Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Goddesses, priestesses and princesses: feminine power within Etruscan society, a guest post by Elisabeth Storrs

I'm so pleased to welcome novelist Elisabeth Storrs to Reading the Past.  Back in 2010, I reviewed her first novel, The Wedding Shroud, about a young Roman woman in the 5th century BC who marries an Etruscan nobleman to seal an alliance between their warring cities.  As part of my review, I had written: "With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist."

Elisabeth's new novel The Golden Dice (Cornelian Press, 2013) continues the story of Caecilia and her husband, Vel Mastarna.  It begins seven years after The Wedding Shroud ends so can be read as a sequel, but I'm told it also works well as a standalone novel.  I'll be reviewing it here in due course.  Today, to whet our appetites for the book, she has contributed an original post about women's power in ancient Etruria.  Her essay and accompanying illustrations open a window on a little-known but fascinating culture.  Welcome, Elisabeth!

Please read to the end, too, for a chance to win an e-book copy of The Golden Dice (open internationally).


Goddesses, Priestesses and Princesses:
Feminine Power within Etruscan Society

Elisabeth Storrs

The Vestal Virgins of Rome are famous. These six priestesses were entrusted with keeping alight the eternal flame of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The College of Vestals wielded great influence in matters of state but they were cloistered from society and denied the opportunity to marry and bear children until after they had served the order for thirty years. Apart from the Vestal Virgins, Roman women did not preside over religious ceremonies nor did they hold high office.

Vestal Virgin

Historians contend that an Etruscan woman could hold the title of a high priestess called an hatrencu. It is believed such priestesses belonged to a sacred college devoted to a female cult dedicated to the fertility of families and marriage. Unlike the Vestals, however, they joined such an order as matrons rather than maidens sworn to an oath of chastity. Interestingly, there is even one tomb where hatrencus have been buried together in one chamber rather than with their families.

The attire of a Vestal Virgin was unique. She wore distinctive robes, woollen headbands and a veil, and her hair was specially dressed in six braids. Votive statuettes have been found of Etruscan women wearing a peculiar garb believed to characterise those of a priestess as well. This consisted of a sleeved tunic reaching to her ankle boots. A heavy mantle with a tasselled triangular end hung over her back. Often her shawl-like cloak was pinned at the shoulder with a large brooch similar to those worn by male Etruscan soothsayers, and her hair was covered by a clinging veil placed low across the forehead and tied by a ribbon knotted at the back of her head.

Etruscan priestess

In 1861 the German historian Bachofen propounded a theory that Etruscan society was a matriarchy where identity passed through the female line. His theories were extensively discussed in feminist circles in the 1970s with research undertaken into the cult of the great mother goddess. Indeed, the first deities to be mentioned in Etruscan inscriptions are Turan, the goddess of love and fertility, (better known as Venus or Aphrodite) together with Aritimi (Artemis) who was associated in Etruria with the Mistress of Animals, a goddess also worshipped in the Near East.

In support of his claim, Bachofen examined the legend of Tanaquil, a talented prophetess who became the queen of the first Etruscan king of Rome. She exercised tremendous influence and gave real meaning to the saying: ‘the power behind the throne.’ There was also support for his theory due to the existence of many lavish tombs dedicated to women with inscriptions acknowledging both male and female bloodlines. Compare this to a Roman woman who only bore her father’s name in feminine form, and who was not generally commemorated after death.

Present-day historians have discounted Bachofen’s theory because there are no inscriptions denoting Etruscan women as a monarch or chief magistrate. Nor is a man ever described as the ‘husband of’ a woman which would suggest the wife held a dominant role. However there was no separation between church and state in Etruscan society. Those who governed also fulfilled a religious role as a priest. Given this, the fact Etruscan women could be priestesses establishes the eminent role they played in that world. Accordingly, there may well be seeds of truth in the legend of Queen Tanaquil who was honoured as both a seer and an advisor to her royal husband. Indeed, the extensive treasure found in graves of Etruscan women points to the conclusion that the wives and daughters of the prominent elite were viewed as ‘princesses’.

