POLYTHEISTIC RELIGIONS IN PRE-ROMAN ITALY
[Published by the Pederazione Pagana in Italy, based in Venice]
Celsus, Alethès Logos, V, 25
“Every population cultivates its own traditions, anyway they have been established. And this seems to happen not only because every population believed that was right to follow its own customs and necessary to preserve the principles in force, but also because, as it’s very similar, all parts of earth, assigned some to a tutelary deity and some to another from the beginning and divided into fixed domains, are still administered in this way. Besides, what is done by every population is right in so far as it is done in the way those tutelary deities like it. It will be impious to subvert the original institution of the various places”
So Celsus says in his work reconstructed from its criticism written by Origen; the basic concept is that every population has the right-duty to preserve its costumes, beliefs and deities of the land it belongs. Although Celsus is a late and not very reliable source, since his work comes to us indirectly, the idea he expresses here should be widely spread in Greco-Roman world. Just think that Greeks described other religions in geographical works or geographical parts of historical works (for example, the Histories by Herodotus, which Celsus often refers to) while Romans used, during wars, to call the enemies’ deities to Rome, where they promised they would built a temple for them.
After the long interruption due to Christianism, today in Europe we see the rebirth of the so-called “ethnic” religions, or, to use a word we are taking back to its ancient meaning, paganism. In Europe we don’t see that restless seeking for one’s origins as we see in America, where there are some Wiccans who feel sorry for they don’t have the “right” roots of the tradition they chose. But it’s true that the pagan path to walk is often chosen on the strength of a sense of belonging, which comes from individual sensibility and not necessarily has an effective connection to a person’s geographical background.
This is more true in Italy, where the ethnic groups, both native and immigrant ones, before and after Christianity, merged in various ways and everyone of them leaved its mark on the country; so, before and after the Romans’ conquest, ancient populations’ religion lived together on the same territory. So an Italian person can have Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Pre-Latin, Latin, Roman, Grecian roots without fully identify with only one of them: this is the sense of belonging who lead someone, for example many of those who find their Roman roots, to feel him/herself as a descendant of one ethnic groups, some others to feel him/herself part, to practise or to study more than one ancient religions, which can all be called traditional. Many of those traditions are probably still buried under the sands of time, some of them are “recovered” in a wiccan way: that’s the case of a Wiccan current in Veneto, putting on the center of their practices the ancient Venetic goddess Reitia.
I don’t want to enter into the merits of the choice; what I want to present here is some kind of geographic map of ancient polytheistic religions who came across Italy during the centuries before Christianity, showing superpositions among them and how they stratified on the territory. To be brief, I won’t talk over the most developed religions, those which are the most known and exerted a strong influence on Italic paganism: I mean Grecian religion, coming from the colonies of Magna Graecia since VIII century a.e.v., Etruscan religion, Celtic religion, Phoenician religion and Roman religion, which developed from the union of Italic, Etruscan and later Grecian elements.
But in Italy the Germanic element didn’t lack, under the guise of the Cimbrian, who settled on the Alps and in northern Italy. The complexity of those religion and the abundance of information we have, if we compare it to the scarcity of sources we have about other ancient Italic religions, make it very difficult to discuss them here, where I simply want to give an overview of religious situation in Italy from the beginning to Rome. All those religion deserve a better elaboration (to which I will apply myself) also about the links among them I just sketched here. The Italian peninsula was occupied since the Palaeolithic era; the most ancient archaeological finds go back to about 850,000 years ago.
Since the Palaeolithic we can distinguish three different cultures, with different kind of tombs, all with rich outfits. These three groups fragmented still further during the Mesolithic, when we can date the so-called “Venuses”, little sculptures with marked feminine features. During the Neolithic, some new populations, coming from the East by sea or from the Danubian basin, came to Italy and brought some important innovations, like agriculture and ceramic. These populations also had a great surgical knowledge and could do the trapanning of the skull, making the patient to survive. Later the use of metals spread in the peninsula.
During the Eneolithic, cultural groups established and spread: in this period, in the region now called Emilia, developed the civilization of “terramaras”, characterized by palafitte and manufacts spread in the whole Central-southern Italy. In the same period started in Europe the spreading of Indo-European languages coming from East in consecutive waves.
So the eldest local population are born in proto-historic Europe; later other immigrant population will arrive and add to them. In this article, because of its features of synthesis, I won’t dwell long on archaeological and social features of every civilization, but I’ll try to focus my attention, as much as possible and even when I’ll be forced to simply make a list of deities’ names, on religious aspects of those civilizations. Although, it’s necessary to keep in mind that ancient “pagan” cultures didn’t separate sacred and profane as monotheistic religions do, but everything had a sacred part and a profane (as we will define it nowadays) one.
