The storm season in Australia brings stillness and darkened skies followed by pelting rain. People scurry to gain cover. Don’t shelter beneath a tree! Don’t stand on high ground! I always watch expectantly for a flash then count down the seconds until the crack of thunder. That way I can tell how many kilometres lie between me and danger. And as the time between the two events grow closer, I wait for the sound and light to boom together over my head.
If modern man finds a storm a visceral experience, how did the ancients view it? To them it was a sign heralding divine disapproval or a portent for the future. The Etruscans were famous for deciphering the secrets of thunder and lightning. Priests known as ‘fulguriators’ consulted an almanac where the meaning of thunder heard on particular days was recorded. The sound could signify a portent concerning the weather, crops, animals, war, government, social conflict and more. A Greek translation of this brontoscopic calendar has survived but, sadly, no trace of the original Etruscan document survives. Some of the omens reveal that the concerns of the ancients did not vary from ours. Thunder could forebode that there would be trials and debates among the common people, or the threat of disease or famine. Men’s preoccupation with the status women was also evident. On one day thunder could signify that women were more sagacious than men whereas on another day it meant that women would be given greater power than what was appropriate to their nature!
Even more fascinating was the ability of Etruscan fulguriators to prophesy the future based on the type, colour, force and place at which lightning struck. All these factors gave clues to interpret the will of the gods. Unlike the Romans who believed that only Jupiter, King of the Gods, could hurl a thunderbolt, the Etruscans understood that nine gods had such power. By separating the heavens into segments they could also ascertain which god was sending an omen: those of darker intent residing in the northwest, those granting the greatest good fortune in the northeast. Their priests even had the ability to ‘call down lightning’ to provide proof that Fortuna, the goddess of fate, had agreed to defer a person’s destiny.
Caecilia, the protagonist of my novel, The Wedding Shroud, is a young Roman girl married to an Etruscan nobleman to seal a truce. When she arrives in his city she discovers that the skill of Roman augurs to predict the future is crude compared to the mysterious Etruscan priests. Beset by fears, she is tempted to call down lightning to defer her fate but soon discovers that Fortuna is not so easy to convince and requires a devotion that will challenge both her conscience and beliefs.
The image is from the Tomb of the Augurs in Tarquinia, Italy (C5th-C4th BCE). It depicts two augurs, priests skilled in prophesy. One holds a curved lituus staff. It was a type of magic wand that was used to create a sacred space or ‘templum’ in the sky and enable them to interpret the meaning of omens sent from gods who dwelt in different sectors of the heavens. In Etruria, some seers not only carried a lituus as a symbol of their calling but also a strange conical hat and a sheepskin cloak.