ETRUSCANS:
THE LEGEND OF THE LABYRINTH OF THE HEN

Reported by Gaither Stewart

The Etruscans have always been one of the most mysterious of ancient civilizations, which voyagers of previous centuries experienced chiefly from their exquisitely frescoed tombs spread over Central Italy. The Etruscan civilization appeared, flourished and spread for nine centuries. An inevitable decline followed; the Etruscans were finally absorbed by the rising militant Roman state, leaving behind little writing. Their origins are obscure and their language still mysterious.
         Elaborate Etruscan frescoes depict magical religious lives full of banquets, dancing, music and a preoccupation with the hereafter. Their lives were filled with demons and deities. Sacred books dealing with their rituals and accumulated knowledge constituted the Etruscan Discipline, a unity of theory and practice concerning the interpretation of signs given to man. Their deities were Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Minerva, and their terrible God, Charun—Charon.
        Although the Etruscan alphabet presents no great difficulties (it derives from the Greek), the language itself is isolated among known languages. Its absence of voiced consonants—a morphology different from Indo-European languages—its extensive use of suffixes, our lack of knowledge of its verbs, and the limited number of known Etruscan word roots have obscured comprehension of the few surviving longer Etruscan texts.
         Greek and Latin translations have aided scholars through the centuries, but they are too few in number to reconstruct a literature that must have been rich, considering the Etruscan's level of culture and civilization. Yet literary historians do not doubt the Etruscan impact on Roman literature

Recommended Reading:

The Etruscans
Rizzoli Press


The Etruscans
Graeme Barker
and Tom Rasmussen


Etruscan Civilization
Sybille Haynes

In the I Century anno Domini the Roman historian Pliny the Elder writes in his Naturalis Historia, XXXVI, 13, that the Etruscan King Porsenna "was buried in his labyrinth under the city of Chiusi" and that "inside a square base there was an inextricable labyrinth from which one couldn’t find one’s way out without a ball of thread." [quo si quis improperet sine glomere lini, exitum invenire nequeat.]
         Pliny wrote about everything of importance in his epoch. Anticipating "indirect TV journalism," this special correspondent tackled the arcane mysteries of the ancient world with a modern spirit. His world’s four great labyrinth—in Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and in Etruscan Chiusi—fell beneath his pen. Pliny died while covering the volcanic eruption that buried the cities of Pompei and Herculaneum on August 23 in the year 79 A.D.
         His scoop on Porsenna’s labirinto italico surely would have earned him the Pulitzer Prize today. His reportage became the basis for two thousand years of speculation such as no other journalist has ever accomplished; simultaneously, he ignited a gold fever among descendants of the casual, fun-loving, mystical king that has persisted until today.
         Selon Pliny, the stone mausoleum was 300 feet wide and 50 feet high. Atop the monument were five 150-foot tall pyramids, across the points of which was fixed a bronze globe from which bells hung. Their ting ting ting echoed through the surrounding hills of Etruria. And atop the bronze globe, four additional 100-foot pyramids, and on top of those five more, and so on and so on. Photographs of reconstructions of King Porsenna’s mausoleum reveal a striking resemblance to the temples in Petra, Jordan and to the Lama-Buddhist temple in Peking.
         Finally, inside that monument base and thus deep under the hill of the town of Chiusi was concealed the fabulous labyrinth of the legendary king of the Etruscans. Today, the labyrinth is concealed under the hill visible from the Autostrada del Sole, 90 minutes north of Rome. Comparable to the catacombs of Rome, the Chiusi labyrinth radiates through several levels; it is home to a vast number of tunnels, caves, caverns, cisterns, cavities, grottos and galleries. Shafts plunge from the town above into a veritable subterranean city.

