The Etruscans are a bit of a mystery. This is largely due to the Romans. And those meddling kids. Etruscan civilization emerged in the Italian peninsula around 800 B.C. We don’t know for certain where they came from, but the two prevailing theories are (1) they developed out of the indigenous, Iron Age Villanovan culture, or (2) they were a Near Eastern people that colonized ancient Italy, possibly migrating from Anatolia (studies of Etruscan mitochondrial DNA from 8th Century bone fragments supports this possibility), and according to Herodotus, the Etruscans arrived in 1200 B.C., escaping a famine in Asia Minor—unfortunately, even some of Herodutus’ contemporaries disagreed. At any rate, before those industrious Romans appeared and went on to conquer everybody and their brother, starting somewhere in the 3rd Century B.C., it was pretty stylish to be an Etruscan. The Etruscan language, as reported to us through the Greeks and Romans (the Etruscans left no literary record, apart from various inscriptions—incidentally, they may actually have had an extensive literature, but when Rome went all Christian-crazy, Roman pantheism’s deep roots in Etruscan mythology must have irked them, and it is suspected that this led to a systematic destruction of all extant Etruscan literary records), bore no resemblance to Italian, Anatolian, or any other Indo-European language. This is pretty weird, since everyone around them spoke something derived from an Indo-European base. For a while, the Etruscans traded with the Greeks, but by the 5th Century, pressure from Gallic invasions into northern Italy, a short-sighted alliance with Carthage against the Greeks, and the initial stages of Roman expansion and annexation of Etruscan cities, meant that the Etruscans as an independent political entity had pretty much vanished by the 3rd Century B.C., absorbed into the greater expanding sphere of prosperity that was the Roman Empire. Consequently, much of what we know about the Etruscans (which is not much, and unsurprisingly not considered good fodder for dissertations in ancient history) comes from Etruscan art and second-hand interpretations from Greek and Roman historians. The rough sketch we have of Etruscan religion tells us one thing for certain. They were pretty wacky and death obsessed.
According to what we understand of the polytheistic Etruscan religion, every person’s destiny and every natural phenomenon was the expression of some divine will, and expressed a theological message that could be properly interpreted by specialized seers called Haruspices (these auguries frequently involved inspecting the bumps on the livers of sacrificed sheep, no longer considered a statistically reliable method). Even the Romans had a lot of respect for the adherence of Etruscans to a complex set of daily rituals which was referred to in Latin as the disciplina etrusca, and predictions from the Haruspices were taken very seriously. So seriously was Etruscan religion held in high regard and in fact incorporated into Roman religious mythology and practices, that even Christian apologist and Numidian rhetorician Arnobius (c.300 A.D.) referred to Etruria (the land of the Etruscans) as genetrix et mater superstitionum (“the birthgiver and mother of beliefs”). The Etruscans, typical for a religious folk, were especially concerned with dead stuff i.e. what happens when you die, where you go, and who you report to.
It was in the unseen world beneath the earth, the place to which men went after death, and where the souls of their ancestors resided, that the Etruscans devoted the chief portion of their religious thoughts; and with this were connected the bulk of their religious observances. Over the dark realm of the dead ruled Mantus and Mania, king and queen of Hades, the former represented as an old man, wearing a crown, and with wings on his shoulders, and bearing in his hands sometimes a torch, sometimes two or three large nails, which are thought to indicate the inevitable character of his decrees (Fradenburgh, 1891, p122).
Mantus and Mania were the Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie of the afterlife. No Brangelina or Bennifer here. Mania was said to be the mother of all ghosts, undead, spirits of the night, Lares and Manes (deified dead ancestor spirits). Mantus (for whom the city of Mantua is presumed to have been named) was the big Kahuna of the underworld, and neither of them was regarded as particularly pleasant. There seems to be some confusion about what Mantus looked like, as descriptions of him vary, often confusing him with a figure called Charun (who appears to have been a Satyr-like employee of Mantus and Mania, charged with leading the dead to the underworld. Note the similarity to the guy who served the same purpose in Greek Mythology, Charon, not to mention the fact that scholars have long found correspondences between Mantus and Mania, and Pluto and Persephone).
Mantus is often represented on the Tuscan funeral urns in the act of leading away the deceased, who is generally on horseback and veiled. He has the appearance of a four-hoofed man, with wild features and satyr’s ears, often winged, and in a high and tight tunic, sometimes armed with a sword, and very often with a hammer. In the same way in Rome, Dispater was represented when carrying off the corpses of those slain in the gladiators’ games, namely, armed with a hammer; and though this idea was comparatively modern, in the games they borrowed for it the old Etruscan costume (Gray, 1843, p193).
Mania, as her name would suggest, was a little more nutty, apparently demanding human sacrifices, particularly young boys. It’s no surprise that we’ve come to accept the term “mania” as descriptive of all manner of uncouth behavior.
Mania, the mother of the Lares, was a still more fearful deity, propitiated by human sacrifices. In connection with these words must be taken the mundus, the pit at Rome which was considered to be the mouth of Orcus, and the manducus, a symbolic effigy with gaping jaws which was borne aloft in Roman games and processions to represent the underworld (Taylor, 1874, p121).
