Friday, 29 November 2019

Son et Lumiere - Ancient Portents by Elisabeth Storrs

To me a violent storm instils fascination and fear. After a long, sweltering day in Sydney, there is nothing quite as spectacular as a display of lightning bolts sparking on the horizon, or the sky being lit in startling intensity as the temperature cools, and the clouds darken. People scurry to gain cover as rain pelts down. Don’t shelter beneath a tree! Don’t stand on high ground! I love counting down the seconds between a lightning flash and the crack of thunder. That way I can tell how many kilometres away danger lies. And as the interval between sound and light narrows, I wait for the sonic collision and instinctively duck when the thunderclap booms even when in the safety of my home.

Sydney thunder storm
If we in the modern world find lightning bolts a visceral experience, how did the ancients view them? Greeks and Romans saw such powerful displays of nature as heralding divine disapproval or a portent for the future. However, the Etruscans of ancient Italy (who lived in the areas now known as Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria) were far more adept at deciphering the secrets of thunder and lightning. Their priests raised the art of prophecy to a science and recorded the tenets of their beliefs in a codex known as the Etrusca Disciplina. Sadly very little of Etruscan literature survives other than remnants of ritual text but we do have a Greek translation of an Etruscan brontoscopic calendar created by John the Lydian (born 490 CE) as set out in his book, De Ostentis (On Omens). The Etruscan version would probably have been presented on bronze or terracotta plaques. Individual priests who specialised in reading thunderbolts may well have transcribed the calendar onto linen books (libri lintei) for their personal use. These seers were known as ‘fulgurators’.

Organised into 12 lunar months commencing in June, the brontoscopic almanac functioned as a reference table to determine portents concerning the weather, crops, animals, war, government, social conflict and more. It contained a wealth of information about society, religion, agriculture and medicine. According to the calendar, thunder could forebode the common people would suffer trials of nature, threats of disease or famine, or be given the chance to rebel against powerful men.  Men’s preoccupation with the status of 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 control than appropriate to their nature! Fulgurators would consult the calendar to find the meaning of thunder according to the particular day of the year on which it occurred. For example, as this post is published on 29 November, you should be aware that: ‘If it thunders, it shall signify a year of well being.’ Here's hoping a thunder storm happens today.

Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs
Etruscan fulgurators could also prophesy the future based on lightning.  The type, colour, force and place at which lightning struck were all clues to interpret the will of the gods. Pliny and Seneca provided evidence the Etruscans believed nine gods had power to throw a thunderbolt (whereas the Romans believed only Jupiter, King of the Gods, could hurl one.) The Etruscan equivalent of Jupiter, known as Tinia, was able to use three types of bolts: the first was a benign warning; the second could do both harm and good; and third was completely destructive.

As the Etruscans believed the gods lived in different sectors of the heavens, a fulgurator could ascertain which divinity had thrown a thunderbolt by determining the direction from whence it came. Those deities of darker intent resided in the northwest, those who granted the greatest good fortune lived in the northeast. Etruscan prophets even had the ability to ‘call down lightning’ to provide proof that Nortia, the goddess of Fate, had agreed to defer a person’s or even a city’s destiny.

As you can guess, learning about the immense skills of Etruscan soothsayers fired my imagination when devising the story arc and sub-plots in my ‘A Tale of Ancient Rome’ trilogy. And despite professing I’m not superstitious, I’m always relieved when a storm front comes from the north-east.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at  Images courtesy of Skira Colour Studio  and WikiMedia Commons Lobster1, CC BY-SA 3.0

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