Today We Learn About: Etruscan Religion

There is little evidence of Etruscan religion thus there are many differing opinions as to it’s definition, none of which are able to be proven. In her small section on the subject of religion in Etruscan Civilization, Sybille Haynes puts forward the idea that early Etruscan rituals took place outside and later temples were built in which to worship. Her and Helle Anderson share the idea that votive offerings were a large part of religious practice. Anderson seems very convinced that gods had very little to do with religion. Faith centered on deified ancestors.

Haynes writes that Etruscan religious rituals were held outside under the sky, where the gods lived, until around 600 B.C. when there is evidence of a temple at Veii. Haynes sites two types of outdoor altars: those which are stone slabs used for burning the offering, and those with a drain into the ground for bloodletting sacrifices. Both types of altars are found in areas that do not appear to have been covered. She also sites the altar in Campana Tomb 1 as one used to give offerings to ancestors rather than deities. This altar appears to have been used for libation offerings, more likely wine or milk than blood. The Campana Tomb 1 altar is dated to a little later than a rectangular building on the Piazza d’Armi, which appears to have been a temple. Similar to Greek temples, this one had female heads on the roof and relieves of warriors. Also at Veii there is evidence of a temple to Minerva, a goddess later absorbed into the Roman pantheon.

According to Haynes there was a huge cache of people and animal votives found in the Chiana Valley that date to the sixth century BC. Haynes offers up little explanation as to what these votives were meant to represent, saying only that they may have been offered up to “remind the presiding deity of his or her perpetual presence there” (Haynes 129). The animals could possibly have been symbols of what the dedicant wanted, such as a hare for fertility, a deer for prosperous hunting, etc. Anderson has a different hypothesis for the votive statues found in tombs. Anderson thinks they can only represent the deceased. She dismisses the thought that they represent deities because they are only found in tombs, which if we look to where Haynes gets her votive statues this is incorrect, but also that they do not have any attributes to clearly define them as a god or goddess. In her article Anderson gives the opinion that they cannot represent ancestors, but later says that they can. However, the votive statues Anderson is speaking of do not have a clearly defined gender, which she believes is unimportant.

According to Anderson, the first evidence of an ancestor cult in Etruria does not occur until the Iron Age. She cites the figurines adorning the hut urns as ancestors placed there for protection. Since the hut urn possibly represents the living household, it is unclear as to whether the ancestors are guarding the deceased or the living. Either way this shows two things. First that the Etruscans believe in some sort of life after death, that their soul will live on or go somewhere new. Second, it shows that the Etruscans believed in a sort of deification of their ancestors. That after a person died their soul could turn into a deity to watch over the living. Evidence of these two beliefs can also be found in the Tomba della Statue. In this tomb there are five chairs set up as if to have a banquet, but three of them are empty. Anderson says these two statues sitting on the chairs are the mater and/or pater familias of the family of the deceased. She thinks this because, again, there are no attributes lending to the idea of a god, and that they cannot be guards of the tomb because they are not armed, so they must be people of importance. The empty seats were either once filled with images of the deceased or remained empty for the soul of the deceased buried in the tomb to fill. In Etruscan burials we also see vases anthropomorphized. These vases are loosely shaped as human beings and some are even set on thrones at banqueting tables. The fact that these anthropomorphized jars and statues were placed in a banqueting setting again reinforces the idea that Etruscans believed in an afterlife, and probably an afterlife similar to their first life.

Anderson places most of her focus on the existence of an ancestor cult, leaving out any ideas of gods or goddesses within Etruscan belief. However, we know of the existence of gods and goddesses from inscriptions on statues and mirrors. If Haynes is correct and the gods were worshipped outside perhaps it is simply easier to find evidence of the ancestor cult rather than divine cults. It is very likely that Haynes is correct in her assumption that all worship was outdoors because that is consistent with every other pagan culture. Even in Egypt, Rome and Greece where there were elaborate temples the rituals were actually held outside, the temple was just there to house the god and leave offerings. Figurines were a huge part of Etruscan religion, either as votive offerings to the gods, ancestors, or as representations of the ancestors and the deceased.


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