Etruscans and the Water Etruscan Corner

Paestum Tomba del Tuffatore – Tarquinia Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca – Cista Decoration Guglielmi Collection


Etruscans and the Water


Water comes into existence out of earth, and souls out of water…
…it is river, sea, lake, pond, ice and more…
…it is sweet, salty…
…it is where you stop and where you travel…
… it is pleasure and fear, enemy and friend it is border and infinite change and immutability, memory and forgetting.

The concept of water as principle for life was first coined by the Babylonians and later on passed to other civilizations. Water was considered a sacred element and the origin of every form of life. Thus, it was associated to feminine fertility; the foetus grows in the water of the mother’s womb.
The Etruscans had a profound spiritual relationship with the water. Their bound with water involved cults practised in forests near water springs, the construction of sacred altars, and worship toward trees, stones and animals. An example is the circle of stones at Poggio Rota near Pitigliano.

The Etruscans would consider water an essential and irreplaceable factor for everyday life making it paramount in their religion. It is not unusual to find in each of their sacred places a little temple dedicated to the water. This is usually characterized by canals dug into the tuff that drive water down to a bowl.
The Etruscans learnt plumbing techniques from the neighbour civilizations in Greece, and others from Mesopotamia and Egypt. They were able to build canals and dams in order to revitalize agriculture; the water would be diverted to dry fields. Even better, they knew how to get rid of ponds. Their water systems were built to drive water down to their cities that once in the capitals was collected into wells and tanks to be preserved. Still today, it is possible to find some ruins of these aqueducts created to gather rainwater in some places of the Etruria.

Rhabdomancy was practiced by the Etruscans, so they were able to search hidden water streams underground. Thus, Rhabdomantists used to sense the energetic fields created by water underground to help their people.
This discipline was passed then to the Romans who acquired different techniques from the Etruscans such as the borders designation, the partition of the fields, and the founding of a city.
In the Collection of the Marchesi Guglielmi di Vulci, preserved in the Vatican, it is kept a Cista* made out of bronze where its decoration (725-650 B.C.) combines various Etruscan sacred elements; the themes with oblique lines, already used by the Egyptians, and water birds represent the union between water and sky; there are cup spirals that regard to fertility and regenerating energies which were the base for other representations in the Middle East such as the Ninharsag and Ishtar (Isis) divinity in Egypt. The connection between Sky and Earth is represented by two tree branches (the lightening of creation) that generate water and trees (these represent the vehicle between Sky and Earth).
On the Cista there is also an anthropomorphic picture diving into the water, a sacred action that summarizes the metaphor of purification or death. Coming out of the water after diving into it is considered as a passage to a new existential reality.

The Etruscan devotion given to spring waters, sacred places, myth and divinities represents the extraordinary importance of this element for life.
When the mysterious Etruscans arrived to our volcanic land, so fertile, rich in water and vegetation and surrounded by rivers (Tiber, Arno) and the sea they found this land ideal to express their deep spiritual essence; an art that lies on freedom, creativity, spiritualism and profound consciousness. Water, sky and earth would be then taken as their sacred geography.

Cista* typical cylindrical container of the ancient Greek and Italic civilizations. It used to be the place for clothing articles and cosmetics. Sometime used for rituals to hide sacred objects or to accompany the deceased during the journey to the afterlife.