Etruscan sun feast
Author: Oleg Cherne
Curiously enough, exploring ancient Etruscan culture can benefit us even in our lives today. This civilization of strong-willed people carved out their own path of development and followed it, having a massive impact on European culture as a whole. Wine produced following specific rites and procedures, and consumed in the proper manner, played a key role in their life, encompassing all its spheres, from personal to social.
History and Etruscans
Here’s a tough question: why do we need history? In order to learn from its mistakes? But this can only teach us what we’re not supposed to do. In order to remember our past? But this way, we’ll only base our lives on outdated concepts. Some people relate to history as boring and useless. Some see it as a refuge from the problems of their lives in the present.
However, learning about the history of the Etruscan civilization proves itself beneficial in certain quite obvious and personal aspects. Sure, we could talk here about this subject by taking the most common approach: going through the most important dates, describing their religion, mentioning their kings and priests… Perhaps, we could even briefly discuss their everyday lifestyle, and that would be it. This approach is always fun, but absolutely useless for modern man.
We prefer to handle history (and pretty much everything else) from the viewpoint of our current lives, our knowledge, which is the only real tool we can use to measure ourselves and the world around us. Thus, we are mostly interested in the technologies and unique techniques of the past. Unfortunately, ancient history proves to be quite barren in this respect—computers, trains, shampoo and the theory of relativity were yet to be invented and explored.
But on the other hand, the people of the past were a lot more connected to nature than we are, and they understood it much better. This understanding helped them learn about what stands behind it all—the energy of nature, and the force that rules all the processes of our world. Just like we intuitively know how the buttons on our cell phones work, the people of the past understood the laws of energy.
This explains how the cults of the Sun appeared, or the cults of the most obvious source of energy for humans. Followers of these cults began to look for places of power, where energy was concentrated and accessible under the right circumstances.
This is how the cult of wine and winemaking was born—with the purpose of extracting and consuming this concentrated energy. Grapes absorb the energy of the sun, and in combination with specially charged soil (terroir), the wine made from it becomes a pure concentrate of energy ready to be consumed. The ability to produce such an elixir became an essential skill, a universal law and zealously guarded knowledge.
Indeed, the Etruscans were the first to find and formulate it. They developed the culture of terroirs and learned to maximize their potential. Ultimately, their art of good winemaking became the foundation on which the entire European civilization was built. Back then, the history of Europe consisted of battles for power sources and the knowledge of how to cultivate (as well as concentrate and extract) energy. Throughout history, including now, these processes have defined the actual quality of life.
It should always be remembered that Etruscan taste was in a constant process of being enhanced and developed. Thus, their demands for infallibly supreme quality deserve our closest attention. They made quality the cornerstone of their life—something we can all learn from.
Etruscans were an ancient civilization that lived during 1,000 BC. They had close interactions with Greek, Roman, and Celtic cultures, and influenced them to a large extent. There are various theories claiming to explain the appearance of Etruscans in the Apennines. But this question is not as important to us here, as a more or less structured civilization was eventually formed in the area of Tuscany.
Etruscans spread the concept of quality to all areas of life. Sometimes they are referred to as «the culture with hands of gold,» as everything they created was perfect and balanced. Then just as gradually and naturally they disappeared from the map, or rather they merged with other cultures, primarily the Romans.
The culture of balance
Etruscan culture revolved around several pillars we intend to expand on and explain in this article. Etruscans defined the factors that allow a person to grow and age harmoniously while enjoying a high-quality life. The first one is quality, then measure, and finally concentration. So, what did these factors mean in practice?
Etruscans believed that people should consume energy based on their current ability. They found that the correct balance between inner and outer effort maximizes the benefits. This allowed them to restrain, digest, transform and enhance the energy they consumed, which is the inner requirement for quality. The exterior factors included aesthetic pleasure: beautiful ceremonies and their accompanying atmosphere made the process even more attractive and desirable. For this purpose, they refined their knowledge of the eye-pleasing geometry of buildings, which helped to facilitate the flow of energy.
Here we arrive at the second factor of their culture: measure. Etruscans approached most aspects of their life and growth from the position of measure (or «tular» in Etruscan), a mental proportion that controlled and guided a person, aided them in their life and helped use their resources in the most efficient way. Measure is the essential factor defining wine culture as a whole for Etruscans.
