Etruscan and Pelasgian Monuments of Italy

By Coen Vonk
No "traces of old civilizations" we are told! And what about the Pelasgi -- the direct forefathers of the Hellenes, according to Herodotus? What about the Etruscans -- the race mysterious and wonderful if any for the historian and whose origin is the most unsolvable of problems? That which is known of them only shows that could something more be known, a whole series of prehistoric civilizations might be discovered. -- H. P. Blavatsky

The ancient Etruscans of central Italy left an imposing legacy of rock-cut caves, mounds, cities, roads, rock-cut theaters, tunneling, and temples. They lived in Etruria, an area bordered by the Arno river on the north, the Tiber on the south and east, and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west. The provinces of Lazio and Umbria are especially studded with archeological sites. All have been ascribed to the Etruscans, but this need not necessarily be the case, because the variety of styles and forms suggests that different ancient cultures and influences may have been at work.

The Etruscans were known by the ancients to be extremely religious, and even the Romans consulted them on important matters. Unfortunately none of their religious writings survive, and we must turn to scattered secondary sources. They had a revealed religion, like Christianity and Judaism. As told by Cicero (On Divination 2.50), one day in a field near the river Marta in Teruria, from a newly ploughed furrow rose up a divine being with the appearance of a child, but with the wisdom of an old man. The startled cry of the plowman brought the priest-kings hurrying to the spot. To them the wise child, Tages, chanted the sacred doctrine, which they reverently wrote down so that this most precious possession could be passed on to their successors. Immediately after the revelation, the miraculous being fell dead and disappeared into the plowed field. He was believed to be the son of Genius and grandson of the highest God, Tinia (or Jupiter as he was known to the Romans). This doctrine, known to the Romans as the disciplina etrusca and recorded in the Libri Tagetici, was divided by them into several groups, books dealing with the arts of inspecting the intestines of sacrificial animals for oracular purposes and of interpreting lightning,

and the books of rituals (libri rituales), a large collection of prescriptions for the modalities of cults, the founding of sanctuaries and cities, the division of fields and properties, and the system of ordering civic and military affairs, as well as special texts about the division of time and the limits set for the length of the life of individual human beings and for entire nations; the beyond and the rites for salvation in the new life after death were treated in the books of the underworld (libri acherontici), while the interpretation of omens and miraculous events came under portents (ostentaria). -- Sybille Haynes, Etruscan Civilization -- A Cultural History, pp. 270-1

Blavatsky maintains (Collected Writings 5:222) that Tages and many of the Etruscan gods -- such as the Consentes, Complices, and Novensiles -- as well as their revealed disciplina, were remnants of the ancient Atlanteans, a worldwide civilization or humanity that flourished for millions of years.

According to most experts the mysterious Etruscan language shows no direct ties with Indo-European languages. Archaic Etruscan reads from right to left and lacks word separation, as do many ancient scripts. Etruscan written in a primitive Greek alphabet has long been read, but translation has proved a greater challenge. Most of the 13,000 plus inscriptions discovered so far are short funerary inscriptions, and only a few are fragmentary ritual texts. It is interesting that some of the alphabet's specific signs, like , hint at a remote origin. They appear in other ancient scripts used by non-Indo-European languages,

such as those of the ancient Canarians, Berbers, Iberians, and Pelasgians. Pelasgian was, according to Blavatsky, the language that preceded the Vedic Sanskrit (BCW 5:301). But, according to linguists, the only inscriptions which show affinity with Etruscan have been found on the Greek island of Lemnos, and they believe the language to be unique.

