Etruscan swan song, p.3
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       Etruscan swan song, p.3

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  I was wrapped in a deep sleep when suddenly towards midnight Eolo opened his black cave and released his lions. Their roars, like the stormy sea, rose from the depth of the volcano, struck the mountain slopes and with an echoing boom fell on the chestnut woods above the crag opposite my house. Violent gusts of wind struck the countryside with the furious intensity of a bellowing herd of beasts, trampling every living thing underfoot.

  The first drops of rain echoed on the roof tiles like the beating of hooves, harbingers of the torrents which followed immediately afterwards, cascading in biblical floods against the panes of the dormer window.

  I usually adore storms, but this one made me strangely nervous, frightened almost, my imagination leaping, holding my breath, and eyes wide, as I peered out of the window watching the lightning devour the darkness. The shrieking wind was joined almost immediately by claps of thunder interspersed by the ominous creaking of the roof beams; the earth and the sky strained against each other in mutually destructive explosive force as I shivered in terror. Then from the depth of the darkness, from the infinite abyss of eternity hidden even from the probing of a fearful mind, louder than the thunder, than the howling of the dogs, than the screech of the owls and than the storm itself I heard a voice screaming a name. I waited with baited breath until I heard it again:

  “Isa! Isa!”

  I realised that I wasn’t imagining it, an unknown voice, a woman’s voice, was screaming my name in the dark of the night.

  Petrified I just managed to make the sign of the cross; in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Once, twice, three times and again; in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost ... I started to tremble like the last leaf desperately hanging on to a dead tree. God help me, a voice that sounded as if it came from the depths of a bottomless well, a voice that was certainly not of this world but issued from the breast of the night in all the clarity and vibrancy of one soul seeking another, which had me trembling because in truth I had been expecting its call for many a moon. I had awaited it like the Wise Men had sought the comet in the sky. I knew that the voice calling the living from beyond life could only belong to Thetia the seer. My fear caressed the dark, wrapped in a winding sheet of terror, frozen, but with my ears pricked like a panther crouched to kill, waiting for the call to ring out again...there it was!

  “Isa! Isa!”

  Like a sleepwalker I leapt out of bed and paced up and down the room in indecision, captivated by the mystery of the voice. The raindrops pressed against the windowpane like infinite eyes, secret bards of the waters, custodians of the truth beyond the clouds which they would never share with the river, with the sea or with me. I stared blindly at their glittering course down to nourish the earth’s breast until even the night birds were shrilling my name..

  I could bear the tension no longer and rushed out of the door barefoot into the storm.

  Outside the skies were furiously spewing rain and hail. Blinded by the lightning I groped my way down the steps and crossed quickly into the storm-battered ilex grove. Flashes of lightning illuminated the branches of the trees tossing and groaning like chained monsters struggling vainly to get free. I quickened my pace and as if impelled by the fury of the elements started to run, my feet pounding on the livid, rain-battered earth. When I finally reached the stream I found it had broken its banks. The waters had demolished the fence and carried it away like a raiding pirate. The flood roiling in the stream bed had stirred up a mass of red mud which had inundated the surrounding land; even the little wooden bridge had been swallowed by its impetus.

  To cross that Acheron in flood, where a frond of wisteria drooped like a ghostly liana, I wedged a plank between a walnut tree and the elders and groped my way across hanging on to the remains of the parapet. Beneath me the current was swollen with ferns, water lilies, reeds and tree bark, flotsam snatched away by the fury of the flood.

  On the further bank in the overgrown vegetable patch a dripping tangle of brambles covered in old man’s beard looked like a pale ghost stretching out its deathly hands towards me in the dark. As I fled with terror in hot pursuit I could feel in the midst of the dead leaves underfoot frogs, toads, snakes and other strange, tiny creatures evicted from their burrows by the fury of the storm fleeing up the rough hillside too, just as terrified as I was.

  With tears in my eyes and my heart in my mouth I gathered my courage and started to pray aloud again, my voice rising and rising against the storm. I was almost shouting by the time I got to the chestnut forest that crowned the Acqua Zita crag.

