A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Time for a Post on Phoenician Influence on Etruscan Religion: The Semitic Great Goddess in Etruscan Italy

Once again we've been mired for a while in the stuffy old third millennium AD, so it's time for one of our ventures backwards. We all know the Phoenicians got around a lot and were quite an enterprising folk (ask a Maronite if you don't believe me). Ancient Etruria, the land of the Etruscans, is in Italy and not normally in the purview of this blog, but we have previously raised the burning question of "Punic and Berber Influences on Etruscan?" here a while back. Since the Etruscan language is still largely unknown (though the script is derived from the Greek alphabet and thus pronounceable), there are still many open questions, including the one we blogged about before.

So  I thought I'd note this post on the Paleoglot blog a few months ago: Estara Alphaza and the Phoenician Influence in Etruria. An excerpt:
The sequence estrei alφazei appears throughout an Etruscan document called the Liber Linteus. I take this to be marked in the locative case ending in -i (with a meaning like English 'by', 'with' or 'at'). I see in this an original exonym of a goddess *Estara Alφazai, a transparent byname of the pan-Semitic lady of fertility. We can compare *Estara to Punic Phoenician  *ʕAstoret or earlier Babylonian Ishtar, equatable with either the Great Goddess of the pantheon, Uni, or with the younger goddess Turan (aka Catha), the lady of fertility. The second term of this phrase is declined in the locative case too and appears to be a diminutive in -za. Stripping away the layered morphology of the second term then, we are reduced to a core root, *alφa, another transparent Semitic loan, meaning 'ox'.

Putting this all together, I therefore read Estrei Alφazei as 'before Ashtarte with Calf' in reference to a general religious theme that existed across several Mediterranean cultures whereby a goddess of fertility like Ashtarte or Asherah is portrayed in the form of a mother cow with a bull as consort (representing an equivalent of Canaanite Baal) and she rears a son who's predictably in the form of a calf. One is reminded perhaps of later Egyptian worship revolving around a mother Isis holding the child Horus, or later still a mother Mary cradling the child Jesus in her arms.
Phoenician Asthtart
Though I would suggest the proper Egyptian goddess for comparison would be Hathor, a fertility/maternity goddess often portrayed as a mother cow (something I'm not aware Isis ever was), and the photo with the post even looks a lot like representations of Hathor, whom the Greeks identified with Aphrodite; they also identified Phoenician Ashtara or Ashtart, whom they caled Astarte, with Aphrodite. It's well known that the whole northern Semitic world had a fertility goddess known as Ishtar/Astarte/Ashtart/Athart/Ashtoroth etc., and other forms of the name have apparently previously been found elsewhere in Etruscan. The great goddess was a pervasive figure in the Semitic pantheon, whose name varied less than the high god's did (El, Baal, etc.) and the Canaanite goddess Ashteroth was denounced by the Hebrew prophets. That she spread to Etruria is hardly surprising, and via the Greek Aphrodite she became one source of the Roman Venus.
Babylonian Ishtar

The Phoenicians or their Punic colonies may well have been how she got to Etruria, but she was well enough known throughout the Mediterranean for there to have been other routes.

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