Review of The Religion of the Etruscans, edited by Nancy Thomson de Grummond and Erika Simon
Reviewed by Alexandra Carpino
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/530