More on Usil, Part 1
I had not posted much last week as I was working on the E-book project but I came across a blog post I thought needed a reply. I will address the post directly in Part 2 but for now I will give some needed background info.
This gentleman apparently took umbrage at some things I wrote about Mythicist Milwaukee’s meme on the Etruscan sun god walking on water.
I pointed out that actually this was the sun god rising from the great sea. Many ancient civilizations believed the known world – Europe, Asia, and Africa – was surrounded by the great sea ruled by the god the Greeks called Oceanus (Poseidon ruled the Mediterranean). It is not difficult to figure out what is going on in these depictions once you know the mythology surrounding the sun gods at the time. In fact, this image continued with examples up to the modern era as can be seen in the famed fountain at Versailles which depicts Helios (or possibly Apollo) riding his chariot out of the sea to ascend to the heavens.
Of course, since I mentioned that if they checked the mythology, they would realize what was being depicted, it was natural to assume that someone challenging it would do just that – check the mythology. I suppose I could have been more specific and asked them to check the mythology with someone who is an expert in Etruscan religion and culture but I thought that would be fairly obvious. On this latter point, it turns out I was wrong in that assumption. It turns out that almost nothing he cites is by anyone who would be an authority on Etruscan culture. It seems to be primarily a few websites approaching it from a strictly artistic viewpoint who may have no familiarity with Etruscan mythology. Once actual experts are consulted, as we shall see, it is a much different story.
If you do bother checking things with scholars specializing in ancient Etruria, you would find that what I said was quite correct. For example, Jean-Rene Jannot, an eminent scholar of Etruscan culture (and former student of such renowned Etruscan experts as Alan Hus, Jacques Heurgon , and Raymond Bloch) wrote in Religion in Ancient Etruria:
Images on mirrors that depict the solar deity, however, especially those that show him crowned with rays, emerging from the sea, running in the blinding light of day, are accompanied by the name Usil. Perhaps it is also he who runs, crowned with light, on the antefixes of the small building at Pyrgi. He appears on the Piacenza liver, but on the back, where he denotes the luminous part of the sky (the sun or the daylight). Usil ultimately takes on the features of solar Apollo, and he drives a four-horse chariot.
You would also find that the Etrurians had various gods and goddesses associated with the sun or its aspects. In particular, as Jannot points out, Usil was associated with the solar disc. Thus, any depiction of Usil would usually be associated with the movement of the solar disc. As mentioned, the mythology of the time had the sun rising and setting in the great waters that surrounded the world and it fairly obvious that is what is being depicted in this iconography.
This has sometimes been puzzling since you would not see the sun rise in the eastern waters in Etruria. This is true but three things need to be taken into account. One is that the myth is not that the sun rises in the immediately surrounding waters (i.e., the Mediterranean) but from the great sea beyond all land. The second is that the same could be said of others (e.g., the Romans) and they believed the same thing as the depictions and mythologies of Helios, Apollo, and Sol testify. Finally, the Etruscans were a maritime culture and many there likely knew of the ocean beyond the straights of Gibraltar. Thus the depiction of Usil rising from the sea presents no genuine difficulties.
I bring this last point up since he does cite one actual expert mentioning the fact of Etruscan belief. What he neglects to mention is the preceding sentence is referring to it as a puzzle. Yet the author would only refer to it as a puzzle if the Etruscans believed it despite their immediate lack of experience seeing the sun rise from the sea. Thus, we seem to have what appears to be a bit of context twisting. Since I do not currrently have access to that book, I will have to put further comments off to a future date.
In fact, almost every depiction of Usil is associated with the sunrise, the sun’s apex, and the sunset. I assume there may also be some iconography depicting the seasonal points (solstices and equinoxes) although I have not investigated that possibility. These are mythological elements naturally associated with a god representing the solar disc.
For example, one mirror has Usil flanked on the right by a Nethuns and on the left by a Thesan. A likely interpretation, as Erika Simon pointed out, has Thesan (the dawn) and Usil (the sun) are standing and bidding farewell to Nethuns (the sea) who remains seated. In Etruscan iconography, Thesan often precedes Usil for obvious reasons and that may be illustrated in a rather interesting way in that particular case. We must remember that thinking of such associations would have been natural for the Etruscans no matter how difficult it may be for us to decipher it.
As I had pointed out, depictions of Usil rising (or Sol or Apollo or Helios or just about any other sun god of the tine) from the waters were quite common. As Jannot mentioned, early examples of Usil often depicted him running upward in the direction the sun would travel. the running motion denotes movement and, as already mentioned, he was sometimes preceded by Thesan the Etruscan goddess of dawn. Sometimes he was depicted with wings and winged feet thus denoting the ability to riseg upward to the sky. In the depiction on the left in the above meme, the upward direction is also communicated by Usil having the front foot on the same horizontal plane as the back knee and thus the appearance of climbing or going up steps with Usil higher with each step.
Another example is pointed out by Etruscan scholar Sybille Hanes here where the top left picture on the page depicts Usil rising from the sea as described:
…the sun god, Usil, rising from the sea (a); he is represented as a youth in a short tunic, rushing past disc-shaped waves, his body and head surrounded by a nimbus of rays.
Another expert on Etruria, Jean MacIntosh Turfa, makes the same point as Dr. Haynes when, in referring to the same picture in Haynes’ book (although she used an earlier edition), stated:
Nights were dreaded, to judge from the rejoicing exultation greeting the sunrise in the terracotta antefixes from Pyrgi, showing Thesan/Aurora with daybreak stars, Usil/Sol, with flaming rays and the cocky morning dew. Dawn has broken!
The myth is also retold here where, after describing how the waves and Usil’s arms, legs, and wings depict motion, it is stated:
Such liveliness of pose characterizes images of the Etruscan sun god Usil, identified with the Greek Helios, who was believed to traverse the course of the heavens every day as he brought light to the Earth.
Yet another form of Usil has him just halfway out of the sea as he begins rising above the waves as can be seen here. Of course, this blogger, in his own book, described this item as Usil parting the sea or something like that. Go figure.
For anyone who has any familiarity with the myths surrounding solar deities in the ancient world, what I have just described is pretty basic stuff. It is an image that has appeared countless times throughout the Mediterranean world. There are lots of stories and depictions of the sun god rising from the sea.
I should also point out that I never said that no pagan god was ever depicted standing or waking on the sea. Certainly I would expect Oceanus or Poseidon to be able to do just that in the same way that Dionysus making wine is no great shock. You could even say Usil walked on water in a sense since he did it on the way up but decided to keep going. The point is that the purpose of the narratives are completely unrelated and one was not the source of the other. That describing Usil anthropomorphized the Etruscan’s belief that the solar disc rose from the sea.
As for his post, my evaluation of that will be given in Part 2.