Etruscan gold tablet, c. 500 BC

With no Etruscan writings to document their history, Etruscologists trace this people back to around 700 BC, when the oldest Etruscan inscriptions appear on pottery, although they believe their historical genesis may have begun as early as the Late Bronze Age, during the second millennium BC (cf. Haynes, pp. 1, 4). Their disputed origin can be roughly divided into four theories with many variations in specific details. The first, based on the writings of Herodotus (Histories 1.94), argues that the Etruscans were Lydians who emigrated from what is now Turkey. He mentions that this occurred "in the days of Atys the son of Manes," pointing to a date much further back than modern adherents are inclined to accept. The second theory, based on writings of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.30.2) from the late 1st century BC, argues that the Etruscans were indigenous and had always lived in Italy. However, when Dionysius wrote that the Etruscans were of remote origin, he most probably did not have in mind so recent a date as the second millennium BC. The third theory, partly based on Roman historian Livy, holds that the Etruscans were immigrants who had come from the north through the Apennines. A fourth theory, currently out of fashion, saw the Etruscans as Pelasgians, the descendants of a people who the Greeks believed had inhabited the land of Hellas before their own arrival (a theory mentioned by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 1.28). Massimo Pallottino argues in The Etruscans (1975) that these theories all contain some truth: the Etruscans "formed a complex of eastern, continental [i.e., central European] and indigenous elements which must be isolated, weighed, and compared one with the other" (2nd ed., p. 79). But he leaves us in the dark about how this can be accomplished, nor does he follow his own advice.

Nineteenth-century scholar George Dennis gives what seems to me a clearer explanation of the origin of Etruscan and pre-Etruscan civilizations in Etruria in his 1848 classic, The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria:

the people known to the Romans as Etruscans were not the original inhabitants of the land, but a mixed race, composed partly of the earlier occupants, partly of a people of foreign origin, who became dominant by right of conquest, and engrafted their peculiar civilization on that previously existing in the land. All history concurs in representing the earliest occupants to have been Siculi, or Umbri, two of the most ancient races of Italy, little removed, it is probable, from barbarism, though not nomad, but dwelling in towns. Then a people of Greek race from Thessaly, the Pelasgi, entered Italy at the head of the Adriatic, and crossing the Apennines, and uniting themselves with the Aborigines, or mountaineers, took possession of Etruria, driving out the earlier inhabitants, raised towns and fortified them with mighty walls, and long ruled supreme, till they were in turn conquered by a third race, called by the Greeks Tyrrheni, or Tyrseni, by the Romans Etrusci, Tusci, or Thusci, and by themselves, Rasena, who are supposed to have established their power in the land about 290 years before the foundation of Rome, or 1044 before Christ.
The threads of the history, however, of these races are so entangled, as to defy every attempt at unravelment; and the confusion is increased by the indiscriminate application of the word Tyrrheni, which was used by the ancients as a synonym sometimes of Pelasgi, sometimes of Etrusci. -- 1:xxxiv, 1883 edition (full text at
www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient--rome/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/.Periods/Roman/Archaic/Etruscan/.Texts/DENETR*/ home.html)

Theosophical writers have held that early Mediterranean civilizations were made up of waves of Atlantean emigrants from the remaining islands in the Atlantic Ocean and of Indo-European peoples from Central Asia and India. G. de Purucker writes that the Greek and Italian peoples "were some of the later emigrants of Central Asia" who

settled on the land we now call Greece: Crete among them first, including the mainland of Greece. Then the advancing wave at a later date settled Italy and became the Etrurians and the earliest Romans, the Sabines, the Samnites, the Oscans, and so forth. But of course all this was not done without a struggle. -- Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 23

And Blavatsky writes that in northern Europe many neolithic caves and menhirs, and even "the 'giant tombs' of Sardinia,"

are the works of the first settlers on the newly-born continent and isles of Europe, the -- "some yellow, some brown and black, and some red" -- races that remained after the submersion of the last Atlantean continents and islands (850,000 years ago), with the exception of Plato's Atlantean island, and before the arrival of the great Aryan [Indo-European] races; while others were built by the earliest immigrants from the East. -- The Secret Doctrine 2:352

Plato reports that "in the island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire, which had rule over the whole island and several others, as well as over parts of the continent; and, besides these, they subjected the parts of Libya within the Columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia" (Timaeus 25ab), as the Greeks called Etruria. This would refer to a period at least 11,000 years ago. He also says, attributing the information to the priests of Egypt, "There was a time when a horde came out of the Atlantic Ocean essaying to settle on the lands that are now Greece and Italy. You Greeks . . . have forgotten your glorious past when your forefathers gathered together and repelled the invaders, holding the civilization that you had intact."

