Mariners transformed. The etruscan metamorphosis in mythical discourse

Miriam Gillett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper presents a detailed study of the well-known ancient myth of Dionysus' abduction by Etruscan pirates. It traces the myth through the literary evidence from the Hymn to Dionysus to texts of Euripides, Ovid, Apollodorus, Philostratus, Hyginus, Seneca and Nonnus, amongst others, and will consider how this story might have affected the construction of Etruscan group identity in antiquity. Particular focus is placed on the role of the Etruscans and their dis-cernably negative characterisation as pirates. In this myth, the Etruscan pirates take Dionysus aboard their boat, intending to sail off with him, but the god discovers their plot and causes a magical transformation to take place. Each account differs in specific details, but in every version, the Etruscan pirates metamorphose into dolphins, and jump into the sea. Through this popular tale, the importance of mythical discourse and its role in shaping attitudes and identities in the ancient world is clear. Not only will the role of the Etruscans in each version be analysed, particular attention will also be paid to the different authors and their shifting contexts and values. All of these Graeco-Roman writers had different relationships with Italy and the Etruscan world and these need to be understood in order to illuminate their literary intentions. With a mythical lifespan of at least twelve centuries, this paper will also briefly survey other non-literary allusions to the myth, including painted scenes on ceramic-wares, friezes and mosaics. This varied transmission aided the myth's survival, and consequently, the survival of the Etruscan pirate construct in antiquity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-422
Number of pages22
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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