Monday, April 27, 2009

The Rasna Speak

Etruscan Couple

Who were the Rasna? Well they are better known as the Etruscans a people who lived mainly in the area of modern day Tuscany in Italy. Rasna is what they called themselves.1

There is an air of mystery about them. In that they seem to have exerted considerable influence on Roman religious practice, and because most of what is known about them comes from their tomb and tomb furnishings.2

Rome to give just one simple example took that most distinctive of Roman costumes the Toga from the Etruscans.3 But the central mystery concerning the Etruscans, aside from the mystery of their origins4, is the mystery of their language.

Now it is a common perception that Etruscan is an undeciphered language and there for cannot be read. This is simply not true Etruscan can be read and the pronunciations of most words that we have found is in fact clearly understood. So Etruscan can indeed be read.5 There is a catch though. We may be able to read Etruscan but we do not understand most of it. So we are in the very strange position of being able to read a language but not to be able to understand it! 6

The main reason for this is almost breathtakingly simple. Etruscan is not related to any known language. Thus the comparisons that can be used to decipher the meaning of words we can read with other languages cannot be done.7

For example Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs could be read and understood because Coptic the sacred language of the Coptic Church of Egypt was a direct descendant of Ancient Egyptian. Further ancient Egyptian was a Semitic language so that there were also modern day linguistic relatives of Ancient Egyptian like Arabic, Ethiopian and Hebrew to help with deciphering the language.8

It is very important when deciphering a script to either know the language that is being written or a linguistic relative of the language being deciphered. In the case of Etruscan there is no known relative of the language known to exist.9 Some cases have special circumstances that helped the decipherment. For example Sumerian is a language that is not related to any known language, yet despite some continuing difficulties in pinning down the meaning of certain words or phrases it is today largely understood. The reason is that both the Babylonians and Assyrians spoke Semitic languages which were therefore deciphered by comparison with modern Semitic languages in the 19th century, viewed Sumerian as a sacred language and left copious documentation in Sumerian including large numbers of clay tablet dictionaries which gave the Sumerian word and its Babylonian and / or Assyrian equivalent. This to put it mildly greatly aided the decipherment of Sumerian. In fact it is hard to believe that even know the decipherment of Sumerian would have got very far without them. The fact that both the Babylonians and Assyrians used a script that was a modified version of Sumerian script also helped.10

Another aspect is that large numbers of inscriptions exist to work with in terms of helping with the decipherment. In the case of Etruscan the problem is that although c. 13,000 known inscriptions exist, many of them are one word and most of the rest are very short. Thus impeding efforts of decipherment.11

A further aid to decipherment is a bilingual inscription one in a known language and the other in the unknown language. In the case of Etruscan one is known it was found at Pyrgi in Italy and is in Etruscan and Punic, (The Semitic language of Phoenicia and Carthage).12 The Punic Inscription reads as follows:
To Lady Astarte. This is the sacred place made and given by Thefarie Velianas, king of Cisra, in the month of the Sacrifice of the Sun in gift within the temple and sanctuary [?] because Astarte has raised [him] with her hand [?], in the third year of his reign, in the month of Krr, on the day of the Burial of the Divinity. And the years of the statue of the goddess in her temple [are as many] as these stars.13

The Pyrgi Tablets
Left – Etruscan, Right - Punic

Other such inscriptions have been found however they are much shorter. In this particular case it appears that the Etruscan is nothing more than a very rough paraphrase of the Punic so its help in deciphering Etruscan has been less than might be expected.14

As mentioned above Etruscan inscriptions tend to be very short; in fact of the c. 13,000 known, c. 4,000 are graffiti and of the other c. 9,000 most are mainly epitaphs containing only names and formulaic expressions.15

In fact the longest known Etruscan document is part of a book found in mummy wrappings, now located in Zagreb, Croatia; it is about 1,200 words long it dates to about 150-100 B.C.E. It seems to be a ritual text of some kind.16

Etruscan Book found in Mummy Wrappings

Other documents include bronze sheep livers used for divination and an apparent land sale contract.17

Bronze Sheep liver with Etruscan Inscription

In all we know little about Etruscan Syntax and our total vocabulary in Etruscan is only c. 250 words! 18

Despite this our understanding advances although it seems that unless we make a major find of Etruscan literature we are never going to know much about the Etruscan language. It is rather sad that the Romans had little interest in it.19

1. Robinson, Andrew, Lost Languages, BCA, Toronto, 2002, p. 159.

2. IBID. pp. 162-163, Ogilvie, R. M., Early Rome and the Etruscans, Fontana Books, London, 1976, pp. 30-61, See also Pallottino, M., The Etruscans, 3rd Edition, Penguin Books, 1955.

3. Ogilvie, p. 49.

4. See Pallottino, pp. 46-73. The argument is generally over if the Etruscans came from Asia Minor or were indigenous. Pallottino believes they were indigenous.

5. See Footnote 1, Doblhofer, Ernst, Voices in Stone, Paladin, London, 1973, p. 296-297.

6. See Robinson, pp. 157-165, Doblhofer, pp. 294-301.

7. IBID., Pallottino, pp. 229-238.

8. Doblhofer, pp. 38-84, Robinson, pp. 50-73.

9. IBID. Robinson, pp. 164-165.

10. Doblhofer, pp. 121-148.

11. Robinson, p. 165.

12. Robinson, pp. 170-171, Finley, M. I., Aspects of Antiquity, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 114-118.

13. Finley, p. 115.

14. IBID. Robinson, p. 170.

15. Robinson, p. 165.

16. IBID. p. 172.

17. IBID. p. 175-181.

18. IBID. p. 181.

19. IBID. p. 163.

Pierre Cloutier

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