  Although the spring was well advanced and the yellow-gold beetle had been buzzing from elderflower to elderflower for days the chestnut trees were still stark and bare. Their mighty branches were always the last to bud and the nights would shorten before they were fully decked with their mantle of scented white flowers dangling like bunches of grapes. From then until the first autumn winds teased them into yielding their prickly round fruits the chestnuts would hold sway with their black and white magic, said to have wrought many marvels in the silent shade of their gnarled trunks. As I gazed at the wood a fork of lightning accompanied by an immense clap of thunder streaked over my head from above Thetia’s cave and split a huge chestnut tree in two like a pomegranate right in front of me. Terrified I stood rooted to the spot and crossed myself yet again. God help me! Our Father who art in heaven… You who are all powerful, paint the skies with stars, throw a stone and chase the storm away. I prayed with my eyes shut and crossing myself again and again.

  Many a time I had stopped dead above Thetia’s cave, frightened that my footsteps crackling on the dry leaves could disturb her eternal sleep, but now a new, mad fear chained me trembling to the crag. Without moving a step I slowly opened my eyes and, with the help of the faint glow of light coming from the village behind me and the few farmhouses opposite it, managed to make out the scene around me. The mist had traced fine spiders’ webs of silver threads on the thorns in the thickets and for a moment I was mesmerised by the tableau, then suddenly I realised that the wind had dropped and it had started to snow. Large snowflakes danced down around me and one landed on my face like a whisper straining to reach my ear.

  And a whisper it was! The roar of that night had muted into a feverish, mysterious whisper, cosmic and prophetic. A whisper mingled with the falling snow, a disembodied voice, no louder than the buzzing of bees, more fragile than a ghost’s caress, softer than the snow itself.

  The unthinkable had happened, the storm had carried Thetia’s voice through space into my thoughts, and while a white rainbow slowly covered me I listened in silence as she murmured in my ear.

  And you, my reader, who now so carefully ponder these words, come closer; listen to Thetia’s murmur with me, come, follow me on this journey and I will sing for you and you alone. Break your rusty chains and spread your wings to fly over the open seas with me. You and I will become corsairs, riding the waves, listening to the sirens’ song. And when a scarlet bunch of grapes drop ripe from the burning sun we will drink a toast in the juice beloved of the gods. You long to fly but do not dare? Look then! See the frost already melting on the snowy peaks, crown your head with entwined olive leaves and fly with me, the earth warmed by the sun will open and at last we will see where the red poppy sleeps.

  If you wish we will draw the poison forever from the fangs of the black serpent that lives in the sacred forest where the acorn’s spawn grows tall, and together with Pan we will herd sheep and eat fruit which grows without seeds. But if you, you my friend, have lost forever the gift of flight, my wings alone will not suffice and not even the roll of a hundred thousand drums will wake you from your torpor. But if you desire, o man of a harsh race glued to the earth’s hard crust, if you truly desire, for you and you alone I will summon from the depths of the earth a fiery steed with two tails who will take us where no one dares to venture.

  Do not tarry here any longer, quick, jump up on his back and together we will r
ide over the terrible, scarlet-crested, Cimina Mountains, flying over woods and forests and hidden valleys. And in the golden sun of noon we will reach the endless grasslands where the flowers grow taller than trees and where the streams flow singing towards infinity. If the moon allows us to pass we will hover over the deep ravines dug by the Etruscans, over the bridges hidden under banks of hawthorn, over the red-painted tombs and once we have reached the place no one dares go we will stop to listen to the silence, the sovereign of all sounds.

  If you come with me we will eavesdrop on Egyptian love songs, perch on King Solomon’s carved cedar wood canopy, taste manna and wild desert honey, and as evening falls we will be warmed by Bedouin campfires and by the light of the flames we will watch slim-waisted dancers clash their golden ankle bracelets as they writhe in exotic rhythms and before we fall asleep on pillows of clouds we will give the stars new names and the Pleiades, the Hyades and the Bear will be reborn with us.

  Together you and I will cancel forever the tracks left across the burning desert sands by slaves in chains and then singing we will take the Lion road to the tower of Babel in Babylon. Quick, jump up on his back, and we will wade across an imaginary stream and find ourselves in Jerusalem where we will seek the ancient treasure hidden by the Queen of Sheba.