We know so little about the Etruscans, but we do know they had some pretty scary gods of the underworld.
“The real god of the world below among the Tuscans, or Tusker,” writes
Ottfried Muller, “was called Mantus, who was therefore compared with Dispater. In Etruscan histories the name of Mantua was derived from him. With him was worshipped a goddess of the lower realms—the Mania. . . . This was a truly Etruscan divinity. … To the strange and terrible gods to whom the Tuscan libri fatales give human sacrifices . . . belong Mantus and Mania. Terrible to the old Italians seemed Mania . . . who is inseparable from the Tuscan faith of the Lares, being allied to the Manes. She was an awful divinity to whom, under Tarquinius Superbus, boys were offered. Her fearful image—afterwards a child’s toy—was in early times hung on doors to avert contamination. This Mania was the mother or grandmother of the Manes, also the mother of the Lares.” Muller indulges in much speculation as to this chthonic goddess, or deity of darkness. And she still lives in Tuscany, and is called Mania della Notte (Mania of the Night), but regarded simply as the Nightmare, and Succuba, and as a mysterious nocturnal spirit inspiring wanton dreams (Leland, 1892, p51).
Linguists have tried to parse out the origins of the names Mania and Mantus, and have come to some rather odd conclusions.
In connection with ausel, “the mild light of the morning,” I may be pardoned a digression on a Latin word, mane, “the early morning,” and this will introduce the old Italian deity Matuta, ” the goddess of the dawn,”Mantus and Mania, the Etruscan god and goddess who presided over the Underworld, and cerus manus, an expression used in the old Salian hymn, and translated by Festus as “the good creator.” If manus means “good,” then the manes are the “good ones,” and their mother Mania is the “good lady.” Now, is there any connection between the morning, mane, Matuta, and the spirits of the dead, manes. Mania, Mantus? We are at first inclined to say that there is none, but let us look into the matter. At the outset, I shall take four things as granted: — (1.) That the word manus found in the old priestly hymns of the Salii means “good”; for this we have the authority of Festus, who quotes to that effect the testimony of an earlier writer, Aelius Stilo, a learned grammarian, the preceptor of Varro; this carmen Saliare is probably as old as the foundation of Rome, (2.) That this word manus is the root of Manes, and, through it, of Mania and Mantus ; for this also we have the authority of Festus. (3.) That Mantus and mane, “morning,” are different forms of the same root-word; so says Varro. (4.) That the Etruscans were sun-worshippers or, at least, fire-worshippers (Fraser, 1879, p150-151).
And still stranger connections have been made to ancient Akkadian gods.
Mantus and Mania are the Latin forms of the names of the Etruscan king and queen of the Under-world, and whilst any dogmatism on so obscure a subject would be altogether unwarrantable, I cannot but remark that in Akkadian Man tu =”King-of-Darkness,” and Ma-na ” Land-of-eclipse.” Mr. Taylor has already observed that ma is “land” alike in Etruscan and Akkadian (Victoria Institute, 1881, p353).
Mantus and Mania were inseparable, and in fact were always pictured together in Etruscan art. We don’t really know the details of what residence in the Etruscan underworld entailed. I think we can assume it wasn’t pleasant. Kind of dark, probably. Presided over by an angry dude with a hammer and his child-sacrifice loving wife. The Etruscan language was completely superseded by Latin, so we have very few original Etruscan documents to give us a lot of clues, and keep in mind that most of what we know has been run through a Roman filter. It is nonetheless a fascinating thought that entire civilizations have lived and died, leaving nothing but remnants and echoes in the memory and mythologies of the cultures that followed them. Makes one wonder what civilizations existed that we know nothing about because none of their neighbors had a written language. As Richard Kadrey wrote in Sandman Slim “The ashes of your existence will fertilize the universe that follows”.
Fradenburgh, J. N. 1843-1914. Departed Gods: The Gods of Our Forefathers. Cincinnati: Cranston & Stowe, 1891.
Fraser, John, of New South Wales. The Etruscans: Were They Celts?: Or, The Light of an Inductive Philology Thrown On Forty Etruscan Fossil Words Preserved to Us by Ancient Authors; With Incidental Notices of the Etymology of 2000 Words In the Classical And Modern Languages, And Discussions On Greek And Roman Antiquities And Mythology. Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart; 1879.
Gray, Elizabeth Caroline Johnstone, 1800-1887. The History of Etruria With an Account of the Manners and Customs, Arts and Literature of the Etruscans. London: J. Hatchard and son, 1843.
Leland, Charles Godfrey, 1824-1903. Etruscan Roman Remains In Popular Tradition. London: T. F. Unwin, 1892.
Taylor, Isaac, 1829-1901. Etruscan Researches. London: Macmillan and co., 1874.
Victoria Institute (Great Britain). Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute, Or Philosophical Society of Great Britain. London: The Victoria Institute, v14, 1881.