Legend or history? The fog of time clouds our vision of an age that thrived on the wonders and miracles sufficient to stagger the imagination of stubborn moderns. Pliny was the historian of a Roman world that knew no limits to magic and the occult. Jesus of Nazareth had just delivered his message of the dawn of a new world at the other end of the Mediterranean. A new universal man was being born in the ancient world. For men at the center of that world, it was the beginning of time.
         Although the chansons de geste of King Porsenna were always based upon a shred of reality, in that magic and everything-is-possible atmosphere subsequent Etruscan fables continued to magnify the legend of the world’s latest labyrinth. From the murky legends lost in the lost history of the doomed Etruscan civilization emerged the myth of Porsenna’s gold.
        Sometimes traveling on Italy’s north-south Autostrada del Sole I stop off in the hill town of Chiusi to get another look at Etruscan survivors, and to drink some of their ruby red wine and taste their venison dishes. The outstanding characteristic of the 700 Tuscans of this ancient town in Lower Tuscany is how they still identify with their Etruscan ancestors. One and all, they consider themselves descendants of Porsenna, the conqueror of Rome.

Despite the halo of legend surrounding the powerful Etruscan king, his exploits have been well documented by many historians and writers near to him in time and spirit. In particular, two major writers of the ancient world write of Porsenna’s geste: the Roman, Titus Livy and the Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus. They concur that the high point of the 3000-year history of Chiusi was King Porsenna’s victory over Rome in 506 B.C., while Rome and the Etruscans were fighting for control over the realm.
         The Roman military historian, Tacitus, describes the exploits of the Etruscan king. Plutarch reports that Porsenna received from the Roman Senate an ivory throne and a golden crown, and that Rome paid him regular tributes. King Porsenna however, instead of occupying Rome after his victory, allowed the new Roman Republic to exist. True to casual Etruscan style, he returned north to Chiusi a rich man ready to dedicate his time to the preparation of his burial site.
         Though I had visited their vases and funeral urns in the museums and their burial sites in Tarquinia and Cerveteri, I became most curious about Etruscans after a new generation of experts deciphered the Etruscan alphabet and demonstrated that the old experts had been wrong about everything. The Etruscans were not as mysterious as we had been led to believe. It was all because no one could make heads or tails of their language. Now we know much more. They were mystics, yes, but also sea-faring arms merchants trading in powerful iron weapons. Moreover, they were rich and lazy capitalists who had slaves to do all the work, man their ships, fight their wars, and even govern them. In reality, the mysterious Etruscans of yore had two things in mind—fun in the here-and-now and preparation for the hereafter. I have come even to believe that their hired sailors and arms merchants reached the Americas before the Vikings and that Etruscans perhaps had contact with the Olmec civilization in Mexico. A cursory look at the sculptures and the features of the two peoples reveals a bewildering affinity.
         In my investigations into the once ambivalent Etruscans I have never found another place where Etruscan civilization survives more visibly than in Chiusi, the former Lucumonia of Clevsin--or Camars--which in the VII century B.C. was the principle city of the great Etruscan Confederation. I learned that the quickest way to offend contemporary Chiusini is to remark how ugly are those short and fat, peace-loving Epicureans depicted on the Etruscan vases in the museums of the world. For the proud Tuscans of Chiusi boast that they are Etruscans. They still swoon recollecting their victory over Rome 2700 years ago.
         Like the Celts in Ireland, the bacchanal Etruscans have transcended time. People on the cobbled streets of Chiusi have the same thick necks, high cheekbones and sharp noses as the figures on the black and red vases studied so diligently by historians, archeologists, anthropologists and students of art. Under the influence of the Roman historians, the Tuscan Renaissance architect Alberti often cited Porsenna’s labyrinth as proof of the primacy of Etruscan architecture in the ancient world. The works of Herodotus, Tacitus, Plautus, Seneca, Livius, Horace, Ovid, Cicero and Roman Emperor Claudius himself demonstrate a profound interest in Etruscan civilization on the part of their Greek and Roman contemporaries.

