Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Roman and Etruscan worship of Amphiaraus

 In the ancient world, after an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and were thought to ensure that the child's limbs would grow straight. 

The earliest depictions of swaddled babies are votive offerings and grave goods from Crete and Cyprus, 4000 to 4500 years old.  Votive statuettes have been found in the tombs of ancient Greek and Roman women who died in childbirth, displaying babies in swaddling clothes. In shrines dedicated to Amphiaraus, models representing babies wrapped in swaddling clothes have also been excavated. Apparently, these were frequently given as thank-offerings by anxious mothers when their infants had recovered from sickness.

Amphiaraus was a mythical hero that was the son of Apollo and the mortal Hypemnestra. In Greek mythology Amphiaraus was a seer and greatly respected in his time.  He was also one of the heroes present at the Calydonian boar Hunt. In the tragedy "Seven Against Thebes" Amphiaraus is persuaded to take part in a raid in which Aphiaraus had already forseen his own death. He tried to warn the other warriors that the raid would fail but they would not be dissuaded.  During the battle Amphiaraus tried to flee from the a famous son of Poseidon but Zeus threw a thunderbolt and opened the earth which swallowed Amphiaraus together with his chariot.  Thereafter Amphiaraus was worshiped as a fortune-telling god and healing god like Asclepius.  In Etruscan tradition inherited by the Romans, a son of Amphiaraus escaped the slaughter at Thebes and led an expedition to Italy where he founded a colony at the location of Tibur, modern-day Tivoli.

Image: A mold-made earthenware votive effigy of a swaddled infant, Etruscan, 300-200 BCE, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

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