This article by Jeremy Bernstein was published in the "Aspen Times Weekly" of July 11th 2003 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and of the editor.
Back to the main site of the Chimaera


In a Word "lion"

By Jeremy Bernstein


The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days and whom the Romans, in their usual neighbourly fashion, wiped out entirely to make room for Rome with a very big R. They couldn't have wiped them all out, there were too many of them. But they did wipe out the Etruscan existence as a nation and a people. However, this seems to be the inevitable result of expansion with a big E, which is the sole raison d'Ítre for a people like the Romans.
D.H. Lawrence


For reasons that I will try to make plausible, I have recently been perusing Etruscan glossaries. The one I have in front of me is typical of the genre. It is given as an appendix to "The Etruscan Language; An Introduction," by Giuliano Bonfante and his daughter Larissa Bonfante.

The senior Bonfante, who is entering his 99th year, is an emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Turin while Larissa Bonfante is a professor of classics at New York University. Both are well-known in the field of Etruscan studies.

The glossary is not very long, a few hundred words, many of which have question marks after them, indicating the proposed meanings are tentative. Most of the words look very strange. That is, they do not seem to correspond to any language one knows. For example ?fleres? apparently means ?statue? while ?nurthanatur? is a group that does ?nurth? ? whatever that is. The glossary gives a question mark after ?nurth.?

As I was looking down the columns I came across a word that stopped me cold ? ?leu,? which means ?lion.? Leu the lion ? where did that come from?

To put this in perspective, one must understand that Etruscan is in a certain sense an orphan language. Like Basque, it does not belong to any of the well-known linguistic families such as the Indo-European, the Semitic or the African. Some scholars claim to see similarities between it and the Raetic language which is found on some inscriptions in northern Italy or Lemnian ? a language found on artifacts from the island of Lemnos. Perhaps these three languages descended from a prehistoric proto-language, or maybe the Etruscans got around.

But "leu"?

The American Heritage dictionary is not much help. On the etymology it notes confusingly that our lion word comes from Middle English, from Old French, from Latin leo, leon, from Greek leon, of Semitic origin. It then goes on to say "Old French" lion is the source of English lion, and the Old French word comes from Latin leo, leonis. After that the etymology is less clear.

The Latin word is related somehow to Greek (leon, leontos, or the earlier lewon, lewontos), which appears in the name of the Spartan king Leonides, "Lion"s son, who perished at Thermopylae. The Greek word is somehow related to the Coptic labai, laboi, "lioness." In turn, the Coptic labai is borrowed from a Semitic source related to Hebrew labi and Arkkadian labbu. There is also a native ancient Egyptian word, rw (where r can stand for either r or l, and vowels were not indicated), which is surely related as well.

Since lions were native to Africa, Asia, and Europe in ancient times (Aristotle tells us there were lions in Macedon in his day), we have no way of ascertaining who borrowed which word from whom. This is all very well, but what has it got to do with Etruscan?

I will tell you what I know, but first we need an historical and linguistic detour.

It is not certain when the Etruscans first came to Italy, nor from where, but by the eighth century B.C. they had amalgamated small settlements into what became the Etruscan cities in what is now Tuscany. They called themselves Rassena or Rasna, but were called various things related to the word "tower" "Tursci" or people who build towers by their neighbors who had only lower structures.

Most of the cities in "Etruria" were close to what is now known as the Costa degli Etruschi, the Etruscan Coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Many of the cities such as Orvieto and Bologna will be familiar, while a place like Vetulonia may not be. I have a particular fondness for Vetulonia since on a recent bicycle trip I visited it, which accounts for this burst of interest in things Etruscan. Since Vetulonia is on top of a very steep hill, I must, in the interests of full disclosure, say that I did not pedal to the top, but managed to cop a ride in a van.

In Etruscan times, it seems the town stood on the shores of a lake that communicated with the sea so that it was a port. There are remains of the original town and some tombs of the kind that contained much of the statuary, gold work, coins and the like that tell us the little we know about the Etruscans. Some of this can be found in a charming small museum in the modern town.

