Etruscan Haruspication

Abstracting a Concrete Horror

In October 2014, the team of one Dr. L. Hieron made an exciting discovery during an excavation in what is now known as Southern Tuscany: wrapped in sheepskin, an ancient text bound with needle and thread. The pages were a rough linen, inscribed with characters in two distinct manners: orderly and regular symbols were carefully arrayed, including all 26 symbols identified on an Etruscan abecedarium found near Marciliana, dating to roughly 700 B.C.; scribbled in an evocatively frantic manner were what appeared to be copious marginal notes in what scholars have since suggested is an admixture of classical Latin script with symbols ‘bastardized’ into a functioning transcription of vulgar, vernacular Latin. Also included was a vaguely triangular, two-lobed artifact, scried across its surface with various Etruscan letterature within radial and angular enclosures. Hieron’s proceeding study of the text confirmed early suspicions: the original printed text proved to be what was called after the rise of Rome the Etrusca Disciplina: the corpus of holy texts detailing the religious mysteries of the Etruscan people, this artifact being the first originary document found by modern researchers concerning the Etruscan mythological enclosure. Prior to the discovery by Dr. Hieron’s team, all knowledge of the Etruscan religion and the contents of the Disciplina were gleaned from reference and summary in Roman writings; the acquisition of this text signified, at first, a major new resource to the understanding of Etruscan culture and mythology.

It is known from the Roman writings that Etruscan myth tells of two beings, in the manner of deities or otherwordly prophets, who provided the Etruscan people with the supernatural truths that are established as the core of their religious doctrine. The Etruscans, famous for their various divinatory traditions which, being so practically effective as to be coveted and eventually absorbed by the Romans, were inducted into these sacred forms of perception by the teachings of these two primary avatars. Vegoia (alternately Vecue, Vecui, Vecuvia, Vegoe, Begoe, Bigois in Roman transliterations), a female figure characterized ex post facto as a nymph or sibyl, is said to have taught the Etruscans the devices and maps by which the prophetic meaning of lightning strikes may be revealed; Tages, a boy-sized prophet who is said by Cicero to have sprouted from a deep furrow made by a plow, thereafter impressing the surprised farmer with his eminent wisdom and, drawing all of the Etruscan people around, detailed the nature and means of haruspication, by which a haruspex examines the entrails (particularly the liver) of a sacrificial animal to discern the subtleties of reality and ascertain details of the future.

Vegoia also transmitted to the Etruscan people the rules by which property was to be divided and administered, and space measured, enforcing her rulings by threat of repercussion. Both of the major divinatory devices utilized by the Etruscans depended on the establishment of a cartographic legend, indicating the meaning of incidences by their localization within a given predelineated plane. Vegoia offered to the Etruscans a map of the sky, in which different portions were given to indicate different deities and omens; the same style of mapping, even down to the geometric nature of the divisions (as in accordance with those techniques supposedly ordained by Vegoia) is evidenced in artifact clearly by numerous clay, ceramic, and bronze livers meant to guide haruspices in their inspection of sheep entrails, the most famous of which being the brass Liver of Piacenza found near modern-day Gossolengo on September 26, 1877; maps of the sky and of the liver alike exhibit subdivision into sixteen houses. Both augerial divination and sacrificial haruspication were practices closely associated with the administration of the Etruscan theocracy; haruspices and other seers were consulted in the making of any politically or publicly-personally significant decisions, such as to determine the outcome of a battle, the fate of a crop, or the prognosis of an ill relative. The divinatory corps travelled wherever did the sitting theocrat, advising them daily with details of future occurrences. The internal connection between proper future-sight and the proprietary organization of space is the essential link that first facilitated the consolidation of the Etruscan states into one theocracy; successful authorial claims to the correct interpretation and implementation of Vegoia’s spacial ordinations secured for the claimants not only a monopoly on the communally-sanctioned management of property, but also a singular claim to accurate conceptions of the futuristic cartographies which ensured correct prophetic considerations, therefore ostensibly ensuring ideal decisions in the administration of the affairs of the empire.