  But now, before we go, open your heart just for a moment and listen to Thetia’s tale here with me:

  “At the beginning of time, when the drums of the gods rolled in the chaos of nothing, the divine spirit who generated the earth and the sky separated dry land from the waters and the sacred forests of the Cimina mountains emerged proudly from the primeval mud. At first they were just a shapeless desert of mud and magma spewed from blazing volcanoes. It was only when the furnace had ceased to boil and hurl forth flaming boulders and liquid rocks that the Cimina became an arid crust of waste earth. Not even a bramble or gorse bush managed to penetrate the cracked lava spewed by the fire god, the wild, magnificent, shady forests were still merely a seed in the hand of the goddess of life. One day the goddess, mounted on her winged stag, was flying over the craters and saw that they were extinct. Seeing this, she threw a tiny scarlet acorn down onto the naked mountains and finally the earth swelled and gave birth to the first oak tree, the tree of life, creation’s starting point, the transcendent umbilical cord the whole universe springs from.

  Many aeons later, at the dawn of time, prehistoric peoples planted a huge spherical rock that had fallen from the skies in the soft clay. The cult stone protected the souls of the dead which it incarnated. The ancients sculpted the stone with a vaguely human shape, but one day other silent forms suddenly appeared, their eyes were deep-set in the rock; almost as if the bowels of the silent craters had born them. Who could have sculpted these mysterious idols, immobile sentries with their feet planted in the cold lava? Nobody knew, but from that day on the double-faced figures were guardians of the crossroads and defended the Cimina mountains from all evil spirits.

  And so from the union between the oak and the sacred stone life’s vital energy was born and from the cone of the volcano a large pool of boiling sulphur water suddenly erupted. The cone had always been a fetish with the local shepherds and now the ancient fathers decreed the boiling springs a gateway between the earthly and the divine. From then on, every year during the dry season, when the ears of barley dance with the poppies and the cornflowers in the dry breeze, I, Thetia, daughter of Janus, the god of the air who opens the doors of the heavens every morning and closes them again every evening, born of a wood nymph nurtured on cream and honey my father loved to madness, I was chained, naked and unadorned, to the highest branches of the sacred tree overhanging the steaming pool by the ancient shepherds to invoke my father Janus with my cries. I called on him again and again until he ordered the dense clouds to form and the rain to pour its gelid tears on the dry earth with its fields of barley and hidden, dormant life, and so finally the pastures would again be covered in rich green grass.

  But one year the rains came early and soaked the fields with their abundant moisture and the shepherds did not chain me to the tree to entreat my father. My father was furious, blinded by his rage and desire to punish the ungrateful mortals he ran roaring to open the jars where he stored the winds. Like drunkards the winds blew crazily in all directions until they ripped the green leaves from the sacred oak and the leaves were buffeted blindly about like rudderless boats until they settled in piles in the mire around the sacred pool. Only one stubborn leaf, imbued with the divine seed, refused to give up and struggled desperately to rise from the depths. Such was its longing to fly again that, after untold toil, the tiny, fragile leaf managed to free itself from its companions suffocating embrace and soar over the pool once more, where it saw its reflection transformed into a beautiful white butterfly. Its companions, still buried in mud, were so mad with jealousy when they saw it fluttering free that they threw stones to bring it crashing down. Such a lot of envy produced so many stones that they piled up one on top of the other until they had made a mountain; the first. After that, every time my father opened his jar of winds and other leaves fell into the mire while the little white butterfly still fluttered from flower to flower, flying higher and higher. So more and more stones flew to join those first ones, so many that they formed a whole chain of mountains, the primary cradle of life, sacred site of creation, the Cimina Mountains, so wild that they terrified travellers.”

