Etruscan Votives and Health?

Professor Jean MacIntosh Turfa is a Consulting Scholar in the Mediterranean Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where she helped reinstall the Kyle M. Phillips Etruscan Gallery. She has participated in excavations at Etruscan Poggio Civitate (Murlo), ancient Corinth, Dragonby (Lincolnshire), and native and colonial sites in the USA. She recently published Divining the Etruscan World (Cambridge UP, 2012) which presents the first English translation of a lost Etruscan text on thunder-omens.

The post on Etruscan elongated bronze votive figurines opens several intriguing paths of enquiry that I hope will be pursued in future by the authors or by blog readers! I offer one additional possible interpretation based on an arcane ancient document, the Etruscan Brontoscopic Calendar. This text was preserved in a Byzantine Greek translation of a lost Latin translation (by P. Nigidus Figulus, a friend of Cicero) of a lost Etruscan text believed to have been part of the original Etruscan scriptures that were dictated in the protohistoric era by the supernatural being, Tages. It offers a very curious omen predicted if thunder is heard on December 29: “If it thunders, it signifies the most healthful leanness for the bodies.”

HaruspexWe are accustomed to think of ancient peoples as valuing plumpness over thinness, knowing that would be a way of surviving a winter or a siege … and Catullus (39.11) gave us the nasty trope of the “obesus etruscus” (which actually may have meant sleek or well-fed and not morbidly obese)… yet here is just the opposite. The bronzes represent men and women, youths nude or clothed, some pouring libations, priests (costumed as haruspices, who perform divination by sheep liver), and also apparently the occasional goddess such as Diana…. in other words either divine, admirable or humbly worshipful figures, so this condition ought to be perceived as good rather than bad. The elongated style may actually begin with Late Archaic (c. 500-480 BCE) bronzes offered in deposits at Arezzo, Bologna, Marzabotto and Fiesole (all towns in northern Etruria) where standard offering bearers have attenuated limbs, hands and feet. Even the little black silhouette figures cavorting in the trees of the Underworld, in the Tomba dell’Orco of 4th-century BCE Tarquinia, seem like this and seem to be happy. Predictions of good health are few in the warnings of the Brontoscopic Calendar which seems to be heavy on disease, famine and civil unrest — so perhaps the Etruscans on occasion had the right idea about “healthful leanness.” (References are in my book, Divining the Etruscan World, Cambridge UP, 2012: 182.)

Etruscan anatomical votive models almost never depicted pathological conditions – yet they must have been offered in gratitude for the healing of all sorts of afflictions. (For the Etruscan hypochondriac, there were whole tablets assembling all the internal organs, and even torsos, some fully clothed or with skirts like surgical drapes (for instance at Tessennano near Vulci), that revealed on their surface one or many internal organs, a dramatic way of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve!) It seems to have been almost taboo to depict disease or injury, apart from a few apparently bandaged legs (in a deposit at Lucus Feroniae), a knee with tumorous bumps (or perhaps it is a shaggy satyr sculpture), and a head with shaved or lost hair re-growing (or perhaps just terracotta that was stippled so as to hold added, healthy locks?).

Anatomical votives

One category of model, though, may play into another of the Etruscan stereotypes generated by their classical rivals: feet. Once while showing some visitors through the Etruscan Gallery of Penn’s University Museum in Philadelphia, I was stopped by one man who could not hold back his exasperation — he was a foot doctor. “These people, why couldn’t they wear properly fitting shoes?” he exclaimed – one of the foot votives in the display case had a big bunion. It was a pretty common type of male foot model, bare and ending just above the ankle, but its misshapen toe was unmistakable. It is often assumed that such model hands or feet had their molds drawn from actual people: perhaps the coroplast beckons to the boy sweeping up the shop, slaps some clay over his foot and produces a mold, in which case the many casts made from that mold don’t necessarily depict the exact condition of the worshipers who dedicated them. Perhaps bunions and such were widespread in Etruria. Today they often come from the wearing of ill-fitting, too-fashionable shoes… and Etruria was famous for its beautiful footwear. The gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon in Athens wore “Tyrrhenika,” “Etruscan sandals,” and we have such footgear from numerous women’s tombs of the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. They have thick wooden soles edged with iron bands and hobnail soles and are hinged with leather and bronze across the instep; supposedly they had gilded laces. (The hinges mean that the shoes would clip-clop as the wearer walked across the pavement – and certainly she must have kept to urban streets, as no farm-wife would have teetered about in such shoes!) An Etruscan pair found in a tomb at Vulci of ca. 550 BCE are about a size 6 (US) 37 (UK); Athena’s were so big that they had their own sculptured relief scenes. (In fact, many of the graves of Archaic Macedonia hold women who are wearing tyrrhenika – except that many of the Greek women’s sandals are actually knock-offs made of thin sheets of bronze rather than the solid, cast-iron platform soles found with the Etruscan ladies of Bisenzio, Vulci and Norchia.)

