Etruscan Mirror Showing a Foot Symbolically Placed upon a Rock
Living on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans were an ancient people who faded into the Roman culture by the first century BC. Discovery of Etruscan artifacts have exposed some of their beliefs and influences onto the early Roman people. One of the items which have provided researchers with a wealth of information are the Etruscan mirrors.
Many of the mirrors are decorated with scenes from their daily life, include inscriptions, and convey spiritual beliefs. The Etruscans were well known to rely heavily on divination in their making of decisions. One such Etruscan mirror shares this ancient practice, and may hold clues to how the will of the gods or the Divine can be understood even yet today.
The fifth century BC bronze mirror shows a man leaning over a table performing haruspicy. Haruspicy is the examination of a liver which is used to determine the will of the gods. The selection of a liver (usually of a sheep) was commonly chosen for divination because it was thought to be the seat of the soul or life source. Upon sacrifice, the soul of the god’s and the animal were believed to combine. Looking into one, a seer saw the other. In many written accounts describing haruspicy, the liver is said to still quiver. This detail expresses the quickness in which the divination was performed. The point of death, with the point of the god receiving the sacrifice, was a crucial aspect of the ritual.
The man’s name depicted on the Etruscan mirror is given as Chalchas; a mythical Greek seer. Along with being a wonderful illustration of Etruscan art, a most interesting feature is shared on the engraving; the pose of the seer. In order for Chalchas to make an interpretation from the liver, he places his foot on a rock. This was an important action for diviners, as it was believed to establish a connection to the Earth and complete the circuit. The wings on Chalchas indicate his intercession between Heaven and Earth. The point of mediation is achieved as he examines the liver (looks into the soul of the god), while having his foot placed on the rock.
One may wonder if Nicolas Poussin’s painting of The Arcadia Shepherds may imply some of this meaning, since a shepherd is shown with his foot placed on a rock. The scene shows the examination of a tomb with the inscription, Et in Arcadia Ego, etched on the side. Mentioned in the article, The History of Anagrams, anagrams were widely known and employed at the time of Poussin’s painting. The translation for I Tego Arcana Dei (the anagram of Et in Arcadia Ego and most likely known), is Begone, I conceal God’s secrets.
God’s secrets? The Will of God, maybe? Could Nicolas Poussin have painted the shepherd with his foot placed on the rock in relation to the above ancient practice and belief? In order to ‘learn the Will of God’ or ‘learn Divine secrets’, one must form a connection. It is the shepherd, with his foot on the rock, which seems to have come to an understanding. Could a connection have been made which revealed the Will of God to him?
Assuming he too had been examining the tomb and the inscription, it would seem the point of balance between Heaven and Earth and realizing God’s Will, was made by looking at it. As suggested in The Secret Meaning of Et in Arcadia Ego and I Tego Arcana Dei, could it be related to a change of a man’s heart? That the change required by man is what conceals God’s secrets?
A woman stands behind the shepherd with her hand placed between his shoulders or placed atop his heart. Does she represent the Spirit of Wisdom?
Luke 10:27 states “Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” One gives his all, his ‘life’ to God. At the point of this sacrifice, this death(rebirth), an union could have been made which revealed an intimate wisdom between God and the Shepherd.
The epitaph of Rumi, mentioned in the previous post; “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men” creates a question to be asked. The parallel of tomb and heart in the quote may have one wonder if the shepherds are actually examining a tomb. Maybe, they are examining one’s own heart; for it is known, it is the Wellspring of Life (Proverbs 4:23).
Many other questions can be asked. Meaning is not forced upon the viewer and it would seem to suggest, upon examination of one’s heart, each person finds their own ‘Arcadia.’
Please feel free to discuss.
Etruscan Mirrors, British Museum, reviewed June 2012
Mirror with engraving of Chalchas, Vatican Museums, reviewed June 2012
Hunt, Patrick, Haurspicy, reviewed June 2012