Friday 21 June 2019

Ancient 'Girl Power' by 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.

Roman vestal virgin and Etruscan priestess (or goddess Turan)

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. This collegial link has been persuasively argued due to the findings within the Tomb of Inscriptions at the Etruscan city of Vulci.  There members of several families were buried within its six chambers. Extraordinarily, two of the ladies were not laid to rest beside their husbands and children which was usually the rule in Etruria for female burials in family tombs. Instead they lay in the company of women with different family names but bearing the same title of ‘hatrencu’.

Etruscan jewellery and noblewoman
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.

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.

Ramtha Visnai & Arnth Tetnies
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’.

One particular sarcophagus confirms the high rank held by women in Etruria. On its lid, an elderly 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.

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. 

Procession to afterlife on Ramtha Visnai's casket

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.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at
Images courtesy of Google Arts & Culture, Wikimedia, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Art Museums

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