  Thetia remained silent, as if she had nothing more to tell, but her spirit was with me, was in me, in the mists of the night at the foot of the Cimina Mountains, and almost without realising what I was saying I asked her:

  “You, O Thetia, who know the origin of these sacred mountains, can you tell me more about the mysterious woods? Can you tell me whether God moulded the first man from the burning ashes gushing from the Palanzana volcano or whether it is as the legend says and he was generated from the giant ferns in the narrow ravine of the Blue Mists? Is it true that…”

  “We all arrived here naked, we all came from the same place and we are all passing through. But even if you were able to count all the waves breaking on the shore, all the grains of sand hidden in the desert, all the leaves on the trees in the woods, all the drops of dew, the number of spore on each fern... even then you still wouldn’t be able to understand how God created the stars and the rain.”

  “But the legends, the ancient books tell...”

  “How to touch the skies with your bare hands? Haven’t you learnt yet that it is madness for fragile mortal creatures to try to understand the deep secrets of the spinning wheel that spins the mysterious thread of life? The rattling of the bones of our ancestors and the creaking of their skulls as they wander through the ruins of the past is enough to devour your sleep forever. Do you truly want to meet the dragons of the night who guide the coach with the spirits of those who took their own lives, spirits who lie unburied and flee the light? Don’t you know that fear will forge you on her anvil and you will become an arrow in her bow, a bolt in her sling, a dagger in her sheath? But….. if you are not afraid of fear, not afraid of the clamouring of monsters from hell, not afraid even of the strangled gasps of night’s spectres who will come to lie down beside you, if you want to challenge the ghosts of the past, in that case dig, dig without ceasing until you find the seeds of the snow, for only they hold the elixir of knowledge which will enable your eyes to see. What more are you waiting for? Hurry! Dig! Dig! Only cowards delay .”

  Without thinking, and without asking further questions, I dropped to my knees and with shaking hands started to dig under the thin mantle of snow. With broken nails and bleeding fingers I went on digging deeper and deeper as if possessed until I was completely covered in earth, and finally my hole started to fill slowly with water like a bronze crater.

  As I stared enchanted into the magic tarn everything around me assumed precise forms, Thetia was no longer just a whisper, but was standing beside me with her magnificent white lion. But there was little time, my poo
l was now brimming with water and the reflection beckoned like a mirror. Hurriedly I leaned over to plumb its depth like a child looking for the moon in a well. The smooth water quickened with life. A fascinating hazy picture took shape, a strange round object, a sort of floating transparent sphere seemed to be coming towards me.

  “What is it?” I asked divine Thetia:

  “The crystal ark which landed here many aeons ago. Do you not seek those who came before, our predecessors, the ones who used to walk this ancient land allotting every living thing its place? Well here they are, they came with the ark.”

  “Ark?” I echoed in astonishment, and as I watched the sphere landed as gently as a snowflake on the God Rock and the silent forest was magically suffused with silver.

  Bewildered I looked through the cosmic sphere’s clear glass and saw lovely girls with flowing locks: “Who are they?” I asked Thetia.

  “Priestesses, guardians of the Ark, superb descendants of a magnificent race of giants, the mysterious Rasèni. They are the daughters of Arius, the first creatures to inhabit these mountains, they brought light to the primordial darkness, they sowed the seeds of civilisation and in the ancient world they were masters of the arts.”


  “So they called themselves. But the Greeks named this mysterious, wealthy people after the sea they had settled on, calling them Tyrrhenian, and later the Romans called them Etruscans. Now the Rasèni are there waiting to descend the shining ladder, waiting for the white light of dawn to dance across the high meadows and purify the black substance hidden in the darkness. Only then may they finally set foot on the soil of their new home. The virgins know that once they have descended the ladder they will never be able to climb back up, and not even in their future lives will they be able to return to where they came from.

  In very ancient times, long before many false gods saw the light of day, Arius was the Supreme Being, sole guardian of the mountains, the green pastures, the most remote glades, the rushing rivers. From the heights of his splendid chariot, drawn by all-seeing, all-hearing, flying deer, he generated a race of pure, light-hearted giants, masters of all, even the sun’s rays and the dewdrops. The descendants of that immortal race sought refuge in these forests to save some faint shadow of their power and knowledge.”