Contemporary political classicists have been for decades almost rabidly single-minded in their considerations of the social function of the Etruscan religion, embracing a neo-Foucaultean, subtly Lacanian interpretation of the whole divinatory program. Even with the dissemination of a new source text, critical readers tended to apply their focus solely to the body of the text, ignoring entirely the copious notes crammed into the pages’ vacancies. A searchable transcribed translation (available here: http://etruscadisciplina.owa.html) having been made available, it is now known that these marginal notes come in somewhere between 300–500 words fewer than the body of the text itself, the total combination of the two amounting to some 187,330. The motivation for this myopia was at once obvious: while easier to translate, the vulgar Latin writing was far more scattered, far less thematic, and overall so full of distinct human personality that researchers tended to seek out copies of the text free of the inveterate commentator’s remarks. The writing, exhibiting extreme waywardness and obsessive insularity, was further discredited by its numerous references to what was taken to be the enclosed artifact (variously referred to as ‘the/my map’, ‘the map to divinity’, ‘the key to the inner house’, ‘the/my guide’, ‘the guide to [heaven/paradise]’ and ‘the guide to [heaven/paradise] on earth’); this, bearing some likeness to model haruspicatory sheep livers found throughout the reach of the Etruscan theocracy, nevertheless bears some striking differences separating it from any model liver found anywhere known to host a culture that had practiced haruspication in its history. Moreover, the object, if it at all aimed to be such a model, was an oddly disproportionate and ill-informed model of a sheep liver; such mistakes as the misplacement of the gallbladder and the considerable disproportioning of the two lobes, as well as the indication of only fifteen houses, all suggested either fabrication or misinformation on the part of the creator of the artifact, who was taken to also be the eccentric commentator on the text. These salient details together led most researchers to consider the commentator raving mad, and to discredit their own sizable corpus as unworthy of study.

The writer, referred to only by a self-deferential epithetic eponym roughly translatable to Yours Truly, seems to have composed in the margins of the Etrusca Disciplina what could variously be called a political diatribe, a commentary of speculative theology, an occult handbook, and a transcendentally-inspired psychological epic. The extreme difficulty in parsing the ornate movements of the writer’s thread model the dialectical interpretation of the text which Truly offers; by some hierarchical numerological scheme, Truly intersperses the texts of books said to be written by Vegoia (the Libri Fulgurales, part of the Libri Rituales, including the Libri Fatales) with those supposedly authored by Tages (Libri Haruspicini and the Acherontici) to offer a radical re-reading of the entire Etrusca Disciplina.

Etruscan specialist Massimo Pallottino, reading the Disciplina as a political text, describes the it as a “constitution” more than, say, a legislative package; as it speaks not of the future, but of how the future is to be learned, it likewise does not prescribe a sort of political organization, but dictates how the correct form of organization is to be divined. Thus it creates a template for theocracy by composing the hermeneutic task as a series of social-communal gestures which establish a secondary, hegemonic circle radially delineating lines of privilege which define the topography of the Etruscan political space: claims to privileged access to the correct interpretation and implementation of the Disciplina’s teachings were effectively synonymous with the hegemonic power of prescribing licit and illicit forms of divination. As the social lifeblood of the polity, the ability to establish institutional norms of haruspicatory and augerial method and dictate pedagogical settings for the proper development of those skills (the accession to which norms and settings themselves come to stand in for actual training and ability in divination) became the foremost of political devices, prominent elements in the theocratic dispositif. The whole package of political managerial venues, intervention in the use and development of the land as well as constitution and function of the social body, were opened onto by the social authority gained through a functional monopoly on the interpretation of the Etrusca Disciplina.

