Origins Of Vanth In The Etruscan And Celtic Worlds

Origins Of Vanth In The Etruscan And Celtic Worlds
Copyright © Photograph by Flex Dreams

Winged female figures are not uncommon in Etruscan iconography. While such fantastic figures are often generically referred to as “Lasa,” one variant of the winged female is known by the name “Vanth.” Images of the Vanth figure frequently appear on cinerary urns from the region of Volterra, Italy, although one of her most recognisable representations is within the scene of the sacrifice of the Trojan prisoners in Vulci’s François Tomb. She is usually depicted wearing “high hunting boots, crossed bands, a folded over tunic girt under the breasts, and detached sleeves or doubled bracelets.”

Scholars have traditionally understood her as a distinctly Etruscan addition to such scenes. Unlike images of the more generic Lasa, which do not appear to be explicitly connected with the underworld or death, images of the Vanth are often included in scenes of Greek or Etruscan myth depicting the impending death of some individuals. Dc Macmis suggests that she should be understood as an Etruscan conception of the physical embodiment of death itself. Representations of Vanth frequently shows her with attributes such as keys and torches, suggesting that she at times is conceived as a psychopomp, a demonic entity responsible for guiding the newly deceased to the underworld. However Vanth’s inclusion in such scenes of violence, especially within scenes of mythology. Also appears to serve as an iconographic indication that one or more of the figures represented in the scene is on the verge of death.

To the viewer of a scene wherein she is depicted, she indicates the impending death of one or more of the individuals depicted. Conceivably, she was understood, at least in part, as serving a similar narrative role as a death harbinger for the constituent members of scenes in which she appears.

While representations of winged humans are found in Etruscan iconography as early as the seventh-century B.C.E., Vanth figures acting in the role of a death harbinger appear only after the beginning of the fourth-century. Although scenes drawn from Greek mythology are not common in Etruscan funerary iconography in the sixth and fifth-centuries, it is curious that, for example, the mid-sixth-century depiction of the murder of Troilus in Tarquinia’s Tomb of the Bulls does not show any such harbinger figure. However, scenes depicting the same scene on fourth- century Volterran cinerary urns frequently do. Although this single comparison is insufficient to justify much speculation, it remains intriguing that the significant popularity of Vanth figures in fourth and third-century funerary reliefs does not appear to be anticipated by earlier versions of such harbinger figures in Etruscan funerary iconography.

The female death harbinger has a long history in European myth and folklore. Her most famous and nuanced expression is the Irish “badlib” or “bean si” the “Banshee,” as she is known in her Anglicized form. Most folklore traditions regarding the Banshee describe the phenomenon as an aural manifestation, the disembodied wail of a woman. In Irish folklore traditions, the Banshee’s wail is heard by members of a community before or just after the death of a member of that community. Folklorists throughout Ireland record related tales of visual manifestations of the Banshee as well. When individuals report seeing a Banshee, the figure is usually described as a female with long, flowing hair. Often, she is said to comb her hair as she cries or moans. Regional variations exist regarding her appearance: she is sometimes reported to be very old and small, and on other occasions described as beautiful and young. In one story collected in 1937-1938 in County Clare, two men describe her as having wings on the rare occasions when the Banshee touches a living person, it is said that her fingers burn the skin.

Lysaght traces this folklore tradition to a character often present in Irish mythology: the “Washer at the Ford.” The “Washerwoman” is present in numerous medieval Irish stories such as to Gall Bruidne Do Clioca (“The Destruction of Da Choca’s Hostel”), Caitizréim Tlioirdlicalbliaigh (“The Triumphs of Turlough”), and, most famously Aided Con Culainn (“The Death of Cii Chulainn”). In each story, the hero — Cor mac Conloingeas, Donnchadh, or Cii Chulainn, respectively — approaches a woman washing the blood from clothing or armour at a river’s ford. When asked to whom the washed items belong, the woman replies that they are those of the hero himself.

‘The Death of Cii Chulainn’ provides one of the more detailed accounts of the hero’s interaction with the Washer at the Ford. Cu Chulainn’s druid companion, Cathfad, interprets the vision of the girl washing the bloody spoils and identifies her as irlgrn Boidlidhi, “Badh’s daughter” in Old Irish. Ci Chulainn responds that he will not turn hack from the impending battle “though Badb herself be washing my spoils” (“ge ata in Badbh ac nighi m’faidhdhe-si”). The specific association of the Washerwoman with Badb occurs not only in ‘The Death of Cu Chulainn’ but in several similar stories. For example, in ‘The Triumphs of Turlough,’ the figure who later identifies herself as hrónach of Burren is first described by the party as a badb.

Badb is a goddess of war, linked explicitly with battle and battlefield death. Her presence in Irish epic as a foreboding washerwoman figure appears to represent a survival of an earlier Celtic tradition or belief system wherein this war goddess served some prophetic role prior to battle. Her relationship to an earlier Celtic divinity appears to be reinforced by the fact that stories of similar supernatural washerwomen who prefigure death are found in folklore traditions in other regions of the Celtic world: namely, Scotland and Spain.

The Badb character in numerous Irish myths articulates her multifaceted role as a battlefield divinity. Hennessy’s survey of literary evidence describes a figure typical of several surviving stories: a supernatural female who often appears prior to battle to foretell the doom of the hero. Alternatively, some figures referred to as Badb are present on the battlefield itself, confusing or terrifying combatants with a wailing, high-pitched shriek. In numerous instances, Badb or Badb-related figures are closely associated with royston or carrion crows and are sometimes described as transforming themselves into such a bird.

Over a considerable period of time, Badb appears to evolve in myths and folk traditions from a figure explicitly associated with death in battle into a somewhat more benign figure. The Badb of earlier texts, explicitly aggressive or hostile toward the protagonist, gives way to the stock character of the washerwoman, who ultimately fades into the folklore tradition of the weeping woman who combs her hair and, finally, into nothing more than the disembodied cries of the Banshee. Of course, the absolute chronology of this transformation is neither historically nor archaeologically determinable. Legends utilising the Washerwoman motif are among the earliest preserved texts from the medieval Irish period, and the specific folklore tradition was associating of the Washerwoman with prophecy before violent conflict seems to have continued as late as 1691 when soldiers reported seeing such a figure in a stream prior to the battle of Aughrim.

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