Ancient sources pass down some names  of ancient populations living in the peninsula before Latins and Osco-Umbrian, but for these names we don’t have a strict definition nor enough finds to identify them accurately: the Ausonians, ancient inhabitants of Samnius, whose name we find in Virgil’s work, belong to this group. Maybe the word indicates all the ancient non-Grecian inhabitants of the area, but if they really were a civilization, they extinguished during V century a.e.v. The same can be said about the Oenotrii, ancient inhabitants of Southern Italy before Sabellian populations’ arrival. Some traces of their language remain in dialects, some tombs were found and Cato passes down three names of tribus (Coni, Morgetes, Vitales).
In ancient Italy there were also other populations whose origin we don’t know for certain, but which are probably non-Indo-European: Sardinians, whose civilization is called “nuraghic”; Sicanians, inhabitants of that island that Homer calls “Sikania” from their name, now Sicily, and their neighbours the Elimi; in current Veneto Rhaetians and Euganeans; the Villanovan civilization, ancestors of Etruscans; and above all the Ligurians.
The Sardinian nuraghic civilization’s religion was a naturalistic one, perceiving deities in natural elements. Their sanctuaries were built between 1300 and 900 a.e.v. and were used, as in other ancient cultures, also as a market place and for politic meetings; at their center there was a well-temple, consisting in a doorway at ground level, a stair going down under the ground, a sunken room with a false dome vault and the sacred spring just down the stairs. On the ground, the sacred area was delimited by a stone fence. There are still about forty of those well-temples dedicated to water deities (water is very precious in a so dry region as Sardinia is); a christian rural church was often placed side-by-side to them.
Sardinians prosecuted their ancestors’ cults, worshiping a Mother Goddess and a Bull God, both deities of fertility, being the two forces who combine to generate life, whose cult was someway linked to the cult of the dead. The tombs they built were collective and enormous, with a semicircular façade in a bull’s horns shape and a stele with a little door to go inside the tomb. All around this tombs, called “Giants’ tombs” because of their impressive dimensions, there were some stone sedilia on which the dead ones’ relatives can sleep, maybe to communicate with their dearest in dreams, practicing the incubation. In front of the tombs there were some “betili”, a Sardinian word meaning little menhirs, phallic symbols of fertility carved with two eyes or two breasts: the betili having eyes were guardian deities of the dead, the betili having breasts represent the unity of the male deity with the feminine one to bring back the life.
Sardinians had other kind of temples, the temple in a cave with a stalagmite for altar and a sacrificial fireplace, and the temple with rectangular plan. We have some remaining examples of both, but we don’t know who was the deity they were consecrated to; temples in caves are supposed to be consecrated to chthonian deities. Later, Sardinian were affected by Grecian and Carthaginian people; during Roman period, an ancient local god was known under the name of Sardus Pater (father Sardo): this god derived from or was similar to the Carthaginian god Baal. Ancient mythographers believed that Sardus Pater was Hercules’ son, and that Hercules came to Sardinia from Libia (so he can be considered son of Hercules-Melqart, a Greco-Roman interpretation of the Phoenician god Melqart).
Homer calls the other Italian big island “Sicania”, from the name of its ancient inhabitants, the Sicanians, who were pushed to the western part of Sicily by the Sicels. Thucydides said that Sicanians already lived in the island during Trojan war but they came from Iberia across Italy, while according to Antiochus and Thymeus Sicanians are native of Sicily. We know very little about them, because they lost their ethnic features during the IV century a.e.v. under Grecian and Phoenician influence. The same lot was shared by the Elimi, who ancient authors believed to be native of southern Italy, of which the Oenotrii pushed them out (Hellanicus), or to be a group originated in Asia from the union between Trojan exiles and other people (Thucydides); they underwent a quick process of Hellenization and disappeared under Carthaginian rule during I century a.e.v.
According to contemporary scholars, they could have a Sicanian origin, or a Ligurian one; somebody believes they are Semites, a mixed population of Persians, Phoenicians and Trojans, whose name may come from that of the region Elam. Their main deity was a goddess belonging to the group of Mother Goddesses (with this name anthropologists call all ancient goddesses with maternal features and related to fertility): her main sanctuary stood on mount Erice and this goddess was called Aphrodite by Grecians and Venus by Romans, but she has also something in common with the Phoenician Astarte. Venus Ericina (Venus of mount Erice) has an ear of wheat as her symbol and she’s represented with a dog and other animals by her side (she’s a “potnia theron”, a “Mistress of animals”); her rites were celebrated outside, so that the dew could wash the stains due to sacrifices.