To modern Etruscologists Plato's account is no more than a myth, and Blavatsky's report of emigrants 850,000 years ago would appear as sheer fantasy. Many today favor the theory that all monuments in Etruria were products of an indigenous Etruscan civilization which developed out of iron age hut settlements somewhere in the last part of the second millennium BC. The dominant theory of archeologists and evolutionists supports a generally linear development of civilizations, but discounts the possibility that the hut settlements may have coexisted with Etruscan monuments and that some of the so-called Etruscan settlements could be much older than currently believed.

The dating of many so-called Etruscan sites and monuments is questionable because many sacred sites globally are known to have been used and re-used -- constructed, demolished, and reconstructed. Some may first have been used for celebrations of mysteries or as cave retreats, and later have been desecrated as tombs. The skeletons and ash urns discovered in some tombs at Cerverteri or Caere are taken as proof that all these monuments were tombs. Today many caves, at Blera for example, are used by the locals as sheds for storing food or sheltering cattle, and some are used as garages, which makes one wonder what future archeologists will make of this! Haynes says of the tombs of Populonia that they "were in use over several generations, and many of the chambers were robbed of their grave goods already in antiquity" (p. 101). Can we be sure, then, that what we find and date in the Etruscan "tombs" belong to the original builders? And even if we have found some of the remains of the original builders, on what basis are the data being interpreted? Barker and Rasmussen admit frankly that "archeological data can be just as ambigious and amenable to alternative interpretations as documentary data." (Graeme Barker and Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans (2000), p. 44)

Many of the modern towns in Etruria are built on Etruscan or pre-Etruscan sites. Some of the ancient cyclopean walls, like those of Amelia, are found in the center of the city, while many Etruscan and pre-Etruscan caves are found right under modern Blera. Clearly, more lies hidden under these modern Etrurian towns built on the foundations of older civilizations:

As other Troys lie under the surface of the topmost one in the Troad; . . . so when the fury of critical bigotry has quite subsided, and Western men are prepared to write History in the interest of truth alone, will the proofs be found of the cyclic law of civilization. Modern Florence lifts her beautiful form above the tomb of Etruscan Florentia, which in her turn rose upon the hidden vestiges of anterior towns. And so also Arezzo, Perugia, Lucca and many other European sites now occupied by modern towns and cities, are based upon the relics of archaic civilizations whose period covers ages incomputable, and whose names Echo has forgotten to even whisper through "the corridors of Time." -- Blavatsky, Collected Writings 5:168-9

Although modern scholarship declares that Cosa with its polygonal masonry has been conclusively shown not to be Etruscan, but rather a Roman foundation of the 3rd century BC, George Dennis gives strong arguments to the contrary, citing the antique style of many features and the Roman penchant for imitating locally the style of the conquered. He attributes the polygonal masonry

to no other than the Pelasgi. . . . the wide-spread existence of remains of this masonry through the countries of the ancient world, the equally wide diffusion of the Pelasgic race, and the remarkable correspondence of the lands it occupied or inhabited with those where these monuments most abound; to say nothing of the impossibility of ascribing them with a shadow of reason to any other particular people mentioned in history -- afford satisfactory evidence to my mind of the Pelasgic origin of the polygonal masonry. . . .
With respect to Cosa, there is no reason whatever for regarding its walls as of Roman construction. There is nothing which marks them as more recent than any other ancient fortifications in Italy of similar masonry. -- 2:255-60

