One of those tantalizing mysteries of the Classical World concerns the origins of the Etruscans. Lending both their name (which survives in the ‘Tuscany’ of today) and a perhaps surprising swathe of their language, culture, and religion to the later and more famous Romans who inherited and surpassed them, numerous theories have cropped up as to who these people were. And, for our purposes, whether they were Indo-European, or part of some non-Indo-European wave of Mediterranean colonization, or even a pre-Indo-European isolate like the Basques far to the west.
The sources of the Ancient World are somewhat ambiguous upon the subject. Herodotus records them as related to the Anatolian Indo-Europeans of old – the Lydians, in particular. Although even in antiquity, this derivation was held in some doubt – Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his ‘Roman Antiquities’ [1:30] pointing out that there did not appear to be any great coterminity of language or culture between the two groups. Instead observing them to be more similar to the Pelasgians than the Tyrrhenians – but more likely still to be an ancient race who had been aboriginal to their place in Italy.
The situation of the field here in the Modern World has advanced remarkably little since those earlier inquiries some two and a half, two thousand years before. If you look into relatively recent speculation upon the matter, those same ethnonyms and locales continue to crop up. The notion that Etruscan language is closely related to the Anatolian Indo-European ones, or that it is part of a hypothesized Tyrrhenian family of purportedly pre-Indo-European provenancy. I am told that some even push the case for it being Hungarian (a fact which surprises me considerably less than one might otherwise imagine – not because of what I know of Uralic linguistics, which is limited … but what I have observed of some Hungarians).
It seems that when we look upon Etruscan as a language, each of us sees … basically what it is that we wish to. We confirm our own theories as linking them back to us, or our preferred sub-group of the Pre-/-Indo-European World.
Fortunately, recent advances in the field of archaeo-genetics have managed to clear up the situation somewhat. Showing us that while the mitochondrial DNA of ‘Etruscan’ remains may indeed tend to tether them to the pre-Indo-European populations of the neolithic (something that had generated some excitement amidst those claiming the Etruscans as a Basque-style ‘Isolate’) … the Y-chromosome analysis suggested a rather more familiarly Indo-European descent was salient. Although interestingly, with a lack of support for an Anatolian connection – and, on the other hand, with a rather greater coterminity with later Latinate populations.
And yet, for some reason, the thought of the Etruscans as some sort of pre-Indo-European people – in culture, if not now it would seem in blood – stubbornly refuses to budge. You present people with this kind of evidence, and instead of re-appraising what they think they know, we get escalatingly precarious theorizing. Of Indo-European or heavily Ind-European influenced people speaking a non-Indo-European language and practicing a non-Indo-European culture and religion. Which is, in principle, not an impossible concept – only one that is rather rare in practice, particularly as an absolute; and which, as we shall shortly see, is not entirely borne out by such evidence as we have available to us from the language and religion of the Etruscans … which forms my main purpose in penning this piece.
Now, before we address that, it is necessary to clarify that I am generally something of a ‘maximalist’ when it comes to matters of Indo-European occurrence within a linguistic, cultural, and religious sphere. What I mean by this is that when we are confronted by some element occurrant in these three elements and somebody has stated with bold-faced confidence that it is “pre-Indo-European” … I tend to look sideways at the assertion. Which does not mean I discount the existence and saliency of substrates or syncreticism or other forms of non-Indo-European Influence. Only that almost every time I have seriously analyzed some academic’s claim that, say, Indra is supposedly some sort of BMAC pre-Indo-European incorporation … an examination of the hypothesis has suggested rather strongly that they are almost deliberately ignoring a significant array of linguistic, comparative mythographic, and other evidence for an autochthonously Indo-European identification because they feel there ‘has’ to be some non-I.E. incorporation occurring.
Again, I do not discount the possibility for such incorporations to happen from time to time – and we know very well that as the ages wore on, they became quite frequent and prominent in some Classical centres. It is just that when it comes to the really archaic stuff, I am yet to see much of it happening ‘in the wild’.
Which should not at all be surprising. After all, Gods and the related mytho-religious conceptry are quite literally the most sacred elements to a civilization. The idea that a people would just blithely start chopping and changing these things at their core for mere political convenience or novelty’s sake is an eyebrow-raising one.
All of which brings to the central theme of this piece. Namely, the extent to which the terms of the Etruscan mythology and associated religion appear to reflect – indeed, don’t simply reflect … actually fundamentally are – those of Indo-European faith.
