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A Boy, to Vei, to Venus? Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Etruscan Orvieto Necropolis

A Boy, to Vei, to Venus? Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Etruscan Orvieto Necropolis

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Ancient Etruscan deities continue to puzzle researchers. Unveiling the truth about their cults and positions in the pantheon took decades, yet they still protect some of their secrets. One of the most interesting stories comes from an ancient site in Orvieto, Italy, where researchers found a beautiful statue and a small piece of bronze with a curious inscription.

A Forgotten Language

The major problem for researchers interested in Etruscan sites is the language used in the ancient culture. Etruscan is still full of mysteries and has not been fully decoded. Misinterpretations made by the first researchers of Etruria caused even more confusion. Many of their theories need to be revisited to understand Etruscan history and culture. Knowledge has increased with more recent discoveries, so interpretations have started to change too. One of the most interesting parts of the Etruscan culture is its mythology.

The Roman Empire tried to Romanize the religions of their conquered lands. Therefore, new mixed deities were created everywhere they went. For example, it happened to the goddess Sulis in Britain, who became Sulis Minerva. Did the goddess Vei share a similar fate and became Venus?

The Mystery of the Necropolis

Archaeologists unearthed a sanctuary to the goddess and a remarkable statue during excavations in the Cannicella cemetery. The sculpture is almost human height, and it depicts a beautiful naked woman. The statue wasn’t made in typical Etruscan style. Another strange fact is that it was made of marble – something very rarely used by Etruscan artists. Some researchers believe that the sculpture was an import from Greece or from one of the Greek colonies in Italy. Oddly, her breasts were made of a different marble than the rest of her body.

The Etruscan necropolis

The Etruscan necropolis. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The statue was discovered in 1884, and its nudity meant she was covered with cloth and hidden. The sculpture is also called the “Venus of Cannicella.” 19th-century archaeologists believed that this statue must be related to the cult of Aphrodite or Venus. In the Etruscan pantheon, the deity closest resembling those goddesses is Turan. However, a piece of bronze naming the goddess Vei was discovered in the same place as the sculpture.

Statue from the cemetery of Cannicella.

Statue from the cemetery of Cannicella. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Cult of Vei

It is important to note that statue transformations were relatively common in the ancient world. In this case, researchers believe that it could have been a statue of a young boy that was transformed into a woman. The pose of the statue, hiding the lower intimate part of the body with a hand, was a typical method to draw the viewer’s attention to that area. Votive plaques with the name of the goddess Vei suggest that although the statue looks more like a goddess Venus, people who worshiped it saw the goddess Vei instead.

The cult of this goddess is quite complicated. According to Kimberly Sue Busby:

''The funerary contexts and nature of Vei, as well as the primacy of water to her cult practices suggest a healing component to the cult. Clearly, her cult was principally influenced by dual aspects: fertility and the cult of the dead/ancestors. If we look at the distribution of the inscriptional evidence for her cult, with the exception of the inscription at Sanpolo d'Enza in Emilia Romagna, the other sites, Norchia, Gravisca, Roselle, and Orvieto, tend to be in southern or central-southern Etruria, and if Vei is the eponymous deity of Veii, she was assimilated to Ceres, and also located to the south, it seems possible her cult spread from that area. The attestation to Vei at Gravisca, the port of Tarquinia, where she had been assimilated to Demeter according to Torelli, may have import for her veneration at Orvieto and elsewhere.”

However, there are still many things left to discover about Vei. It seems that Etruscans believed that the afterlife is nothing but the continuation of life on Earth. Therefore, they took care of cemeteries like they were settlements for the living.

Map from ‘The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria.’

Map from ‘The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria.’ ( Public Domain )

What’s the Goddess of Fertility Doing in a Cemetery?

Today, it seems irrational that someone would bury a figurine of a goddess of fertility in a cemetery. Connecting attributes like fertility and honoring ancestors is not very common in modern times, but to the ancient people it was obvious. In Ancient Egypt, Osiris had similar attributes; in ancient Greece, the idea was presented with Demeter and Persephone. To ancient people, the relation between birth and death was a normal process – it wasn’t viewed as negatively as it is in modern cultures.

Sacred antefixes from Cannicella, Orvieto.

Sacred antefixes from Cannicella, Orvieto. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Cannicella necropolis is fascinating for more than just the Vei sculpture, however this object is one of the most interesting artifacts related to Etruscan mythology.  Researchers unearthed several pieces of evidence that there was a sanctuary for multiple deities at Cannicella. The ones that were supportive deities in Vei's temple were Hercle and Faunus. A half life-size mask of Pan was also discovered in the sanctuary of Vei. Although archaeologists have worked at the site for many decades, there is still a lot to discover. Maybe someday they will unearth more evidence of the cult of the mysterious goddess Vei.

An Etruscan tomb in Orvieto.

An Etruscan tomb in Orvieto. ( Orvieto Viva )

Top image: An Etruscan tomb in the Orvieto necropolis. ( Orvieto Viva )  “Venere” di Cannicella (“Venus of Cannicella) 530-520 AD. ( MiBACT)

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Key to Umbria: Orvieto, available at:
http://www.keytoumbria.com/Orvieto/Cannicella_Necropolis.html

The Temple Terracottas of Etruscan Orvieto: A Vision of the Underworld in the art and cult of ancient Volosini, by Kimberly Sue Busby, available at:
https://books.google.pl/books?id=ktsfOmsR6CsC&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=vei+orvieto&source=bl&ots=YGpVmCI7Ky&sig=IOT5mVo7p77BVryOsezTcCmHif8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiBuf6_r7_QAhUM2SwKHWz-CzAQ6AEIJTAC#v=onepage&q=vei%20orvieto&f=false

Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend, 2006.

Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Erika Simon, The Religion of the Etruscans, 2006.

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