Archaeological exhibitions and historical stores northeast of contemporary Rome city limits have delivered several clerical Etruscan tracts describing corollaries and implications of Vegoia’s precepts prescribing the appropriate administration of space and land. Of the seven full and partial texts available, all exhibit a fetishization of elevated topographical anomalies; the writers display a predisposition for the stratified slope, obsessing over the use of regular contour intervals in the distribution of land between social classes and productive functions. The commentators make frequent reference to other texts within the Disciplina to describe the precise techniques that could be used by theocratic haruspices when establishing the organization of a town; study has revealed an ornate correspondence between the dictated models of urban development and the accepted distribution of meaning across the topography of the sky or the liver. In eerie correspondence to the suggestion that the modern-day sleep-inducing tactic of ‘counting sheep’ finds its origins in the correspondence of the billowing shapes of clouds with the puffy fleece of a sheep, the Etruscan theocracy’s incitements to regular evening prayer through the framework ordained by Vegoia and Tages, likewise analogized the rolling hills of central Italy, which made up the body of the Etruscan domain, either to the contour of a sheep’s carcass laid sideways after the sacrificial stroke, or otherwise to the very topography of the sheep’s steaming entrails, so laden with meaning after having been ceremonially deposited on an alter. Certain authors refer to the sky as either an inverted topography, with the nearest points being the highest, or articulate some version of a doctrine in which the skies around the horizon are highest — in either case, the emphasis is always laid on those closest to earth.

Indeed, certain texts even suggest the placement of the liver among the fallen entrails gives the first paradigmatic indication to whatever divinatory conclusions are available upon further inspection. All texts (concerning livers, lands and skies) reveal not merely a cartographic fetishization of high points but an unselfconscious insistence on the significance of stratification itself. Ignoring the nature of singularity and univocality in a lightening strike or the biological scaffolding of a distinct individual, the social implications of the theocratic interpretation of the Etrusca Disciplina develop a conception of the social body itself consisting of partial, atomistic, deindividualized bodies who are to be effectively managed. The ‘undeveloped animism’ of the Etruscans held that the gods, having created a world wrought of their will, and humans likewise intelligent and willful, also provided clear ways for humans to discern the will and intentions of divine intelligences. Proper management of the polity entailed the orderly management of individual wills through their subjection to the realized divine will. This amounts not as much to the elimination of individual deviance as a source of action counter to the intentions of the gods’ intelligence, but rather the elimination of the individual wills within the body politic as such. Actions ostensibly in accordance with the intentions of divinity, when self-directed, miss the point; the purported purpose of the Etruscan theocracy was to run the essence, not merely the ostensible content, of the gods’ will throughout the domain, sweeping it up and over each topographical precipice as some otherworldly plague corrupting (and thus transforming) the terrestrial plane. Elevated anomalies provide the ideal point of surveillance to ensure the uninterrupted sweep of divine intention, but what is functionally consequent is the stratification itself. Stratification, on the one hand, energizes the spread of the plague, as the meeting of fetishized high points (where the land and the heavens are closest) becomes the initial territory of infection, allowing the corruption to run down into the valleys and lowlands; on the other hand, as any viscous fluid, the now-terrestrial plague settles into the valleys, and when insufficient in quantity, allows the topographic peaks to dry out, thereby becoming purified.

The theocratic obsession with elevated topographical anomalies, then, is bent to preserve the theocratic heads uninfected; haruspices can, by becoming conduits for the divine intelligences’ transubstantiation onto the terrestrial plane in a pathogenic form, thereby rid themselves of the very infection they have wrought and spread to the people. At the same time, the continued intervention into individual affairs in favor of the supposed project of the ministration of the gods’ will validates the exercise of institutional controls not only over individual actions, but also individual willfulness itself.

It is unsurprising, then, that singularity became the locus of revolutionary ideology. Singularity was understood to be atopographical and asocial, pertaining to the confines of a dimensionless existence within, or behind, or consubstantial with, the transcendental immateriality of personal conscious experience. The highest form of political resistance was heresy; the highest form of heresy was a devout individualism.