As far as King Porsenna is concerned, at the time he returned up the Tiber Valley from conquered Rome to Chiusi, real history ends and legend begins. For we do not really know how much the accounts of Plutarch and Tacitus and Pliny were based on myth and how much on recorded facts.
         However that may be, Tuscans of Chiusi speak of the fabulous Lucumone Porsenna as if it all happened in the recent past. Most certainly he built a sarcophagus in the form of a carriage made of gold, pulled by 12 horses of gold, surrounded by a golden hen and a brood of 5000 chicks of gold. Of course his treasure was buried underneath the town in an underground construction and protected by an impenetrable labyrinth.
         "Pliny’s labyrinth," folk tales began labeling the king’s treasure—or "the labyrinth of the hen," or simply "Porsenna’s gold." Legend and folktales shrouded in myth agree on the existence of the treasure, but not on its precise location. Therefore every village and hamlet in Lower Tuscany has claimed it. The labyrinth is under the next hill. At night, if the wind is right and you have gazed long enough into ruby red Tuscan wine, you can hear the tingling of the bells. And you might even see its shape outlined against a distant horizon. You feel its presence.
         From the steps of the town’s Cathedral Museum you look out over the Tiber Valley toward Rome. Rugged Tuscan hills are lined with vineyards and olive orchards. The silhouettes of eternal cypresses stand black against the horizons. You are at the crossroads of modern Italy and at the heart of former Etruria—that gave its name to Tuscany—a civilization lasting from IX century B.C. to I century A.D. At its peak in the V century B.C., the loosely knit Confederation of twelve cities, including Camars-Chiusi was crushed by Gauls from the north and Roman firepower from the south.


AN IMAGINARY ETRUSCAN INTERVIEW IN CHIUSI

"We’re mystics," the Etruscanologist says by way of introduction, waving his hand vaguely back toward the past. "Deeply religious. The entire life of our forefathers was guided by symbols through which they interpreted the will of the gods. Few people are aware that besides Judaism the Etruscan religion was the only revealed faith of the Mediterranean Basin! Revealed through the mouth of a child uncovered by a peasant digging in the fields.
         "The child Tagete revealed to Etruscan kings the secrets of the origins of the universe—God, the creator all things, assigned the world 12,000 years of time. In the first 6,000 He created sky and earth, seas and rivers, sun, moon, stars, birds and animals, and finally in the sixth millennium, man. He assigned 6000 years to mankind, after which the time of man will end."
         "What was this religion?" asks the Barnard graduate student, surprised by that revealed. "What did the Etruscans believe? What was their faith’s role in their lives?"

Professor: The prophecies of Tagete and other semi-gods were collected in sacred books to form the famous ‘Etruscan Discipline.’ Those books revealed the means to interpret divine will and to affect history through rites and ritual. Through expiation of guilt Etruscans hoped to be spared the divine punishment that hangs over peoples, cities and individuals. History itself was sacred. Nothing happens by chance. Like your being here today to ask me these questions about a vanished civilization.
         Everything that happens is to announce a future event or is the realization of a sign the gods had sent earlier. As Seneca points out, for the Etruscans, facts are not important because they happened, but because they arrive in order to have a meaning in the future.
         Remember that before the Roman conquest, Roman aristocrats sent their children here to Etruria for their education—to learn the Etruscan Discipline. But later, under Roman domination, Etruscan soothsayers were considered nothing more than charlatans.
         Just goes to show you the potential or probable future of many of man’s religions…. But that of course is another story."

Student: But Professor, how do you explain the historical curiosity about the Etruscans and their tombs spread over Tuscany and Latium?

Professor: The source of life is a mystery. The afterlife is a mystery too. Which is greater? Porsenna’s people dedicated great attention to their tombs and to sacrifices so that their life after death would be long and happy. Remember that many primitive peoples—the Plains Indians on your continent too, for example—did not believe the spirit of man survived the body for eternity. The result of the mystery of life and death, light and darkness, good and evil, is our fascination with 3000-year-old tombs.
         Since the Renaissance artists and writers have been enchanted by the legend of the labyrinth. Renaissance man, with his enthusiastic rediscovery of beauty and truth, with his faith in creative energy and his spirit for adventure, reevaluated the classic literature of Greece and Rome—after all the cradle of culture of Europe and thus of the New World!—and still had little knowledge of the monuments and culture of the conquered Etruscans.

