What was the concept of the Afterlife in the Etruscan culture?
This is the question we will try to answer through this presentation, and we hope that, further to catch your attention, we will manage to provide you with a relatively complete framework, which may be able, at the same time, to increase your desire to deepen this topic further.
Before starting, however, we would like to clarify the reasons for this article, which could inaugurate a new line for discussions on our website. We could provide you with an articulated explanation and various motivational elements, but we prefer to be direct and simple. A recurring topic (indeed a dominant subject), that is basically shared by all the ancient peoples (it’s worth to mention, for instance, ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and, of course, Etruscans), is the great importance of religion and the spiritual side of life, in particular the evident interest for the Afterlife. Today, as well as during the past, this topic is fundamental in our existence, whatever some people may say. Therefore, it will be very interesting to proceed together along ancient civilizations’ paths, so that we can then return to our current world, perhaps with a new awareness by having gone through the sources of our civilization.
Now we can start our journey in the past!
First of all, we would like to point out that the practice of excavating underground complex monumental necropolises was started by the Etruscans. In fact, before them in Italy the dead were burnt and their ashes were buried, usually in a small hole in the ground.
The lower world was considered by ancient peoples as the womb of both Mother Earth and the Hereafter. Souls of the dead were believed to reach that world and arrive at the presence of deities. The Underworld gods were a divine couple: Hades and Persephone, that were named, in the Etruscan language, Aita and Phersipnai. The yearly return of Persephone on earth, among the living, corresponded to the beginning of Spring and, on that occasion, “Little Mysteries” festivities were celebrated. “Great Mysteries” festivities, instead, were celebrated in September and recalled when the goddess disappeared, going back to the underworld.
The entire symbolic and mythical cycle of the Mysteries referred to the great mystery of death and rebirth. The main Mystery topic concerned the soul that, through a particular ritual of death and rebirth, could aspire to immortality, providing a higher meaning to the human condition, which, in this way, could be equivalent to the divine life of gods and heroes. This concept of the soul and its possible “awakening” was the core of this great sacred mystery. This concept was used later, for example, by Pythagoras, but we can also find it in the heart of Christianity. In the inscription of Samothrace it is also mentioned that the priest of Cybele used to break a consecrated bread and offer a sacred drink to the person to be initiated, and this also has common aspects with Christianity.
According to an ancient Mediterranean belief, human beings would not have a single “Self” but different ones. The human being would be the sum of three main identities, or “bodies”: the physical body, the shadow and the demon (or double).
At the time of death these parts would separate from each other: the physical body would decay and would be absorbed by the ground, while the “shadow” would be released and destined to an ephemeral existence in the Underworld or, possibly, to be born again (after drinking from the “spring of oblivion”). The third element instead, the demon, according to the ancient Romans was made up of two parts, Lares and Manes. There were two Manes for each person: one was good and the other was evil. Lares instead were a collective entities of divine nature.
The soul, at the moment of death, would return to its Lares, that is to its original strain whose location was inside the Mother Earth. Human beings would have, however, the possibility of a different fate. Those who had recognized their own demons, Lares or Manes, and had gone beyond their limits, could have an immortal soul and enjoy the same life of gods, heroes and initiates to Mysteries. For the others it was inevitable to enter the never-ending cycle of life-death-rebirth as shadows, unaware of reincarnations they had gone through.
It’s likely that the Etruscan word Larth may be the source of the Latin word Lares. The Etruscan Larth was the sacred-king, the first authority which the twelve Lucumoni obeyed to and who had a supreme power. Etruscans and Romans started to worship their ancestors (Lares), whose souls were living underground in front of the earth’s gods. The result of all this was the construction of large and monumental cities for the dead (necropolises). They were built according to a magical concept: heaven and earth forces were joined in a magical connection, allowing the soul of the deceased to adequately perform his/her long journey into the Afterlife. Necropolises were assiduously visited. In fact, banquets with music, dances, rituals and offerings (e.g., milk, honey, wine were poured on the ground, on memorial stones or on altars) were performed for the dead and for the gods.