The Roman buildings at Cosa show a very different style, being constructed with small stones using cement. The Etruscans used yet a different style of walling known as "headers and stretchers" or emplecton, with the blocks arranged so as to present their ends and sides to view in alternate courses. Large polygonal masonry is found in many places in Italy, and on top of many of these ancient walls we find Roman constructions with small cemented bricks. Cyclopean walls are also found throughout Greece, especially in the Peloponnesus, throughout Peru, and even in Gympie, Australia. Further research may well show that this kind of building was universal throughout the world and that it was, like the pyramids, an ancient method derived from Atlantean lore. We can hardly reason that the Romans built these kinds of walls all over the world, though some archeologists have explained the walls of Gympie as built by early Italian immigrants! (Cf. Ancient Structures, Remarkable Pyramids, Forts, Towers, Stone Chambers, Cities, Complexes, A Catalog of Archeological Anomalies, comp. William R. Corliss, 2001, pp. 149-50.)

Some Etruscologists have noted that these walls, and also some cave-temples, have a very similar style to monuments found in Greece, but simply declare that they cannot have a common origin because this would make the monuments too old! But critical research has nothing to do with what one is not able to believe, and many of the so-called Etruscan sites may have had a Pelasgian origin. Based on ancient authors and ruins, Dennis maintains this to be the case with Cerveteri or Caere, for example:

Remote as are the days of the Etruscans, this city boasts a far prior antiquity. It was originally called Agylla, and is classed by Dionysius among the primitive towns of Central Italy, which were either built by the united Pelasgi and Aborigines, or taken by them from the Siculi, the earliest possessors of the land, ages before the foundation of the Etruscan state (Dion. Hal. I. p.16; cf. III. p. 193). That it was at least Pelasgic and of very remote antiquity there can be no doubt; though we may not be willing to admit that that occupation of Italy can be referred with certainty to the third generation before the Trojan war. -- 1:230

Further indications of a Pelasgian origin of some of the monuments at Cerveteri is found in the fact that a Pelasgian or archaic Greek alphabet has been found in the Grotta Regulini-Galassi.

Modern Etruscologists are inclined to reason that the ancient city and necropolis at Castel D'Asso are no older than the 3rd century BC and were made by the Etruscans. The style of these facade rock-cut tomb-temples leaves a different impression, and we are inclined to agree with Dennis that

The general style of these monuments -- their simplicity and massive grandeur, and strong Egyptian features -- testify to their high antiquity; and this is confirmed by the remarkable plainness of the sarcophagi, and by the archaic character of the rest of their furniture, as far as it is possible to judge of it. -- 1:183-4

The strong Egyptian features are especially clear in the rock-cut reliefs of so-called false-doors which have the form of the Egyptian tau. The outer mouldings carved from the rock give these monuments the appearance of rock-cut temples which differs from most other so-called Etruscan sites, except Norchia and Sovana, nor does the interior look like that of other Etruscan sites because some have large "halls" with rows of sarcophagi -- sometimes scattered all over -- and lack features such as carved beams and rafters on the ceilings and rock-cut benches.

The famous site of Cerveteri, which can be visited today, certainly leaves the impression that more than one civilization built on this site. Many different styles can be clearly discerned. Etruscologists hold that this is caused by a development of the Etruscan style of building tombs, but it could just as well be that other civilizations had built here. Oriental, Greek, and Egyptian influences appear both in the building styles and contents, and the walls made of polygonal blocks at Amelia, Saturnia, and Cosa may hint at the Pelasgians.

Apparently many civilizations have existed in ancient Etruria, at different periods a melting pot of various cultures and ethnic groups, which makes it extremely difficult to disentangle the history of the ancient Italian civilizations. We should be careful not to oversimplify this history and call everything Etruscan indiscriminately. One line should at least be drawn: the cyclopean walls or polygonal masonry, found in many countries worldwide, seem to belong to specific civilizations which may have had a common origin in a much earlier world-civilization. It is far too early to draw fixed conclusions based on the scanty information that we now have or to write a conclusive history of the people who built the monuments in Etruria. Yet today books often present theories as truths and fail to mention the evidence on which they are based. Much more "free and fearless investigation" needs to be done by modern researchers not limited by textbook theories and with the courage to think for themselves in unraveling the ancient roots of European civilization.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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