Sunday, October 16, 2011

Etruscan Book of Thunder

Menrva (Etruscan Minerva) with thunder
Back in the 1970's, undergraduate Jean MacIntosh Turfa first discovered an unusual Etruscan Book of Omens when a fire alarm drove her out of her usual library at Bryn Mawr College. Or so she told us at the Eva Lorant Memorial lecture at the British Museum on Friday 14 October, 2011.

Exiled from her usual library, and not one to waste valuable research time, Turfa went to Bryn Mawr's Classics library instead. It was there that she found an article which led her to the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar, an almanac telling what the rumble of thunder signifies on any given day of the year.


Brontos means "thunder" in Ancient Greek. (Any 8-year-old boy will tell you brontosaurus means "thunder lizard")
Scopic means "seeing" and by association "prediction", so...
Brontoscopic means PREDICTION BY THUNDER.

Yes, thunder was considered a means of prophecy in ancient times.

Etruscan civilisation flourished c. 850 BC-AD 50
The Etruscans were the slightly mysterious people already living in Italy before Aeneas and his band settled on the banks of the Tiber. Their language was like no other language ever known anywhere. They had no alphabet until the Greeks came around 750 BC and then they borrowed that one. The territory of the Etruscans was Etruria, modern Tuscany, the region south of the Arno and north of the Tiber. (see map) Some of their famous towns are Tarquinia, Cerveteri and Veii (just 12 miles north of Rome). This region was rich in copper and tin and it made the Etruscans prosperous.

The Etruscans believed the gods spoke through natural phenomena, like lightning or deformed animals. Some of their wisest members learned how to interpret omens. (An omen is any event regarded as a portent for good or evil. The word omen is Latin for "sign".)

In ancient Rome, if you wanted to know what the future held in store for you, your first stop would probably be an Etruscan soothsayer. There were two types of soothsayers.

Etruscan model of a liver for divination
The Haruspex looked at entrails of a sacrificed animal, especially the liver. The Etruscans gave us that famous bronze model of a liver known as the "Piacenza Liver". (right)

The Augur looked abnormal phenomena in the celestial sphere. Not just the flights of birds, but also clouds, rainbows, eclipses... and thunder. Hence the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar. 


Yes, they had cosmic rays back then
The fifty years between 850 and 800 BC experienced an unusal bombardment of COSMIC RAYS. There is actually a name for this phenomenon: The Halstatt Minimum. Although it sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, it refers to lively solar flare activity which can skew results of carbon dating and also cause storms with thunder and lightning. This might have been when the Brontoscopic Calendar was first composed. The Etruscans had no written language as yet, but it could have been passed from one soothsayer to another verbally.


Etruscan adult and child (Louvre)
The original author might have been a mysterious godlike child. Tages, AKA the Puer Senex ("old man boy") was a strange grey-haired child of great wisdom and bad teeth who sprang up from a ploughed furrow. Cicero sarcastically called him the "Dug Up Boy". The actual bones of Tages might have been found in a special tomb in Tarquinia (Etruscan territory). If this is indeed the skeleton of the Puer Senex, they show he had a brain tumour that might have given him visions and hallucinations. Was he the author? As writing hadn't yet reached the Etruscans in 850 BC, perhaps he gave the oral version.

Then, after the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet a century later, it might have been written down on papyrus, cloth or metal. In the first century BC it was translated from Etruscan into Latin by a contemporary of Julius Caesar named Publius Nigidius Figulus. Six hundred years after that, Figulus's Latin version was translated into Byzantine Greek by a scholar named John the Lydian at the court of Justinian. And that is how it has come down to us.


The Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar is a kind of almanac. It assumes that for every day of the year in Etruria, thunder has a different meaning. All the entries begin with the same phrase ει βροντηση - "If it thunders..." The formula goes: If it thunders, then such and such will happen. For example:

June 1 - If it thunders, then there will be a destruction of crops except barley...

In her lecture, Dr. Turfa said boring agricultural entries like the one above show that Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar is almost certainly genuine. If it was a Roman or Byzantine forgery, then Figulus or John the Lydian would have spiced it up a bit. However, the almanac is mostly concerned with crops and animals, i.e. FOOD. (Those of us in the affluent 21st century forget just how hard it was to keep food on the table in ancient times.) There are also a lot of mentions of threatening wars and assassination of leaders.

The Thunder Omen
Here are some of my favourite predictions from the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar, ones which might appear in The Roman Mysteries Scrolls my series about a funny soothsayer named Floridius and his apprentice, an ex-beggar-boy Threptus.

June 15 - If it thunders, feathered creatures shall be injured during the summer and fishes shall perish. 
June 28 - If it thunders, there will be drought and a plague of poisonous reptiles. 
August 5 - If it thunders, it means women will be wiser than men. 
August 19 - If it thunders, women and slaves will dare to commit murder. 
October 7 - If it thunders, there will be fewer beans but more wine.
October 23 - If it thunders, the people will be of marvellously good cheer. 
December 15 - If it thunders, many will set out for war, but few will return. 
December 29 - If it thunders, there will be a healthy leanness of bodies. 
January 22 - If it thunders, there will be plenty but also an abundance of mice and deer.

Dr. Turfa's lecture touched on many other fascinating topics such as Caesar's revision of the calendar, an eruption of Vesuvius c. 1780 BC and the earliest chicken wing to be found in Europe (in a hut near Castelgandolfo). Many of her erudite nuggets will no doubt appear in her forthcoming book, Divining the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. But you can see the thunder omens for each day in an appendix of The Religion of the Etruscans (right) and also HERE.

[The first of the Roman Mysteries Scrolls series for kids 7+ is The Sewer Demon. Other titles include The Poisoned Honey Cake and The Thunder Omen. The 17+ books in the existing Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The Roman Mysteries are available on DVD and also Amazon Prime.]

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