Etruscan art abounds with images of men and women wearing gorgeous red and black leather boots, and all kinds of elaborate sandals. Curiously one of the rare glosses that we know, Etruscan words preserved in the writings of Greek or Roman authors, is “capys” – the term for a hawk, or for a man with a claw foot, a deformity in which the toes curve down and under, like a hawk’s talons. Such problems today are rare in cases of injury etc., in regions where the residents don’t wear shoes. They almost always arise from – ill-fitting shoes! My examination of ancient skeletons has not yet turned up an example of a hawk-footed Etruscan, but the survival of this term leads me to expect that someone will eventually find this evidence.

by Jean MacIntosh Turfa

For further reading on anatomical models:

Votive aspects, distribution of anatomical votives: 

Turfa, J.M., 2004. “[Weigeschenke: Altitalien und Imperium Romanum. 1. Italien.] B. Anatomical votives,” in Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (ThesCRA) I. Processions – Sacrifices – Libations – Fumigations – Dedications, Los Angeles, pp. 359-368.

Medical interpretations and range of types: 

Recke, Matthias, 2013. “Science as art: Etruscan anatomical votives,” in The Etruscan World (ed. J.M. Turfa) London: Routledge, pp. 1068-1085.

Turfa, J.M., 1994. “Anatomical Votives and Italian Medical Tradition,” in R.D. De Puma and J.P. Small, eds., Murlo and the Etruscans. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 224-240.

Turfa, J.M., and M.J. Becker, 2013. “Health and medicine in Etruria,” in The Etruscan World, pp. 855-881.

Bandaged legs, etc.: see Baggieri, Gaspare, and M.L. Rinaldi Veloccia, eds., L’antica anatomia nell’arte dei donaria (Ancient Anatomy in the Art of Votive Offerings), Rome: MelAMi.

Images on this page:

Line drawing: bronze votive figurine in elongated style, depicting a haruspex (3rd c. BCE, original in Museo Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome, inv. 24478).

Group photo illustrates anatomical votives displayed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia Inv. nos. MS 5756 (youth, capite velato), MS 5757 (female half-head with bride’s hairdo), MS 5752 (head of swaddled baby), MS 1630 (bronze plaque), L-64-551, L-64-478, L-64-553(male feet). Turfa, J.M., 2005. Catalogue of the Etruscan Gallery of The University Museum, Philadelphia: University Museum Press, pp. 243-248.


3 thoughts on “Etruscan Votives and Health?

  1. Pingback: Graffiti as ex-voto? Visiting the Hypogeum at San Salvatore in Cabras, Sardinia | The Votives Project

  2. I purchased a figure very similar to one in the ‘Shadowy Figures’ image posted here. It is the female figure (second from right) holding what I presumed was a snake and now know it to represent sheep entrails. The only other image being a GettyImages “Bronze statue depicting haruspex. Etruscan Civilization,3rd-2nd Century BC.” Mine is very similar except it stands on a roundish bronze base which appears to be cast as one piece. Curious if this is a museum store replica or a tourist piece.

    Not trying to sel just want more info on what I might have. Thanks! Mark

  3. Pingback: Etruscan Votives (an audio interview with Professor Jean MacIntosh Turfa) | The Votives Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s