My suspicions in this area were first aroused when parsing a lexicon of the Etruscan vocabulary that has come down to us. My eye fell upon “Aisar”. And I nearly fell off my proverbial chair. For it means “Gods” – as any student of Old Norse would know, and as we would also recognize from the underlying Proto-Indo-European root of both this term and the RigVedic “Asura” [meant in the sense of ‘Sire’, not the later “A’Sura” as in ‘Demon’]. Now, perhaps some scholar of Latin shall correct me upon this point – but I am not, thus far, aware of a similar-sounding Latinate term for the Gods. If it is indeed cognate with “Aesir”, then there will be Latin terms which are derived from the same ultimate source – and “Erus” [King’] is one of the more obvious. But my point is, assuming for a moment that this is not some rather dramatic coincidence, then it does not seem plausible for this to be a case of Latin and Latin religion considerably influencing the Etruscans to the point of the term being calqued over. For there is no Latin term of this nature and meaning to be calqued. It may come from these similar suite of Indo-European terms which mean ‘Great’, but then that only strengthens the argument of a considerable Indo-European influence or essence to Etruscan. [Also, as a brief aside – when I say ‘dramatic coincidence’, I am not kidding about the drama. One of the reasons we know what this ‘Aisar’ means, is per the exposition of Cassius Dio [56.29] – who recounts a lightning-bolt striking the C in “Caesar” on a statue’s inscription and melting it off, leaving ‘Aesar’ which resembled the Etruscan word aforementioned and therefore portending a great and divine destiny for the Caesar in question. “Caesar of the Aesir”? Perhaps it is more likely than one might otherwise think. Lampshade-hanging, as it were, via lightning-bolt.]
Other, similar occurrences abound. We have the “Mani” in relation to the Shades of the Dead (also Mania as an Underworld Lady deific), and we have “Menrva” for Athena (see my work on the ‘Manyu’ particle for some of the Indo-European underpinnings of each of these terms – ‘Spirit’/’Active Mind’ being the meaning of the PIE root ‘Men’); we have “Nethuns” for a Water God (recall the Proto-Indo-European Neb); we have Tinia (the Lord in the Sky) hailed as ‘Apa’ – Father (i.e. ‘Sky Father’); we have ‘Tiv’/’Tiur’/’Tivr’, a Moon God (and therefore, by gender, at odds with the prevalent Classical presumption … but in-line with the more archaic Indo-European one) (the name, presumably, meaning something akin to the ‘Shining One’ term encountered elsewhere in the Indo-European-isphere, albeit at night, and subject to reasonably standard D=>T sound-shift); … I could go on at further length, but you begin to get the idea.
Now it must be acknowledged that there is potential scope for relatively early influence or incorporation into the Etruscan culture, of Greek nomenclature and associated conceptry. And subsequent to that, the influence of the Latins. This is the stock answer for people in the ‘Isolate’ or otherwise non-Indo-European camp to go to when they are challenged upon matters such as the above. And in certain areas, especially as the centuries drew on, it’s almost certainly quite true. The ‘Etruscan’ culture began to find itself relegated to the periphery of arcana amidst the rising Roman-proper civilization, and was directly ‘overwritten’ even as it was ‘forgotten about’ through the era of the Republic.
Yet it seems frankly incredible to believe that every single instance of alleged Indo-European exemplary to be found amidst the Etruscan canon that has come down to us (fractured and fragmented though it may of course be), is somehow one of these ‘foreign’ over-writes or syncreticisms that come with an overpowering name attached thereto.
Rather, what seems more likely the case, is that the theorizing of an array of linguists in more recent times, that Etruscan is in fact all up an Indo-European or at least heavily Indo-European-ized language (and, in the case of the latter, had been one likely for quite some time prior to contact with far-flung Greeks etc. during the course of the Classical Age) … has more than some merit to it. I am not a linguist, I am but a theologian who makes ample use of the Divine Speech in the course of his efforts, so I shall have to defer to their superior competency upon those scores.
Yet with the recent publication just last year and the year before of archaeogenetic studies showing the saliency of Steppe DNA amidst the Etruscans, it would seem that all three spheres from whence we draw our analysis – the Linguistic, the Genetic, and the Mytho-Religious/Cultural – have some considerable alignment in positing an Indo-European Identity for these forerunners to Rome.
It is an interesting thing – to me at least – that so much of my ethos and my effort is built around the conceptry entailed in Vacam Garjit Lakshanam … Thunder with the Characteristics of Divine Speech; and here we have these Etruscans, whose main attestation in the annals of the Romans is due to their science and art of the divining of the Will of the Gods via the arcing luminosity of Lightning. In either case, and however it may have had cause to get there – it would appear that the religious speech, the mytho-culture of the Etruscans, bore this Thunderous Impression [‘Lakshanam’] in its resonancy, also.