A much better collection, of course, can be found in the Museo Archeologico in Florence. Among other things, it contains the magnificent Chimaera of Arezzo. It is in bronze, a specialty of Arezzo, and was made around 400 B.C. and apparently restored by Botticelli. It has the body of a lion with a snake for a tail. The snake is attacking the horn of a goat that is growing out of the lion's back. The lion figures large in Etruscan art, although there were surely none in Etruria at this time. There are also some examples of the engraved copper mirrors, some of the engravings are quite sexy, which occasionally have inscriptions on them that seem to identify the owner. One has the impression that the Etruscans were fond of eating and drinking and sex, like Italians.

The Etruscans apparently traded widely with their neighbors. One of their most important imports was the alphabet, which they got from the Greeks, who in turn had gotten it from the Phoenicians, who apparently invented it, and a magnificent invention it was. It meant that everything you could say in a language could be written down with a small number of symbols.

Think what it means to use ideograms like the Chinese, some fifty thousand of them, to render the written language. Phoenician writing, like the other Semitic languages, ran from right to left and did not express the vowels. The Greeks wrote from left to right and did express vowels. The Etruscans took this over with a few variants. But the symbols do not look like the modern Greek alphabet.

The numbers are also interesting. I bought a T-shirt in the museum in Vetulonia that has them. "C" stands for 100 and "X" for 10, like Roman numerals, except that the Etruscans used this notation first.

One might think that, knowing the alphabet, one would have no trouble deciphering the language. Alas, this is not so. When it comes to language decipherment, there are three cases one can consider. There is the case of a language like the Egyptian hieroglyphics, where both the symbols and the underlying language they represent are unknown. Then there is the case of a language like Linear B, found on tablets in Crete dating a few hundred years prior to Etruscan writing. In this case, the symbols, which stood for syllables and not letters in an alphabet, were unknown but the underlying language turned out to be an archaic form of Greek.

In the Etruscan situation, the alphabet is known but not the underlying language. Moreover, while thousands of fragments of Etruscan writing have been found, they are not that helpful. Most of them are proper names belonging to people in tombs or on vases or mirrors. There are a few notable exceptions. One is a bronze model of a sheep?s liver that has on it inscribed the names of a large number of gods. One supposes this was a tool used in teaching how to use sheep livers for prophecies. Even when Roman power was increasing, Romans were sent to Etruscan cities to learn the art of divination. There is also a mummy wrapping, which has a fairly extensive text involving religious ceremonies. But if the Etruscans had poets or historians, their work is still undiscovered. One is basically trying to decipher a language from what is written on tombstones.

This brings us back to where we started, the lion.

It was the Egyptians who introduced the scarab, a gem in which the top is in the form of a beetle and the bottom is a carved surface that can be in some cases used as a seal. These scarabs found their way into Greece and then into Etruria. Whether the Etruscan scarabs were carved by Etruscan artists or by Greeks working in Etruria is impossible to say. This has some bearing on our lion.

As I have mentioned, the lion plays a very important role in Etruscan art, including scarabs. There are scarabs that show individual lions or lions attacking various forms of prey. But among them one is quite unique. It depicts a lioness and a cub in the act of suckling. Above the lioness there are three symbols. They are "l", "e", "u" in the archaic Etruscan alphabet. This represents our entire knowledge of the Etruscan word for lion.

It is what linguists call a hapax legomenon, a word or form that occurs only once in the recorded corpus of a language. It presumably was taken from the Greek a loan word, but it is very strange. It is not the Greek word for lion, to say nothing of lioness ? which is "leaina." What does this mean?

I put the question to Dieter Steinbauer, one of the acknowledged experts in the Etruscan language. This is what he wrote:

"There are three observations to be made. As Etruscan was a language that didn't normally distinguish between masculine and feminine genders [male and female personal names did have markings in Etruscan], "leu" must have the meaning "lioness" too. The loss of the final "n" is embarrassing because Etruscan words with an ending "un" do occur. Perhaps the loan passed via an Italic language where n-stems had no "n" in the nominative. (e.g. Latin "homo"; Greek Platon, Plato) Normally nouns were rendered in the accusative of the source language. So perhaps the Etruscans thought the animal "animated." I know no further example.

That is what we know. But Etruscan studies are very active, so one can hope that another "lion" will be found.

Jeremy Bernstein is an aficionado of lost languages. He has written many pieces for The Aspen Times, including a two-part essay on deciphering the Linear B language, which was discovered on tablets in Crete .