A myth in miniature


I’ve mentioned the Etruscan Goddess Esia a number of times recently (here in connection with Mount Aetna for instance, and here in connection with Óðinn.)

She is the counterpart of Cretan Ariadne, with some fascinating local additions:

Another specimen, of a Praenestine pear-shaped mirror but with Etruscan inscription, has the theme of the fate of Esia, a name unknown in Greco-Roman myth. E. H. Richardson argued that she was the equivalent of Ariadne, in a story of the latter’s death as caused by Artemis, and many have accepted her suggestion. She is held wrapped up like a dead soul by Artumes, who displays the arrows with which the goddess is accustomed to end the lives of young girls. Next to her stand Fufluns, the Etruscan Dionysos, a bearded male with a drinking cup, and a winged Menrva. Below, coming up from the ground, appears an oracular head. We do not know its message, but most likely it relates to the fate of Esia. It may be that Fufluns will receive her and bestow immortality upon her. Whatever the message, Fufluns and Menrva seem to react strongly: Menrva throws up both hands in a gesture of surprise (or dismay?) and Fufluns also raises one hand. We shall observe these gestures again in other scenes of individuals who are receiving a prophecy. (Nancy de Grummond, Mirrors, Marriage and Mystery)

Discussing this mirror I mentioned that I’d like to know more about the story depicted on it, and last night while reading about the Runes I stumbled across the following:

The Greek geographer Strabo informs us that the peoples of north-western Italy venerated Artemis most among all the gods and the inscriptions left behind there seem to corroborate his report. Among them is an inscription on an oddly, apparently fish-shaped, figurine cast in bronze with a hole in it for hanging, found by archaeologists among the remains of a religious sanctuary near the Alpine town of Sanzeno, near Trent. Probably an amulet rather than a votive, it features the names of four ancient mythological figures: Diana, Esia, Liber and Vesuna. Diana is of course the ancient Italian name for Artemis and the grouping on the amulet appears to be similar to that found on two ancient Italian mirrors where the mythological figures Minerva, Fufluns, Artemis and Esia are depicted in a scene together. The mirrors depict Esia as a shade brought by Artemis to Fufluns in the company of the goddess Minerva. Liber and Fufluns are both archaic Italian names for the Greek god Dionysus and Esia is the Etruscan name for Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of Theseus and the Minotaur fame. Greek mythology also tells us that Artemis killed Ariadne, but that Dionysus (Artemis’ brother) later married her; so the Sanzeno sequence of names appears to be an attempt to represent this scene (or perhaps rather this relationship) in a highly abbreviated manner. It too, then, appears to represent some sort of divine narrative charm concerning Artemis, albeit a highly abbreviated one, used to make an item holy or powerful. Given space is usually in short supply with the loose items typically used as amulets, the inscriptions that they carry are often abbreviated; so the possibility that any listing of divine figures on a runic amulet is part of a divine charm of some sort should not be dismissed lightly. (Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects)

This brings up so many questions.

Who is Vesuna, for one, and what role did she play in Esia’s story?

If the inscription is a kind of shorthand for a magical spell, what was it’s purpose?

Why was the figurine fish-shaped?

A quick google revealed that Vesuna is an indigenous Italic Goddess venerated by the Marsi, Volscians and Umbrians who was originally partnered with Pomonus Popdicus, the protector of fruit trees and gardens. (She is described as being “of” or “belonging to” him – Vesune Puemunes Pupřikes – implying a hierarchical relationship with this male double of Pomona the orchard Goddess.) Later during the Roman period dedications were made to Vesuna alongside Ceres and Juno Lucina.

There is some speculation that she is the Celtic Vesunna worshipped in Roman Gaul (and particularly the area surrounding the city Périgueux, which she was the patron of.) She seems to be a Goddess of abundance and good luck, as well as lakes and other bodies of water, with her symbols being the cornucopia and sistrum, on account of which she was syncretized with Isis.