Student: But who were the Etruscans anyway? Where did they come from?

Professor: Ah, my dear, you land on a touchy question indeed. Where did they come from, all those strange peoples roaming around the East after the Trojan wars? Some say the Etruscans came from Lebanon. Maybe they were Sumerians. Or they came from the Sahara when it dried up. But just maybe they lived here all the time—one Etruscanologist claims that the Latin alphabet comes from the Etruscan. For example, the Italian word Caronte or your English word Charon derive from the Etruscan demon, Charun.
         However that may be, in 1767 the historian Monsignor Mario Guarnacci in his Origini Italiche claimed the Etruscans’ artistic superiority over the Greeks. He identified them with the ancient Pelasgic people, guided to Italy by Janus-Noah, and he identified their language as a direct derivation from the Hebrew--from the Samaritan dialect!
         Oh, it was just so much rot, all the previous mystification of the Etruscans. It was only because for such a long time modern scholars couldn’t decipher their language!

Student: But what ultimately happened to them? Their civilization was so evolved. All their luxury and their fashions, those long colorful tunics, cone-shaped hats and pointed shoes. Doesn’t that culture count for something historically?

Professor: Times change. Nations rise and fall. Civilizations are born and die. The Etruscans’ contribution finished in the Iron Age. They inherited a spirit from the East, developed it, reached their zenith, and then collapsed under Roman firepower. I suppose we could make an analogy with the emergence of your country on the back of its sophisticated technologies and weaponry.
         The Etruscans fell because they never understood Rome. Some think the same threat hangs over Europe vis-à-vis the United States today. Remember that when the Etruscan city of Orvieto naively called in Roman troops to quell a local revolt, General Fulvius Flacco marched his troops north and leveled the entire city instead. It was at that point, by the way, that Etruscan nobles began moving to Rome and integrating into the new society. In the end they wanted to be like the Romans.

Student: It’s so sad. History is unkind. Those poor Etruscans seemed so peace-loving.

Professor: You’re confusing their art with their civilization. They were also the biggest arms traffickers of the epoch, selling murderous weapons made from their iron. Then, they were selfish and avaricious. A sick society dedicated to self-amusement and imitation. Is that enough for survival?

Student: I suppose not. But what could they have done?

Professor: They lacked stamina. They could have tried to hold out against history but instead they surrendered. Whatever their faults, I personally liked them better when we knew less about them. I prefer the old image of the mysterious Etruscans to the decadent people we see now on their vases.


ETRURIA

The lands of the Etruscans extended from Veio at the gates of Rome to the north. While two centuries of archeologists and historians have again brought to light Porsenna’s world, people of the town of Chiusi have never given up their search for their king’s treasure.
         The private lives of the once mysterious but high-living Etruscans have been documented in the scenes painted on the walls of their tombs and their vases: games, banquets, dances and scenes like the "drunken Etruscan women" and their love for luxury, the figures that lie at the heart of Renaissance art.
         Meanwhile, the people of Chiusi dig for the treasure. They dig into their labyrinth, from above, from all sides. They have explored and mapped the subterranean city—a loosely connected underworld of tunnels and caverns. Yet the mystery of the labyrinth and the mausoleum has not been unraveled.
         Nor has Porsenna’s treasure been found.
         Myth or legend, Porsenna’s gold? Speleologists, archeologists and scholars continue to investigate and speculate, yet, the labyrinth remains the stuff of dreams and imagination—and fiction writers. But Chiusi’s people are still convinced the "treasure of the hen" is there. They dream. They hear the bells tingle in the night. They see the shadow of the mausoleum on the horizon. Each local boy hopes to find Porsenna’s gold. It is just a matter of time.   

Gaither Stewart
Rome
May 2002