Obsession with Death

      In the eyes of their Greek contemporaries and Roman successors, the Etruscans were clearly a different ethnic group. Dionysus from Alycarnass said, "Not only in the language, also for the way of life and for the costumes, the Etruscans are different from all other populations." Etruscan society was not centralized nor dominated by a single leader or imperial city. The towns and hilltop villages of Etruria appear to have enjoyed considerable sovereignty. However, they did speak the same language, shared extremely similar religious rituals, military practices, and social customs. Religion dominated everyday life. The Etruscans believed that among them existed an immutable course of divine will, and their best intellectual efforts restlessly remained devoted to the question and interpretation of destiny. Their gods spoke to mortals through nature and all natural events: the flight of birds, the sound of thunder, even the strikes of lightning bolts. The Roman Philosopher Seneca summarized the Etruscans’ beliefs:

"Whereas we (the Romans) believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of the clouds, they (the Etruscans) believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning, for as they attribute all to the deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning in so far as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning."

The Etruscan obsession with religion led to a preoccupation with the dead and the other world thus inspiring their elaborate funerary practices. (ArtLex; UPenn; Macnamara, 152-153; Bloch, 156)

      Etruscans believed that death was the journey to the afterlife and had a fear that the neglected dead may become malevolent; therefore, tombs were constructed with particular care, solidity, and lavishness. Thus, the dead would take pleasure in their last dwelling, enjoy their afterlife, and chose not to haunt the living. The Etruscans were fond of decorating their sarcophagi with sculptures of humans in natural poses. In particular, the Sarcophagus of the Spouses depicts a couple lounging on a dining couch. It is uncertain if it actually contained the joint remains, but it idealizes the epitome of nuptial bliss. The practice of cremation was quite common and decorative cinerary or burial urns were often used to store remains. The styles of urn range from biconical (vase shaped), to miniature hut style to the canopic style with human figures or heads on their lids. The sarcophagi and urns would be laid in the tomb with other burial items necessary for the afterlife. (Adams, 198; Bloch, 157; Spivey, 92)

Biconical Urn   ~   Hut Shapped Urn   ~   Canopic Style Urn

      Many tombs resembled houses and contained furnishings and decorations, both real and reproduced in miniature. The nearly intact Regolini-Galassi Tomb, discovered in the necropolis of Etruria in 1837, is the most complete archeological find from the "orientalizing" period of the Etruscan civilization (late eighth to early sixth century B.C.). The tomb included jewelry, pottery, a chariot, a nobleman's throne, and many other bronze and gold artifacts. Sometimes the walls of tombs were frescoed with scenes from daily life or the most important or enjoyable moments in the deceased's life. The fresco from the Tomb of the Triclinium shows banqueters reclining on couches while being entertained by musicians and waited on by servants. Also depicted are many figures of dancers and musicians playing together and a prowling Etruscan cat on the hunt for morsels of food. Similarly, the Tomb of the Lioness depicts themes of music, dancing and banqueting also containing a crater that was likely used for the consumption of wine. Both tombs’ frescoes illustrate the ubiquitous Etruscan joie de vivre.
(ChristusRex.com; MysteriousEtruscans.com; Spivey, 104)

Sarcophagus of the Spouses

Tomb of the Triclinium Fresco

Tomb of the Triclinium Fresco Detail

Tomb of the Lioness

Tomb of the Lioness Fresco Detail

You can try to take it with you...

Home ~ Introduction: Origins Unknown ~ Commerce & Social Structure ~ Obsession with Death ~ Scandalous Pleasures
Artistic Influences & Identity ~ Language in Art ~ Conclusion: Disappearing Culture ~ Works Cited ~ About the Author

© 2004 Jaime Kozlowski ~ domspe.org