Ancients believed that the experience of death could face a fundamental problem of “detachment”: the person’s earthly part, that is his/her “shadow”, could obstacle the soul during its difficult separation from the physical body. Therefore, funerary objects, as well as the amazing frescoes in tombs, had the purpose of attracting the shadow and making it release the spiritual soul. An interesting representation of a shadow is the well-known Etruscan bronzes called “shadows of the evening”: slender and elongated figures with adolescent, evanescent and serious features.
Among the Etruscan gods, it is worth mentioning the young goddess Vanth (comparable to the Greek goddess Moira). She had great wings and a torch to illuminate darkness as she accompanied the souls during their difficult passage into the Hereafter, and symbolized destiny, the implacable fate. We don’t know much about her, just that she had the “role of escorting souls” (as for the Romans, this task was given to Mercury, Hermes “Psychopomp” for the Greeks).
There were monstrous characters, who were often depicted in Etruscan tombs, with the function of monitoring and protecting tombs:
- the demon Charun (the greek Charon) was a half-beast humanoid, holding a hammer;
- the horrible Tuchulcha, whose face resembled a vulture, had donkey ears and used snakes as offensive weapons.
Precious depictions of the Etruscan Hereafter reached us thanks to the tombs of Tarquinia (Italy). Among others, we want to mention in particular two tombs which, in our opinion, can better provide us with information useful to our subject.
Tomb of Charons
This tomb was discovered in 1960 and is an excellent example of a Hellenistic hypogeum with “two floors and a vestibule”: an upper floor (vestibule), used for religious ceremonies, and two burial chambers (located at a lower level) and accessible through stairs starting from the main hall. On the vestibule’s back and right walls two false doors have been painted (a symbolic entrance to the Afterlife).
Both doors have, on each side, two winged Charons, who are the Etruscan demons of death, custodians of Hades, dressed up with short skirts and holding different tools: hammers, axes and snakes. Next to each figure, a painted inscription indicates the name of the Charon demon, together with a different nickname which distinguished its particular function (unfortunately we do not know it).
This tomb dates back to the second half of III (3rd) Century BC and has significant differences in comparison with those dating to the previous period. It has a flat ceiling (instead of a sloping one), and only the right wall and the central pillar have been painted. On the central pillar a winged Charon is shown. On the side wall there is a scene of particular interest: a dead person is ready to cross the door of the Afterlife, accompanied by the goddess Vanth who, while laying her right hand on the deceased left shoulder, holds a torch in her left hand. The door is guarded by Charon who is sitting, and in the middle of the scene there are two men and a child (perhaps relatives of the deceased, who had died previously), represented in the act of welcoming the deceased and showing him the way to the Afterlife.
Besides the two similarities between the Etruscan world and Christian faith, already mentioned above (“awakening” of the soul; breaking of the bread and drinking from the holy cup), it is interesting to highlight another aspect that provides further resemblances.
The Afterlife is completely separated from our world and Etruscan demons, who are guarding its entrance, are just a confirmation of that. Even for our belief, the two worlds are distinct and separate, although they can get, under certain circumstances, partially and temporarily connected. We refer not only to Near-Death Experiences, during which the world of the Afterlife or, more often, of the Near-Afterlife is reached for a short time by those who have been considered dead and, later on, awake. In fact, we also refer to many people who, at the point of death, witness the visit of their dead beloved ones. Well, in both of these cases the threshold between the two worlds can become a privileged place for the encounter with those who have already died. In some cases, our loved ones arrive to accompany us during the transition, and in other circumstances they stop us and push us back. We can find all this in a painting from tomb 5636, in Tarquinia (Italy), that we have already mentioned above. In fact, we can see there just this double typology of experience, where the encounter with our ancestors takes place near the door to the Hereafter, guarded by the demon Charon. The soul of the deceased is accompanied by the goddess Vanth, who holds a torch, but it is certainly the meeting with his loved ones to “enlighten” the moment of his passage.
E.A. – V.G.