Theocratic agents intervened in ordinary life, among other things, to confine the practice of divination. Here a seemingly contradictory dynamic emerged: although the observance of lightning strikes by ordinary members of the polity could little well be prevented, an effective ideology came about which convinced the Etruscan citizens of their concrete distance from both the lightning itself, and its interpretation — they were made to believe that they could not grasp those things from another world. This was the province of the theocratic elites who discern and scry from elevated topographical vantages. However, haruspication, divination from entrails, dealt with things directly accessible to the peasants — biological bodies, in most cases those of the livestock which they raised. Notwithstanding the difficulty and cost of sacrificing an animal and properly preparing its entrails for haruspication, there developed a petty industry for lesser haruspices who, without accession to the proper pedagogical venues or association with the correct social forms, performed theocratically ‘illegitimate’ divinations. This deviance, when close enough to accepted forms, was at times permitted for its functional elevation of ‘true’ art, thereby furthering its social and political import; when more distant, was ceaselessly exposed and ruthlessly eliminated.

Hence the polemic of Truly, who reveals themself to be a member of a haruspical cult practicing radical heterodox haruspication in secret ernest. Numerous oblique reference are made throughout the commentary to the fates of compatriots who were persecuted and ultimately assassinated for their practice of these unorthodox techniques. The precepts of this cult, most commonly referred to as the Revelations of the Inner House (the cult itself seemingly known as the ‘Inner House’), center around transcendental singularity as the ultimate enabler of a higher divination. While theocratic divinatory practices were oriented toward the practical pole, ordaining political organizations and serving social purposes, the occult practices of the Inner House embody a contradiction: they eschew the practical and political for the singular and the spiritual, with this movement itself embodying the most hardened and heartened form of political resistance available. The practice and spread of heterodox techniques of haruspication, focused on the individual’s singular method of access to a transcendent, personal apperception of the true plane of Being, formalized a radical politics as veritable retreat from the communal plane. The plague of divine will was recognized as a corruption of the substance of the originary inheritance from Tages, and its working into a dispositif incorporating augerial divination and cartographic management entered the discourse as a veritable rape of Vegoia. The corpus of the divine did not ordain or depend on the ordination and ministration of stratification; these forms of political coercion denied the individual connection to divinity.

Insofar as the theocratic implementation of divination and spatial organization was oriented toward the deindividualization of concrete individuals, the denial of personal will and the squashing of ingenious gut-residue, the project of the Inner House developed as the reinstantiation of the individual. As Etruscan subjects to perpetual theocratic gaslighting, access to the true plane of Being through individual-transcendental haruspication emerged as the method by which the occultists could truly come to know themselves, to grasp the truth of their life, their fate, the meaning of their individuality. The socio-political arbitration of the Etruscan theocracy, through its determined oppression of non-normative lifestyles and the incessant subjugation of individual will, was understood to be intent on denying individuals their selves in any substantial form. The presiding topographical sweep of the theocratic plague’s influence meant that the whole of the surrounding, material world was infected, its truth inaccessible. Access to and understanding of Being or Truth, in any sense, necessarily lay along a vector of escape from the stratified cartography; not a perpendicular line of flight from a flat plane, but an atopographical denial, a retreat from the primal ante which enables the constitution of the multidimensional cartographical space.

Escape from the normative space meant also escape from the normative ways of understanding; traditional sheep haruspication, a domain privileged as form and content of the theocratic hegemony, would be insufficient as a device of radical denial of the theocracy’s normative space; for a haruspex in that place, even if heterodox, there could be no hermeneutical perspective dealing with sheep entrails without reference, explicit or not, to the Etruscan theocracy’s ordained methodology and logos. True flight from the deindividualization, into Truth, into Being, into one’s self, necessitated the pioneering of different venues of haruspication; followed, the use of different sacrificial animals. Cattle were among the first used by the blossoming cult of the Inner House; however, as most practitioners originated from a lower social strata, the high cost of raising a cow in the acceptable manner for sacrifice, the substantial inputs of food and capital, in most cases made it impossible to remove the social-communal and economic gestures from the process of selection and sacrifice. Therefore, diverse haruspicatory practices developed contemporaneously, using the entrails of wild boar, roe deer, ibex, and hare, before a localization about the use of the chamois brought new regularity and unity to the community of the Inner House.