Though important enough to be mentioned in the Tabulae Iguvinae no myths have come down concerning Vesuna (or Vesunna) so we can only speculate about the role she played in Esia’s story as found on the bronze fish figurine.

However it suggests to me an encounter with Mêla the Golden Apples among the Toys of Dionysos.

And since the findsight of the inscription was in the territory of Rhaetia, my mind drifts to things Germanic and especially Iðunn, and because of the bronze fish Loki. But I could just be reaching. 

15 thoughts on “A myth in miniature

        1. That can be tricky to sort out, especially when you’re dealing with a localized expression that differs significantly from the common perception of the divinity. This is where your diviners, ritual specialists, theologians and the like come in handy.

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          1. One thing that keeps blocking me from seeing the same God in multiple places is Monotheism. Every time, I read your postings about the Starry Bear, I keep getting creeped out thinking “is this soft Monotheism.” Perhaps in your writing some day, you can explain the difference.


              1. My issue comes from the sense of all Gods are the same. Or Jupiter is really Zeus with a Latin name. I know that is not what you are doing. But my squick comes when finding Odr is maybe Dionysus by another name. I don’t think that is what you are doing. Dionysus could be Odr if that’s what the Norse saw. Not that the two Gods are really the same. I am not sure if I am clear. It’s like in English, bow as in the weapon and bow as bending in a greeting from the waist. Bow by itself could be either depending on the context.


                1. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s soft Monotheism. If Dionysos and Odr are indeed the same deity then that’s just that. Their identification has no bearing on the existence of the other Gods. In fact, with how syncretism often works according to hard Polytheist theology, saying that Dionysos is Odr is not even necessarily Their only relationship. It could very well be that there is Dionysos and Odr as just Themselves and then Dionysos-Odr is a conscious working together of the two deities. It wouldn’t even be the first time Dionysos had a relationship like that. Dionysos is syncretized with members of His own family at times like some of His children and siblings. Even His own parents at times. Not to mention, Sannion has stated that some forms of Odr are heroic as opposed to being a deity. There are plenty of individuals that Dionysians (especially in the Starry traditions) take to be mortal forms of Dionysos. So basically based on all the information we have on Dionysos and Odr, we find that Their relationship is most likely far from being one dimensional. An identification between Dionysos and Odr would not preclude other kinds of relationships being simultaneously true

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  1. Without having seen the photo of the amulet, is it possible that it’s not a fish and instead an idealized form of arrowhead?


  2. This is complicated. I think if a Deity reveals itself in a local manifestation, even if one suspects it’s the same Deity as that One over there, we have to respect the theophany and engage with it in the traditionally prescribed manner. For instance, I’m having a push to honor Ceres right now. There was a huge discussion in my house about whether or not this was the same Goddess as Demeter (I don’t think it is, but my housemate isn’t sure. Sannion is convinced They’re the same). The result: the regional mysteries are important. If Ceres is coming as Ceres and not Demeter, then perhaps it’s because there are certain mysteries She carries as an Italian Goddess (if it is the same Goddess) that are different from the mainland Greek or Eleusinian or even Akkadian Demeter…that needs to be respected. I may never, ever be convinced that Demeter and Ceres are the same Deity but in the end, the way that I respond to the theophany and that I engage devotionally doesn’t change because of that.


  3. Hmm, could there be a link from Roman Gaul Vesuna, to the Brythonic Senuna (or Senua)? Whilst there is not much information on Senuna, She has been linked to Minerva. The Brythons/Britons may have taken Her to Brittany with them. Vesuna could be an aspect of Minerva, if you’re into syncretism and that sort of thing.

    Also, how do you pronounce Esia properly?


    1. Very interesting. I don’t know anything about Senuna so I’m off to the google!

      Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d probably pronounce it “eh si ah” or “es eeh ah.” Except for diphthongs most vowels were stressed in ancient Greek (as opposed to modern Greek where they’ve all kind of gotten flattened, and Bs are now Vs.) It’s probable that the same held true for Etruscan.


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