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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter November 5, 2016

Thunder versus Lightning in Etruria

Nancy T. de Grummond
From the journal Etruscan Studies


Recent scholarship on the Etruscans has produced important new insights into their practices of divination of the future by means of thunder and lightning. Not much attention has yet been given to how radically different these two natural phenomena were from the point of view of the systems that framed them and accordingly how different the appropriate rituals were. There was a highly complex system of interpreting lightning, based on the idea that there were nine Etruscan gods who could cast a bolt, and that even when one god wanted to do so, it often involved negotiations with others. It was very important for a diviner to know from which section of the sky the lightning originated and to have a full knowledge of its physical details and meanings. Thunder, on the other hand, was only a sound, and it was difficult to tell where it might have originated. Because it did not cause damage, it was seemingly not as dire as lightning. There does not seem to be a specific statement on which Etruscan deities might cause thunder, and so the diviner did not address the issue of which gods needed to be appeased. Instead, as far as we now know, thunder was judged by the day on which it was heard, and divination was thus carried out through calendrical reference, which did not require the kind of detailed training implied by the surviving texts on lightning. Since lightning is a visible phenomenon, it is not surprising that there are numerous depictions of it recognized in Etruscan mythological art. But while such examples may be duly noted, it is here argued that some images previously interpreted as lightning bolts are actually representations of thunder. A close look shows that, like the disciplines, the depictions of lightning and thunder are quite different from one another.


The content of this article was presented as part of the Third Annual Mario Del Chiaro Lecture at The University of California, Berkeley, March 5, 2014. The author wishes to express most sincere thanks to Lisa Pieraccini for the invitation to speak and for the warm hospitality, and to take this additional opportunity to offer a salute on the pages of Etruscan Studies to Mario Del Chiaro, a great pioneer in Etruscan studies and a lifelong friend. Mario Iozzo and Frank Hildebrandt kindly assisted with the images in Figs. 4 and 5.


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Published Online: 2016-11-5
Published in Print: 2016-11-1

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