Truly writes that, until this time, new models for the assessment of livers were not created due to a) the disagreement within the Inner House (which was yet to officially assume that name) about which sacrifices were the most useful in attaining divine apperception, and b) the pressure of persecution and lack of resources which this fledgling movement could mobilize to formalize modes of interpretation. With the rise of chamois haruspication, the Inner House consolidated into a more formal organization with centralized authority coordinating discovery and legitimation of new divinatory precepts, and new liver models for the chamois began to be produced. While no chamois liver models have been discovered, numerous references to the layout of the (still sixteen) houses of the chamois liver are made during Truly’s explication of the meaning of the model found with the annotated version of the Etrusca Disciplina. This initial form of instantiation, as centralized around chamois haruspication, became the object of much vitriolic lambast by Truly, who understands any centralization as essentially topographical, bound to a spatial cartography, and thus engaging on the social-communal plane. In the unexplored interstices of the chamois-formalization developed a new, subversive form of Inner House ideology that espoused itself as the ultimate combination of (a)political and religious practice. This new band of decentralized, informal haruspices, with Yours Truly in their midst, began kidnapping leaders, both within the Etruscan theocracy, and within the centralized authority of the Inner House, and developing a technique of haruspication practiced with the still-warm entrails of these abductees.

A veritable crusade emerged, the trials of which are documented by Truly, that found the remaining occult leaders aligning themselves with the dominant Etruscan theocracy in a mutual effort to avoid abduction by the new Inner House. This is around the time that the name ‘Inner House’ was embraced, contemporaneous with a hermeneutical innovation in haruspication inspired by human livers which was asserted as the ‘true reality’ of the prior movement, thus legitimating the application of that name to the whole. In a rapturous account of Truly’s, found in the margins of the Libri Haruspicini, there is described what was supposedly the first human haruspication ceremony:

With one fellow holding either arm, I unsheathed the curved blade; having made all the correct invocations, praising Vegoia and Tages above all else, reveling in their blessing of our practice, I liberated the entrails of Targon, our supposed ‘Priest’. Oh what blessed colors! Oh what grace! Oh what …[illegible]! Truly, a grander sight had I never beheld, not of my mother, my first lover, the birth of my children, nothing so spectacular, at once insistently terrestrial and unmistakably other-worldly, so perfectly they tumbled out, pink-green-brown with a red gush blossoming, blooming, drooling onto the floor, mixing with the dust in idyllic pools. Looking at that pile, with the steam in quintessential drift, all three of us confess, after we convened following our own private revelations, to a vision of Tages, the wicked-faced youth climbing from the soil beneath Targon’s entrails; rising, with a measure of bulging intestine wrapped about his youthful neck, he spoke seductively to each of us the following: “Look to the liver; know: you are the final house.”

Truly offers this account as the inspiration for the model enclosed with their copy of the Etrusca Disciplina: through subsequent abductions and sacrifices, a system of interpretation was developed, haphazardly, for haruspication with human livers, reflecting the intention to facilitate the haruspex’s vision of Being, of Truth, of their selves. Fifteen houses were used in this method of interpretation, as represented by Truly’s liver: the sixteenth house was the coincidence of the transcendental subjectivity of the haruspex with their physical embodiment. This is what is meant by the Inner House. This precept facilitated a form of escape from the social-communal catrographic space, eliciting results and insights which far surpassed those obtained from sheep, chamois, or any other sacrificial subject.

However, the rapture of these heterodox haruspices’ revelation could not persist as it was; in their quest for absolute flight from the theocracy’s hegemonically constituted social-communal space of dominance, the constant and escalating demand for disposable human bodies laid an unacceptable political demand on the practice which strove to balance on the pinnacle of the apolitical. The reliance on abductions required an unacceptable political dimension of the Inner House; this demand was recognized and reproached quickly by the band of Inner House innovators, including Truly and the other two originary haruspices.