Etruscan gold diadem

One particular sarcophagus confirms the high rank held by women in Etruria. On its lid, an aged man and woman lie beneath a mantle. Their intimate embrace not only portrays their devotion but also symbolises how the power of their union can ward off evil after death. Although the casket portrays both husband and wife, it only holds the body of the woman. She is simply described as Ramtha Visnai, wife of Arnth Tetnies.

Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies

On one side of the sarcophagus is carved a scene of a procession believed to portray the journey of the couple to the afterlife. Attendants walk behind both husband and wife. Arnth’s carry symbols of his magistracy – a horn, ivory chair and rod; Ramtha’s servants carry libation vessels for mixing wine and water. These symbols are associated with priestesses who served the Etruscan wine god Fufluns (Greek Dionysus). The couple are depicted holding hands. Here is a coffin celebrating the life of a loving wife whose rank was as respected as her husband’s. And the scene also bears witness to Ramtha’s desire to meet her spouse as an equal after death.

Journey to the afterlife – Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies

Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the respect afforded to Etruscan women is the fact they were worshipped as part of an ancestor cult. Seated on thrones, statues of both male and female heads of clans stand guard over those who have been entombed. These images give testament to the understanding that the soul of the deceased could turn into a deity who returned to watch over the living. In effect, a high ranked matron of a clan was not only a princess but also a goddess – an ultimate display of feminine power.

The Tales of Ancient Rome series chronicles the events of a ten-year siege between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii after the marriage of a young Roman girl, Caecilia, to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna. The first book, The Wedding Shroud, ends when war is declared. Newly released, The Golden Dice continues the story seven years later at the height of the conflict. In addition to following the Roman treaty bride, Caecilia (who is now the matriarch of the wealthy House of Mastarna), two other strong female characters are introduced: Semni, a young Etruscan girl, and Pinna, a Roman tomb whore. Past readers of The Wedding Shroud will enjoy visiting Etruria again while others might like to venture into this world for the first time to learn how three women of the ancient world endure a war.

You will find more information on the background to Elisabeth’s books in this post on her blog, Triclinium. The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice are available on Amazon or via other retailers listed on her website. And Elisabeth would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.

Description of The Golden Dice:

During a ten-year siege between two age-old enemies, three women follow very different paths to survive:

Caecilia, a young Roman woman, forsakes her city by marrying the Etruscan Vel Mastarna, exposing herself to the enmity of his people and the hatred of the Romans who consider her a traitoress…

Semni, a reckless Etruscan girl, becomes a servant in the House of Mastarna, embroiling herself in schemes that threaten Caecilia's children and her own chance for romance…

Pinna, a tomb whore, uses blackmail to escape her grim life and gain the attention of Rome's greatest general, choosing between her love for him and her loyalty to another…

In this second volume in the Tales of Ancient Rome series, the lives of women in war are explored together with the sexuality, religion, and politics of Roman and Etruscan cultures, two great civilizations of ancient history.

Elisabeth Storrs has long held an interest in the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She is an Australian author and graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. She lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, governance consultant and business writer. The Wedding Shroud was judged runner-up in the international 2012 Sharp Writ Book Awards for general fiction.


Giveaway Contest

Thanks to the author, we have a giveaway opportunity.  One e-book copy of The Golden Dice (mobi, epub, or pdf) will be sent to a randomly selected blog winner.  Please fill out the form below to enter; deadline Monday, August 5th.  This contest is open internationally.  Good luck!

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.


  1. Thanks Sarah for featuring my post and books - it's much appreciated :)

    1. Hi Elisabeth, thanks very much for the excellent post! Looking forward to book two.

  2. Was delighted a few weeks to find the sequel to "Wedding Shroud" had been published and immediately nabbed a copy. Loved it and found the multiple POV gave the story an intriguing touch.

  3. Annis - I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about Semni and Pinna. I loved creating those characters and hoped they would add an extra dimension to the story.

  4. I *need* to get The Wedding Shroud, stat. Your review, combined with the other swoony reviews, have me sold -- plus, another unique locale/era.

    After seeing Teralyn Pilgrim at the HNS conference as a vestal virgin, I appreciated this post even more!

    1. I agree - the first pic reminded me of when Teralyn was explaining her garb and hairstyle on stage!