For them, it was a combination of interior and exterior proportion. Winemakers needed both mental effort and a connection with the soil in order to develop the paramount characteristics of their produce. They even had a sound and well-argued paradigm to explain their techniques. Form and content were connected through the place, man, time and nature, while geometry was more than the science of forms—it was the science of energy and interconnections.
Consequently, measure was considered a form requiring to be filled with something and nurtured. For instance, even love for Etruscans was a process of fulfillment and nourishing. A person was a structure that needed to be filled with something. Every man was a form and a measure in themselves, and developed individually to become a unique and well-rounded being. And wine played a very special role in this process. For every action, including wine consumption, they determined the correct measure that would allow them to perform it with maximum efficiency and benefits.
There were 12 types of wine corresponding to different kinds of effort, and 12 principal actions employed to strengthen and transform the human spirit. They included the manufacture of jewelry, military art, fishing, and curiously enough, winemaking and games, as they helped to guide and train breathing (Etruscans believed it was impossible to enter the afterlife without the main organs — lungs, kidneys, colon, heart and liver).
Proportion, or measure, helped Etruscans organize their ceremonies, which in fact was the name for everyday actions or rituals. The word «ceremony» itself is derived from the name of an Etruscan city Caere, and expresses a certain understanding of form. In other words, the quality of a ceremony depends on the correct proportion of the power, location, and action it involves.
When various structures combined, they create a marcocosm, or an absolute union of quality processes expressed as natural forces, or deities. In this sense, the Etruscan world was not a chaotic space, but instead — a universe of forms and structures filled with different qualities, giving birth to various gods and divine entities. Every geometric model generates a crystallized form filled with invigorating power.
Etruscans believed the world to be an absolute structure harmoniously including every person and every connection on earth.
Just like every structure has its own form, content, and development trajectory, every person is naturally connected with the rest of the world from the moment of birth through adulthood and until death, which was just another stage of existence in another realm. Today, the phrase «to be in good shape» is common. This is yet another expression of pure geometry as it existed in the minds of Etruscans.
Geometry of the Sun
Natural forces more or less corresponded to 12 deities, united under Voltumna, the goddess of the central temple of the 12 city-states of Etruscan civilization (also known as Dodecapolis): Arritim, Velathera, Curtna, Clevsin, Vetaluna, Velzna, Velch, Tarchuna, Persna, Veia, Caere, and Fufluna. The temple located in Tarchuna hosted meetings of lucumones, priests and rulers of Etruscan city-states. The temple of Voltumna was built in the very center of the city, a place symbolizing the connection between 12 dimensions, the 12 cities of Etruria, and curiously, 12 parts of the human body. This link was to be strengthened by drinking proper wine.
The sacred teachings of Etruscans emphasized the role of winemaking as a dimension that could absorb and concentrate the power of the Sun. It was protected by the solar deity Aplu (Apollo), goddess of the moon and earth Aritimi, and the goddess of ecstatic states Uni, who had an entire city (Pyrgi) dedicated to her.
The functions of Uni were similar to those performed by the Phoenician Astrata and Phrygian Cybele. Worshiping these goddesses was expressed through experienced, controlled ecstasy, and had strong ties with wine and winemaking. It is the cult of the abilities of the human body and mind, and the capacity to experience certain elevated states in order to develop and strengthen other qualities and increase the energy level within them.
Sure enough, only well-trained individuals were permitted to practice attaining these states. Concentration was a major factor. But be careful, for if today we consider such concentration achieved only through mental effort, in the past this was a result of the correct sequence of actions, measures or rituals.
Etruscans determined 12 principal forms depending on the character of the mental effort required to manifest them, and 12 structures were linked to the place and person. The temple of Voltumna in Tarchuna is a structure expressing the utmost measure of everything on earth.
To put this all in a nutshell, the Etruscans divided all forms into 12 geometric shapes capable of containing 8 axes (as a sphere, the most perfect shape, contains exactly 8 axes). The corresponding shape then forms around only one of the axes. Such a shape forms a linking spiral connecting the sky and earth.
On earth, grape vines were a real-life manifestation of this divine spiral, and vines connect the soil to the sun through its roots. In this manner, the vine served as a link between the gods Aritimi and Aplu. Wine was a substance of restoration: it replenished the 12 parts of the human body with energy, and connected them into a unified organism, which depended on the well-being of the liver, lungs, heart, kidneys and colon.