The Inner House sought to circumvent the political necessity, attempting to negotiate the externality of the fifteen houses to the sixteenth inner house through ‘various catastrophic experiments’ that left the core occultists frustrated and unavailed; there seemed to be no method of selecting and obtaining appropriate bodies from a population which was not expressly political. Even with a pseudo-random selection, personal preferences to, say, not sacrifice family members or loved ones, detrimentally intervened in any attempts to devise an apolitical, acommunal method of selection and acquisition of sacrificial human bodies. Meanwhile, the frequency and ferocity of the sacrifices, and the growing patchwork of holes in the human community, drove most Etruscans away from the Inner House, until all but a few core haruspices had bargained intelligence to the Etruscan theocracy in exchange for the life, fled for fear of capture and torture, or been turned over to the same. Most Inner House haruspices who persisted in practice fled to sanctuaries deep within the Etruscan hills.

Further, the individual truth Truly and the Inner House sought required a direct, unmediated coupling of the fifteen to the sixteenth inner house; the haruspices became increasingly frustrated with the indifferent or ambiguous divinations onto which they opened through the interpretation of abducted livers. Through thorough reflection on the meaning of Tages’s instructions, it was decided among the three haruspices that the distortion of sight, caused in part by the political necessities of sacrifice acquisition, had a deeper, more significant source in the externality of the operative sixteenth house to the enclosure into which the seeing pried. Etruscan state haruspication relied on this externality from the individual to produce to homogenizing, atomistic conclusions toward which its practice was oriented; these conclusions aimed to eliminate the individual, and thus their complete externality to the individual (authority of interpretation depending on accession to social norms, use of non-human liver) provided the pre-judice which would allow the sense of deindividualization to come through in full. The Inner House, seeking to effectively combat the homogenization brought about by the plague of corrupted divine will, worked to entirely interiorize the haruspication practice; first, by claiming new, radical, and horizontally-constructed epistemes in its interpretation of non-sheep entrails; then by bringing the sacrificial body from within within humanity itself, the transcendental key for perceiving the true nature of the self. The singular implication of Tages’s final teaching, ‘You are the inner house,’ drives itself home in the in the eponymous cult’s final movement.

The Inner House had fallen, finally, unselfconsciously, into a social bias, presupposing the equivalence of any human for any other; nay, presupposing their fungibility, their functional similarity, thus implicitly upholding their homogenized deindividualization in their practice. They had failed to tirelessly insist on the uniqueness of any individual, failed to hold them truly sui generis. Truly writes of this discovery:

“It was a hard-won revelation, a vibrant burst of clarity, its bright edge dividing me in heart and matter; so ready was I then to end my mortal career. I had to bring the House home — and I had to do it alone. To bring it inside. The only unity and perfect enclosure the sixteen can find… is their originary identity. I am only to see the Truth if I alone source all the houses. If they live and die with me. My own. It is my fate. My self. My life. It will be my death to know what is meant.
This will be the last note. We are in Tages’ final chapter, his farewell to those wrung around him, open to his wisdom, those betrayers of inheritance, manufacturing perversions; those all vile martexts, demagogues, cravenly addicts, now wrung about me here, in this recondite enclosure (within, within, within), a frothing ring vibrating through the hills about here, thirstfully seeking to appropriate my flesh; I escape their envelopment by commissioning my own, by delving into its inside, and therein, to rip my insides out, finally to see them clearly, the Truth of my Self, the Being… I will see. I will know.”

So read the suicide note, scrawled with evident haste and profuse ecstasy, if any indication is to be taken from the handiwork. So died the profound innovator, the most true revolutionary, whose thoroughgoing commitment to Truth, Being, the Self, flinched not even in the face of their own death. Truly believed the supreme and final affirmation of the individual will, was its willful self-elimination; suicide, in fact, the only sufficient movement to escape the crushing of the norm, the digestion of the social, the malign homogeneity of it all. It can only be imagined, the primal delight that would overtake Truly upon their appraisal of their own liver, the mad lightness and divine perfidy of that moment; the severe orgasmic tremors, the delight; the clarity, timelessness, a spreading of viscous fluid across an infinite plane; the harmony in the breath of all things, a soul’s stillness come to muffle all Being. It may be that the intensity of Truly’s rapture, the depth of Truly’s understanding, may never again be known in this world. And Truly has fled from it, leaving behind only notes in the margins of a structure.