The ancient Greeks believed in an underworld to which the souls of the dead journeyed. It was known by names such as Hades or Erebus which have become synonymous with the concept of ‘Hell’. The Underworld was a structured place. The souls of the dead were sent to various realms based on how they were judged: blameless heroes to Elysium, the evil to Tartarus and those who were neither good nor bad to the Fields of Asphodel. To safely travel from the world of the living to that of Hades, the soul needed to cross the Styx (the River of Hate) on a boat steered by a grim ferryman known as Charon. The cost of the trip was a gold coin and it was the custom of mourners to place one in the deceased’s mouth to ensure safe passage.
Although the Romans came to adopt a belief in Hades in imperial times, the religion of early Rome did not envisage that an individual would experience an afterlife. Instead it was believed that the souls of the dead joined an amorphous mass of spirits known as the Dii Manes or the ‘Kindly Ones’. The name is ironic because these spirits were considered fearful and needed to be placated by the relatives of the deceased in case they rose to torment them. Calling them a flattering name was therefore an attempt at appeasement.
Of course a belief in an afterlife is common to many ancient societies. My research revealed another civilisation existing in Italy from archaic times with a complex codex which provided guidance on how a person could live forever. That civilisation was Etruria and its people were known as the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were a race that lived in the area of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio but whose influence spread from the Po Valley in the north to Campania in the south. They were the sworn enemies of the Romans whose fledging republic was still scrapping with its Latin neighbours while the Etruscans were establishing a trade empire across the Mediterranean. Indeed, the Romans were as austere and insular as the Etruscans were sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
Although recent archaeological digs are revealing more about the Etruscans, they have often been dubbed ‘mysterious’ because none of their literature has survived other than remnants of ritual texts. Most of what we know about them is from Greek or Roman historians (their enemies) who wrote centuries after Etruria had been destroyed. However, we can gain a glimpse of their own perspective through their fantastic tomb art which also serves as a rich vein of inspiration for episodes within my books. In fact a good deal of what is known about Etruscan architecture and daily life comes from their incredibly ornate tombs which replicated the houses of the living with their lintels and doorframes, tables and couches—even clothes hanging from hooks on the walls. Treasure was also included together with all the necessities to ensure a comfortable life such as plates and utensils and food, and a host of slave statuettes to serve the spirits of the dead.
From this funerary art it is apparent that the Etruscan’s afterlife was not so much an underworld as an ‘Afterworld’ or ‘Beyond’. In this realm, the character of Charon also appears. He is known as ‘Charun’ and is a gatekeeper rather than a ferry man. The dead were also met at the entrance to the Beyond by a winged demoness named Vanth. One tomb painting depicts her as wearing a tiny pleated skirt, short hunting boots and a baldric crossing bare breasts. An eye is painted upon each arch of her wings. The two snakes twisting around her hint at her potential menace should she deny assistance to the traveller. She is often portrayed as holding a key and a torch to guide the dead. In one tomb she is shown holding a scroll of names which suggests there may have been some form of judgment day as was the case in Hades.
The souls of the Etruscan dead faced a perilous journey over land and sea where monsters and other demons lurked. The fiercest of these was the winged Tuchulcha with its donkey’s ears, vulture’s beak, grey-blue rotting flesh and two spotted snakes coiled around its arms. And the final destination should such terrors be overcome? A sumptuous banquet with their ancestors.
The fear that the soul might fall prey to such dangers led the Etruscans to perform rigorous rituals and sacrifices to enable them to transform into lesser gods known as Dii Animales. Achieving such a status ensured their place at the banquet and possibly gave them the chance to return to receive ritual honours and assist their descendants.
The belief that blood sacrifice was necessary to placate the anger of the dead and to protect their souls in the transition to the afterlife led to dark practices. In the ‘Phersu’ game a masked man would set a slavering hound onto a hooded prisoner to rip the victim apart. This type of human sacrifice was later adopted by the Romans in lavish gladiatorial games held to celebrate the funerals of the powerful.
The heroine of The Wedding Shroud is a young Roman girl, Caecilia, who is married to an Etruscan nobleman to seal a truce between their warring cities. The lure of obtaining immortality in the afterlife tempts her to question her own people’s belief in the bleak world of the Kindly Ones. In time, though, Caecilia comes to realise there is a price to be paid to obtain salvation. This dilemma is only one of the conflicting moralities and beliefs with which she must struggle when determining whether her future lies with Rome or Etruria.
As for the philosophy of an afterlife it is interesting to consider that modern man, whether religious or sceptical, still questions what lies beyond the grave and whether judgment awaits there.
The image is of Charun, the demon whom the Etruscans believed awaited those who entered the Beyond after death. It is only one of the demons depicted in scenes of the Afterlife within the Francois Tomb in Vulci, Italy.