Sunday 21 April 2019

The Elusive Search for Dionysus by Elisabeth Storrs

My two great passions are writing and history. Melding them together provides me with an opportunity to escape from the worries of the everyday while venturing into the ancient societies of the Romans, Etruscans and Greeks. The exercise of trying to understand the emotions and plights of my characters is both exacting and rewarding. Sitting at my desk in 21st century Australia, I’m required to delve into the psyches of 4th century BCE women who survived in a masculine culture as the possessions of men, and whose worth was measured in how many warrior sons they could bear.

The novels in my Tales of Ancient Rome saga describe the ten year siege between the early Republican Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. These cities lay only twelve miles apart, separated by the Tiber River, but their societies were so opposite in their culture and beliefs that you could travel from a world similar to the Dark Ages to somewhere akin to the Renaissance simply by crossing a strip of water. 

Dancing Maenad, 27 BCE
In the era in which my books are set, Roman women were restricted to hearth and home in a rigid, insular and self-righteous culture. In comparison, the sophisticated Etruscans (known as the Rasenna) afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to females well beyond the constraints of cloistered Greek women or second class Roman matrons. Learning of such strikingly diverse societies in close proximity gave me the idea of exploring the differences between the pleasure-seeking people of Etruria and those of the austere emergent Rome. And so I created the story of Caecilia, a young Roman ‘treaty bride’, who is wed to an enemy Etruscan nobleman to seal a tenuous truce. At first she struggles with conflicting moralities, determined to remain true to Roman virtues as she lives among the sinful Etruscans. However, both her husband and his society’s freedoms seduce her. When war is declared at the end of the first book, The Wedding Shroud, she must choose between Rome and duty or Veii and love. In the second book, The Golden Dice, she grapples with living as an alien amid her former enemy as she strives to prove her loyalty to her adopted city. In the third book, Call to Juno, Caecilia realises survival depends on seeking her birthplace’s destruction. She also faces the final hurdle of converting to being wholly Etruscan by forsaking her Roman religious beliefs for those of her husband’s people.

The pantheons of the Romans and Etruscans contained equivalent divine counterparts. This did not mean their religions were the same. Roman faith and law were established in custom. There were no holy texts apart from the sacred verses contained in the Sibylline Books. In contrast, the Etruscans developed a sophisticated system of beliefs that were enshrined in a codex known as the Etrusca Disciplina. It consisted of various scriptures which established rules relating to prophecy and the afterlife. Indeed, the Etruscans raised the art of divination to a science, believing that they could defer destiny through observing the rigorous rites of their Book of Fate. They also believed in the concept of the ‘Beyond’ where a deceased’s soul remained intact and would feast with their ancestors. Achieving this salvation was obtained through following a death cult involving human sacrifice. Dionysiac worship, with its concept of rebirth, was also an alternative avenue to eternal life. This was in direct contrast to the early Romans’ belief in the Di Manes or ‘Good Ones’ who were a conglomerate of spirits who existed underground and needed to be appeased to prevent them from rising up en masse to torment the living. In other words, there were no individual souls in the Roman afterlife, or hope of resurrection.

My research into the Etruscans (which extended for over fifteen years) proved extremely challenging. The quandary of an historical novelist who writes about ancient times is the ‘elasticity’ of sources – the further you go back in time the more putative the history becomes. I was at pains to consult academics, archaeologists and historians to try to elicit answers to fill the ‘gaps’ in the evidence. What I ultimately concluded was that Etruscan and early Roman history is subject to considerable supposition from the experts and so offers the possibility for a writer to hypothesize. 

Etruscan couple, Tomb of the Shields
Despite this authorial licence, I was frustrated by the lack of certainty about Etruscan religious practices. I craved an answer as to the true nature of Rasennan worship to enable Caecilia to determine whether she should relinquish her belief in a soulless Roman afterlife or be reborn through orgiastic rites she finds both morally and physically confronting. I was able to obtain secondary sources which explored the Etrusca Disciplina, the death cult, and human sacrifice, but the nature of Dionysiac worship in Etruscan society remained elusive – particularly my quest to determine if the Rasenna believed in the wild Dionysism of the Greeks or instead observed a less intense form of the cult. (Please note that the Roman Bacchus was not yet worshipped during the period in which my novels are set). My problem was compounded by the fact that, although recent archaeological digs are revealing more about the Etruscans, their civilization is often dubbed ‘mysterious’ because none of their literature has survived other than the remnants of ritual texts. Consequently, most of our knowledge comes from accounts recorded by historians many centuries after Etruria’s demise. In effect, the conquerors of Etruria wrote about Etruscan history with all the bigotries of the victor over the vanquished. Some of these records are ‘fragments’ from contemporary travellers to Etruscan cities which were quoted by later ancient historians. These Greek commentators (who came from a society that repressed women) described the licentiousness and opulence of the Etruscans and the wickedness of their wives. One notorious example is Theopompus of Chios, a C4th BCE Greek historian, who expressed his shock at the profligacy of the Etruscans. He wrote, among other scurrilous observations, that his hosts had open intercourse with prostitutes, courtesans, boys, and even wives at their banquets. Furthermore, ‘They make love and disport themselves, occasionally within view of each other, but more often they surround their beds with screens, made of interwoven branches over which they spread their mantles’. The validity of such fragments is often criticized by modern historians because of their authors’ prejudices but the gossip does raise the possibility some Rassena may have, indeed, led flagrant sex lives.