In this respect, Etruscan beliefs reveal parallels with Tibetan medicine, where the colon digests and absorbs the energy consumed by the body and channels it to the brain via lymph. Is this not a curious discovery? It means that the colon is an essential organ in the functioning of mind. In other words, drinking invigorating wine regulates our breath (lungs), blood (heart), fluid balance (kidneys) and brain (colon).
Cult of wine
In Etruscan culture, winemaking was based on the cult of Fufluns, who played a similar role as Bacchus. The rituals of this cult served to maintain the well-being and balance of the human mind and body, as well as organize the space where people lived.
Every city had a special area for the priests of this cult to perform their numerous rites. Thanks to a number of documents preserved from that period, we know a lot about how one of these places in Populonia functioned. The Romans called the city Populonia, but in Etruscan it was known as Fuflun — clearly showing how it was closely connected to this deity. Some researchers argue that it was derived from the Greek name Biblinos. Biblinos as a deity was a concept containing a number of various notions about the storage and body of wine, it’s qualities and definition. As you can see, Fufluns was more than just «the god of wine,» he was the very idea of wine, a divine combination of a unique experience, place and mental effort that expressed itself as an entire city.
Even more, cities at that time were more than just cities (places where people lived), but rather loci of power and meaning, each performing a separate function.
The cult of wine had its own acolytes who acted as intermediaries between wine and those who drank it — cupbearers. Their function stretched beyond simple serving; they in fact had to deliver the divine message enclosed in wine, and only the best and most worthy young men were selected for this duty. They also served naked, symbolizing their purity. As we can conclude from this evidence, drinking wine was strictly ritualized and determined by the priests of the cult.
If Etruscans succeeded in achieving that state of balance of mind, they were able to foresee the gods’ will. Etruscan priests used divination to learn about the plans and wishes of their deities, and thus adjust their actions accordingly. The entire process was irrational, yet as simple and incomprehensible as thought itself. The main principle of divination was to seek resemblances in the information source and conjecture what they might mean. Priests posed a question, and then analyzed the material available in order to determine a possible answer. They had a wide range of methods to choose from: from judging the manner of bird flight, to the behavior of their totem animals. The priests, known as haruspex, were trained to interpret divinations from animal livers. A liver was a metaphor of the starry night sky, serving as a bridge from this form of augury to astrology.
Since wine could change a person’s life for the better or worse, thus impacting their entire fate, its effect on the human liver was one of the great mysteries worshiped and studied respectfully in Etruscan society. Livers determine the behavior of animals. Indeed, augurs could determine the state of a bird’s liver by the manner of how it was flying, as the liver expressed its willpower. People treated birds as a part of the area where they lived, and if for some reason birds started behaving in a different manner, augurs could interpret this information and foresee future events. Haruspexes did the same, albeit with different animals.
High priests, or lucumones, observed the behavior of their people, as it reflected their quality of life and state of the area where they lived, its mystical geometry. If something changed in the behavior or state of the lucumones, this was the most unsettling omen of all, as only a person of supreme power of mind and exceptional character could become a ruler-lucumone. When lucumones drank wine, it was an act of the utmost importance, as it connected them to higher spheres and helped them see bad and good omens, also indicating the direction in which to grow. There were also special augurs who observed the process of consuming wine and interpreted the results.
Another type of priests, flamens, made divinations based on natural phenomena, one of which was well-aged wine, or the concentrated will of the gods. The wines of that period passed through 12 stages of transformation, and depending on its status various flamen determined its functions in different ways.
Succession of knowledge
One of the most important contribution of Etruscans to European culture was their attitude towards feasts. The process of feasting was regulated to control and organize a chaotic world. A good banquet restored the balance of human life. Similarly, a good tomb established the proper proportions for the well-being of the spirit, and there was always a cup of wine standing inside it.
Feasts were thought of as a way to regenerate human actions, along with their general «taste» of the surrounding area. They were ceremonial in nature, and were strongly connected to the place where they were held. Vulche (one of the 12 city states) was considered the city of feasting where it reached its maximum power.
But this doesn’t mean other cities were left out—the culture of winemaking in fact interconnected them, and while one of them might be dedicated to feasts, others carried out functions no less important, such as cultivation. For our purposes, Populonia was the focal point of the cult and ecstatic experience.