Her cult was admitted in Rome, but with some restrictions on it because Roman magistrates thought it contravened Romans’ sense of decency; Venus Ericina’s day was on the 23rd of April, that was also the day of Vinalia, but the cult of the goddess was reserved to seventeen cities of Sicily, probably Elimi’s cities, which had the honor of presenting a wreath to her, and to prostitutes (because of this, some scholars believed that sacred prostitution was practiced around the original temple in Sicily), while it was forbidden to other women to take part to it. Main Elimi’s city was Segesta: a Roman agricultural deity has the same name and her symbol was an ear of wheat like Venus Ericina’s, but the relation between the two is not clear.
In present region of Veneto, before of the arrival of palaeovenetic culture, there were two non-indoeuropean population, who left traces in names of local mountains: Rhaetian Alps derive their name from the Rhaetians, while the Euganean Hills from the Euganeans.We don’t know much about these two populations: the Rhaetians are supposed to be an ensemble of population including some groups coming from Illyria (from which the Palaeovenetics came, too) and Celtic groups also, while the Euganean are supposed to be part of the Ligurian culture, and were divided into Stoni, Camuni (who made rupestrian figures in Val Camonica) and Triumpilini (who made rupestrian figures of Val Trompia). Both Rhaetians and Euganeans merged with Celts, Etruscans and later Venetics.
On the contrary, we have enough about Etruscan religion, which influenced the Roman one as Grecians did (for a long time, the scholars believed that the Etruscans had been cultural mediators between Grecians and Romans but later direct contacts between these two cultures were proved), just as Etruscans joined Roman society: it goes without saying that three among the seven legendary kings of Rome were Etruscans. Etruscan language seems not to belong to Indo-European stock, while their alphabet had a Grecian origin: in their turn, Etruscans taught it to various population settled in northern Italy, but not, as it seems, to Latins, who learnt it directly by Grecians. Many hypotheses were made about the origin of Etruscan people: the authochtonal theory was abandoned after the discovery of Lemnos’ inscriptions, made in a non-Grecian language, but very similar to the Etruscan one, so someone believes that Etruscans were descendants of some groups of Lemnos’ inhabitants who came to Italy and merged with local population.
This union gave rise to Villanovan culture, first germ of the Etruscan one; at the present time, none of the theories about Etruscans’ origin can be proved with certainty. Even after this population’s decline, their language was used in Rome until the Augustan period, as it was a sacred language, used also for divinatory books, which collected cult and divinatory practices and rules of civilian life, all that was called by Romans “Etruscan subject”. Divination is the most known aspect of their religion, they taught to Romans the haruspicy, divination by observation of sacrificial victims’ viscera, of birds’ flight and of lightnings. Lightnings were particularly revered and were attributes of many deities, who could throw just one at a time, and of Tinia, later identified in Jupiter, a celestial god, who could throw three of them: the first to warn, the second to terrify and the third to destroy.
Contrary to what happens with other Italic deities, we know many names of Etruscan deities (in their original version or through the Greco-Roman interpretatio) and we know how the priesthood was organized. According to what Romans passed down to us, Etruscan deities were hierarchically organized and there was a triad of deities at the top, consisting in Tinia, Uni and Menvra, more or less corresponding to Romans’ Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; there was also a chthonian triad consisting in Mantus, a god with features similar to those of Grecians’ Hades and Bacchus, Mania and another goddess, Phersipnei (Persephone) or Serfue (Ceres).
Among Etruscan deities, we can distinguish deities with an Etruscan origin (Amharia, justice and revenge, Cautha, solar deity, Cilens, Colalp, Ethausva, Letham, Tecum, Thufltha, Tolusco and, known under his Latin name, Vertumnus or Volturnus, the turn of seasons), deities of Grecian origin or that we know with Hellenic features (Fufluns-Dionysus, Sethlans-Hephaestus, Turms-Hermes, Turan-Aphrodite, Aplu-Apollo, Artume-Artemis, Hercle-Hercules, Aita-Hades, Phersipnei-Persephone), deities of Italic origin (Maris-Mars, Nethuns-Neptune, Menvra-Minerva, Usil-Sun), Latin or Latinized deities (Uni-Juno, Ani-Janus, Selvans-Sylvan, Satre-Saturn, Vetis-Veiovis).
Near the Etruscan city of Capena, there was the Lucus Feroniae, goddess Feronia’s sacred wood, dedicated to a Sabine deity. Priests compiled the calendar on a lunar basis; there was also a high priest who led the priesthood and was elected every year during federal festival of Fanum Voltumnae. The Etruscans’ religion is subject of many studies, so I won’t spread here about it, just as I won’t deal here with Grecian, Roman, Celtic and Phoenician religion, which are basic for Italian paganism, but for which I refer the reader to more exhaustive studies, as there are some deserving ones.