Yet the world view of the Etruscans is not totally opaque. An insight can be gained by decoding their paintings, sculpture, furniture and votive statuettes. Yet the portrayal of the sexes in funerary art poses a further conundrum. Men and women are depicted in loving embraces that extend through a spectrum from tender and modest spousal devotion to erotic, and sometimes, pornographic coupling. So what were Etruscan women like? Faithful or wanton? Or both? Did they indulge in manic sexual worship or was their adoration of the wine god tempered?

Tomb of the Leopards Etruscan Banqueting Scene
If the primary sources were almost non-existent on the Etruscan Dionysus (known as Fufluns), modern secondary sources were just as scarce. The internet provided a tantalising glimpse of an American journal article by Larissa Bonfante, and one Italian essay by Giovanni Colonna. As I live in Australia, it was not possible to access out of print copies from our library system. And so I reached across the ether by adding a comment on Dr Bonfante’s Facebook page without any expectation of a reply. Six months later she contacted me on Academia to say she had uploaded the article to that site. And the eminent Etruscologist, Iefke van Kampen, was kind enough to obtain the Colonna essay for me. Alas, I don’t read Italian but the virtual world once again came to the rescue when I located an enthusiastic student on Upwork to translate it for me.

What was the result of my success in tracking down these obscure sources? Inconclusive. The historians’ analyses were fascinating but not definitive. Funerary art depicting symposium scenes of Etruscan women and men enjoying a world of wine and music are interpreted as evidence that inebriation connects participants to the ‘otherness’ of a divine dimension. Hedonism is therefore linked to the concept of exorcising death in a celebration of a passage to the afterlife. But this more decorous ‘Dionysism without Dionysus’ also sits side by side with Etruscan representations of maenads and satyrs (attendants in the wine god’s retinue) on bronzes, vases and sculptures that hint at more frenzied orphic mysteries reputed to include maenads eating raw flesh (omophagia) and flagellating novitiates.  I learned, however, that because the Dionysiac cult granted equality to women, slaves and foreigners, the Greeks invented a gruesome mythology to discourage this subversion of the social order. Such legends included the ‘Dying God’ driving mothers to tear apart their children and his opponents suffering the most horrendous retribution. This made it absolutely clear to me that there is a difference between mythology and cult which can cloud the truth as to the actual rituals that were followed. The use of the term ‘The Mysteries’ is very apt.

So how did I finally solve my dilemma concerning my character’s internal conflict? Did Caecilia decide to accept that the infidelity involved in communing with Fufluns was a sacred act? Was her desire to attain eternal life greater than her fear of dark, ecstatic worship? I’m afraid the answer will only be given to those who choose to read Call to Juno – A Tale of Ancient Rome.

As for connecting across the ether, I was thrilled when Iefke van Kampen asked to use the dialogue of my characters to voice an audio-visual exhibition of votive statues in her museum. As a result ‘Saga Storrs’ is now on show at the Museo dell’Agro Veientana outside Veio near Rome – a wonderful, passionate collaboration of writing and history.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at  
Images are courtesy of the MET project, Skira Colour Studio and Museo Dell'agro Veientano.


Susan Price said...

Fascinating. And I sympathise. It's just as difficult to get a handle on how the Norse gods were worshipped. Woden and Odin weren't exactly the same -- were the dead understood to be living in one of the gods' halls in Asgard -- or feasting in their own 'house' under their grave mound? You just have to read as much as you can and then take a guess.

Elisabeth Storrs said...

I think all pre history historical novelists face this common problem. I love hunting down sources but in the end I feel as you do - you make an hypothesis backed up by as much evidence as you can find. I didn't realise the subtle difference between Odin and Woden. You learn something new everyday!