  As I listened to her I watched the priestesses descending from their sphere and kneeling down to pray on the livid earth which was to be their home from now on. Then they dug a very deep hole and buried the ark on a small ledge to one side of the god’s rock, surrounded by thick trees and pools of boiling water, mouthpieces of the underlying volcano. Then they found a hollow rock and filled it with dry leaves and oak twigs; with a spark from a flint they proceeded to light the sacred fire destined to burn for all eternity.

  “Why are they hiding it?” I asked Thetia.

  “Just as a seed buried beneath the snow must putrefy without dying to create new life, so the ark, at the end of time, will become once again of the same substance as the stars. One day the virgins will build a high altar over it and thousands of times, over the years, they will loosen their long hair and conduct propitiatory rites, offering gifts, singing and dancing, they will cover it in white flour and fruits and pour milk, fine wine and honey into finely-chiselled crystal chalices. When this dark age is over a child will be born from the love between a daughter of Arius and a son of mortal man on the cusp of the new age, and this child will see the smoke of the sacred fire in the midst of the thick fog shrouding the Cimina mountains. Enormous flowers will grow in the pastures and corn will spring up spontaneously; the black serpent will retreat and when the poisonous hemlock sheds its seeds, by an act of faith the grown child will turn the sandglass of time upside down and will depart in the ark, destined to wander the skies and breathe life into new worlds.”

  For a moment the water in my pool went dark, but before I could utter a word my divine guide took the tale up again:

  “Time passed slowly through the endless procession of the centuries and the Cimina mountains were still at the mercy of the planet’s vitality, rent again and again by the volcano’s activity.

  The pure Rasèni breed, the beloved daughters of Arius, was preserved through the generations. The sisters lived scattered in caves, they had become a large tribe of expert hunters and horse tamers, they had magic power over animals and all living things, they were the perfect incarnation of their ancient ancestral world. Although they tried to instruct the primitive mortals in the revealed faith, in white magic and in their knowledge the tribe of men were afraid and many of them tried to avoid even their gaze, in time simpletons began to take them for wood nymphs. The daughters of Arius continued to live quietly near the ark’s hiding place until on the day dedicated to Venus, the fourteenth of the first month of the third season in the year 310 BC, a man decided to cross the wilderness of the Cimina mountains.

  No man before had ever dared cross the Cimina mountains, not even the bravest merchants. The Romans shunned it as an impenetrable, hideous wilderness and ancient legends said that its dark forests, cold and gloomy even at the height of summer, concealed the entrance to Hades, Lake Avernus.

  To discourage the Romans the priests – who were Etruscans – had woven hair-raising tales about the Cimina mountains. They said that in a frozen valley in the middle of the Cimina wilderness a mountain of red earth covered the ruins of a city once greater than Rome. Buried in the depth of the mountain were endless galleries and tunnels hollowed out by a forgotten race of giants from another world. These mysterious beings had built a huge temple under two waterfalls, one boiling and one freezing, with a forest of stone columns which concealed a hundred doors leading to the darkness of the afterlife, a frozen lake no one ever returned from. The high priests narrated that when the hot south winds blew from the African deserts winged furies, the ghastly custodians of Tartarus, emerged from the earth, snakes entwined in their hair and bats clinging to their nipples; torches and whips in their hands. With horrendous shrieks they drove anyone daring to tread on that sacred soil into the black lake of death and then wrapped their broken bodies in shrouds and laid them to rest in magnificently frescoed chambers.

  On that day dedicated to Venus, at a secret war council held on the Capitoline hill, an adventurous, arrogant Roman general, a brave and bloody warrior with long, flaming, red locks called Marcus Fabius Cesus, brother to Quintus Fabius Rullianus the Consul, asked the assembled senators for permission to penetrate the terrible barrier of the Cimina mountains.

  General Marcus Fabius Cesus seemed an appropriate choice for the task; he had grown up in Etruscan Cerae with friends of the family, spoke perfect Etruscan and had been instructed in all their lore. He had a reputation for being more over-bearing than the devil himself and ever ready to flame up over any imagined slight. Thus the man who was proposing to explore the terrible wilderness, inhabited solely by beasts, where no mortal man had yet dared set foot. But hush, let us listen to his speech.”

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