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Sucking the victim‘s mother‘s teats – the Etruscans and the Caucasian vendetta…

February 16, 2013


An engraving on a bronze mirror found in Volterra and dating from cca. 300 a. Chr. (TLE, 399) figures a very strange scene: kneeling, a hirsute and bearded Hercules is busily sucking the teats of a consenting, but distant, Juno/Hera. This strange act is performed under the scrutiny of a group of tense, unidentified witnesses.

The text incised on the mirror says: eca sren tva iχnac hercle unial clan θrasce. Part of the inscription is immediately comprehensible: this adult Hercle sucking the teats of an adult Uni is called Unial clan, ”Hercules son of Juno“, in Etruscan Uni, gen. Unial. Hercules sucks Juno/Hera/Uni, who, following this, becomes symbolically his mother.

This image has always puzzled the Etruscologists. Hercules is here sucking the teats of his worst enemy, Juno-Hera-Uni, who pursued him with an inextinguishable hatred during all his earthly heroic life. Not only is he drinking her milk, but he is also mysteriously called “son of Uni”, Unial clan! We shouldn’t be surprised if this led to widely different interpretations,  sometimes bordering on the grotesque (starting with Trombetti, who saw in it a purely alimentary act: “Questa imagine mostra come Ercole di Giunone figlio poppava.”). (Trombetti, A. La lingua etrusca. Grammatica, testi con commento, saggi di traduzione interlineare, lessico. (1928), p. 208.).

The solution to this obviously ritual act is again to be found in the Caucasus. It is an act of reconciliation which closes a vendetta -or which leads to the liberation of a slave- a custom that remained alive and functioning until our days. It was practiced by the Svans, but also by a great number of neighbouring tribes and nations. For a criminal, sucking the teats of his victim‘s mother was very often the only means of escaping an implacable vendetta. Thus, among the Ingush and the Chechens (references available only in Russian): “The assassin became a foster brother of the victim if he managed to sneak to the dead man‘s mother, and, tearing away her clothes, touched her breasts with his lips. It was the only way to escape certain death.” (Kрупнов, Е. И. Средневековая Ингушетия. (Наука, 1971), p. 190.)

Among the Karachai: “If the family of the victim refused the reconciliation, the assassin could try, through ruse or by force, to touch with his lips the breasts of the dead man‘s mother, or of another woman from the family. This established a close kinship and put an end to the vendetta.” (Шаманов, И. М., Невская, В. П. & Караева, А. И. Карачаевцы. Историко-этнографический очерк. (1978), p. 213.)

The same strange and unique custom has been attested among the Abkhaz: “L’assassin devenait un parent (frère de lait) du mort s’il pouvait parvenir jusqu’à la mère de celui-ci, lui arracher les vêtements et lui toucher la poitrine avec ses lèvres. De cette manière, il pouvait échapper à la mort.” (G. Charachidzé, Systèmes vindicatoires caucasiens. Revue du MAUSS 7, 99-126 (1990).)

A similar ritual was enacted by the Chechens when a slave was liberated, being automatically adopted by the family of his owners (И. А. Клингер, in Пленники Большой Чечни. (Грозный, 1992, (1857), pp. 10-11.).

This is the only possible explanation of the ritual act reproduced on the Etruscan mirror. In the Greek versions of the myth, Hera‘s hatred for Hercules, whom she pursues relentlessly, is not a rivalry between equals. Hercules is an outcast who lost his royal attributes at birth. He is repeatedly forced to perform a slave‘s work, or a series of works.

But, through the ritual engraved on the back of the Etruscan mirror, he becomes the son of the Gods‘ queen: Unial clan.

Once we understand this, the meaning of the inscription becomes clear: the accent is not put on the act of suckling, but on the expression Unial clan, on the fact that Hercules, this total enemy, becomes the son of Uni/Juno/Hera through a ritual which, for the Romans or the Greeks, must have been incomprehensible. (It is true that some late versions of the Hercules saga, like the one told by Dionysus Siculus, mention some sort of reconciliation between Hercules and Hera, immediately before the hero’s apotheosis, but there is never any mention of a ritual such as the sucking of the teats.)

Now, now… Does that tell us anything about the origin of the Etruscans?


A slightly longer French version of this text can be read here:

Téter la mère du mort – les Etrusques et la vendetta caucasienne…


From → Paraphernalia

  1. “Don’t get me wrong, this is just our usual matriarchal Diplomacy-in-Action”, said Mrs. Clinton baring her breast to the Ambassador… 😛

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  1. Téter la mère du mort – les Etrusques et la vendetta caucasienne | Cabal in Kabul

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