Among all of the populated areas it contained, we cannot forget Veia. Located on the right bank of the Tiber, it was an essential geographical point in the geography of Etruria. It was the epicenter of the cult of water and its healing properties, so it was no wonder it has been a main focus of Roman and Celtic scholars. The terracotta statues scattered across the city determined its geometry, and through the running water they restored the vital force of both humans and gods. One of the statues symbolized Aplu (Apollo), the deity of the Sun. In Etruscan teaching, a curative nature was also attributed to wine.
As people can’t survive without liquid, all the cities emphasized the quality of available drinks, yet the Etruscan obsession with quality was in a league of its own. Just look at the faces of people depicted in Etruscan paintings and in statues—they’re all marked by a high degree of concentration. The famous Capitoline Wolf carved by the Etruscans can hence be interpreted as a marker of concentration in its own right, thus making it the ideal future location for Rome.
This peculiar quality of the Etruscans is just another example of the uniqueness of a people who even held funeral feasts as an important form of entertainment. In doing so, their ultimate mission was to help guide the spirit into the next world, merge it with higher entities and make it immortal.
In Velch, feasting was a factor that propelled the culture of wine and the pursuit of superior quality. This process continued until 280 BC, when the city was conquered by the Roman consul Tiberius Coruncanius (who later changed the way the Romans saw wine). It is evident that Velch influenced the development of Rome, built by Romul during the peak of Etruscan culture and according to their laws in 753 BC.
The Etruscan concept of the interconnection of disparate parts became the foundation of the city’s plan. Etruscans believe that once you establish the geometry of a place and give it the right impulse, it will develop naturally according to the energy of the space. For us it is crucial that the Etruscans shared their attitude to wine with the Romans (who later spread it across the world) in terms of architecture.
After Rome was established, Etruscan culture entered a period of decline and slowly dissolved into Roman society. It was as if by the time the Gauls came into this territory in 500 BC, the Etruscans had completed their mission and passed the baton to the Romans and Celt, so to speak.
Rhythms and cycles as a measure of life
If we take a close look at Etruscan culture, we notice that it unfolds following the stages of winemaking: plowing, planting the vine, tending to it, making wine, storing it, and the final step, consumption. In fact, Etruscans prepared and absorbed themselves as part of this process, which was completely natural in the bounds of their philosophy. Etruscans were aware that every people had a certain period of historical time allotted to them. And once theirs was over, they dissipated in the cultures they had helped to cultivate, in this way attaining immortality.
Etruscan civilization lasted five to seven centuries, but they perceived time in a completely different way than us, arranging their reality in cycles. These cycles are shared among both the life of a human and a wine. Within them, the role of wine is even larger than nourishing or ritualistic — it is a tool of succession and transformation. Saeculum («century» in Etruscan, Latin) is the period over which a human spirit developed and prepared itself for the afterlife.
This idea was closely related to myths of immortality connected to transformation, and can be explained in terms of Moon cycles. Here we can recall the goddess Aritimi and her power. The Etruscans depict her as a cupbearer, and identify her as a symbol of immortality. She also represents the force of a vine and determines the quality of wine as a source of energy for the brain.
Aplu and Menrva (analogous to Minerva), the incarnation of nature and war, carried similar functions. We often find images of Aritimi, Aplu, Menrva and her spouse Hercle on mirrors, the Etruscan symbol of reincarnation, which they used to communicate with other worlds and their deceased relatives.
Etruscan burial grounds are an excellent example of how a person’s life was organized in a certain way for its eventual death. The Ukumella burial mound contains multiple tombs inside, and their complexity indicates a great consideration for this portion of life. For them, it was the sublimest moment of a person’s existence.
Funeral rituals are in fact the driving force giving meaning to Etruscan holidays and the culture of feasts. Wine was in turn the determining factor that formed this people’s attitude towards feasting and celebrating. Cultivation was a process that set the direction for human life, transform and develop it — all in order to prepare a person for their most important moment: their last day.
It would be an unforgivable error to study Etruscans through the wars they fought or geopolitical intrigue they spun, as there was a singular concept ruling their society — the divine geometry of dimensions. Quality, not quantity, characterized them as a people. Every action was a ritual; even wars were ritual duels that could be interpreted by augurs as good or bad omens, or reflections of larger macrocosmic processes.
Their idea of the transition between life and the afterlife gave birth to a plethora of phenomena that today we relate to as entertainment. But for the Etruscans they were more a form of ecstatic experience they controlled and comprehended, and which accompanied every one of them into the higher realm.