Vanth: A Myth Derived

is a name carved in an Etruscan tomb,
a bronze woman whose arms are wreathed in snakes,
the beating of rainbow-shaded wings,
the stranger at the banquet,
a torch-bearer in dark places,
who comes to announce the end.

That’s what we know, from statue, vase and wall.
The Etruscans did not write her story down
in any way that we may read today.
For all we know
it’s right there in the Liber Agramensis.
But lacking a key to the Etruscan script,
I asked the darkness.
I sat in darkness, pondering Etruscan tombs,
their phosphorescence and porous passageways,
and this is how the dark replied.

is a huntress without peer,
the strong-limbed daughter of a wealthy house,
whose delight lies in scaling rocky crags
and stalking the Ciminian forest,
tireless in pursuit of the wounded beast,
her blade stops the pain.

The scholarship agrees,
citing her kilt and furry boots in the tomb of the Anina.
Her breasts are bare. A symbol of abundance
and charity, before the rise of Rome.
Etruscan women enjoyed a freedom
in all things, and furthermore
my vision grants to her a little boy
to follow in her steps, to hold her spear,
and clean the spoils.

Now, I see a feast.
A very grand occasion: there are fresh rushes
and purple hangings in the hall.
Etruscans loved their feasts
and this will be a special one indeed,
with saffron cakes and wine set out in bowls.
For whether she is widow now disposed
to love again, or took her lover young,
before his passage to the state of man,
tonight shall see their rite.
Vanth for her part vows
that she alone will bring meat to the table.
To spare her father’s herds and prove
herself the equal of her fame, and as a gift.
A bounteous gift to him that she shall wed.
So sets out in her boots, with hair tied back.
The boy comes on behind and leads the mule.
Soon, both are laden with wild sheep of the crags
and deer of the forest,
the Ciminian forest whose trees are as old as the world.
Most of all, she seeks a fattened boar.

is a slight crunching of the fallen acorns,
a side-step as the bristle-back charges,
a bronze barb sunk deep into the flesh.
Rejoicing in the squeal and rush,
then tracking the thin trail of blood
deep into the shadowed gully.

The boar’s trail leads to a cave.
Here baulk her companions, beast and boy.
They will not enter the mouth of the underworld.
Aita’s mouth, with its mossy lips
and grey, and nubby teeth. His tongue, a snake.
His sour breath cascades across them all.
The mountain crest, an oracle’s conic cap.
Vanth tells the boy to wait, then lights her torch
and ventures in.
The snake hisses a bane: she picks it up
and tells it she is stalking wounded prey.
It find itself unable to protest.
Batting aside the shades who rise
to drink at the scarlet trickle, she goes down.
Down, ever down
and comes at last to the tenebral chasm
where stands Charun,
Aita’s door-man
and escort of such dead as need encouragement
to walk the lonely path.

In the tomb of the Anina, Charun stands with Vanth,
two figments flanking the eternal door,
as if to say, there are two ways to do this
and one involves a maul.
In all representations, hair bristles from his skin,
his face contorted by tusk and heavy brow,
muscled and squat, a horror to behold.
Speaks Vanth:
“To change your shape is a good trick,
but I’m not fooled. The blood leads here.
I know a boar when I see one.”

The struggle is fierce, as one might expect.
But it has been an age
since anybody laid a hand on Charun,
let alone a bronze-skinned woman.
Catching his hammer in her net,
she trips him with her spear
and sends him sprawling, weapon out of reach.
She binds him hand and foot, and maybe he
does not resist her quite the way he ought.
This is the sin.
For, hauled into the light across her shoulders,
he is helpless
and the golden world begins to shake.
Water from the shady stream recoils
while birds burrow into loam,
for the natural course of death has been reversed.

is striking down the aged, white-haired ram,
pinning the ewes to their seats with darts,
culling the screaming lambs
and slitting the throat of the golden deer
whose beauty tears her heart,
robed as she is, from head to foot, in richest crimson.

Then she turns to the terrified boy,
in the ruin of his home, the corpses of his kin,
and says, “Here lie the spoils.
Wash and gut them as I taught you
and rub them well with spice against the flies.
Then build up the fire. Soon, the feast begins.”

What other form could her madness take?
Whether a simple consequence of her return
from darkness or Aita’s ploy
to rescue Charun, who is suitably contrite.
The spectre of a thousand battlefields
brought low by a huntress, armed with net and spear!
The law of death defied in pursuit of a boar!
The dread lord
can only think that there is talent here.
He offers Vanth her wings
and she accepts. Somewhere beneath the blood
she knows what she has done
and there is no way back.
Aita twines his snakes about her arms,
exchanging both her weapons for his sword
and scroll on which is written mortal fate.
Returns to her the torch
that now gives off no earthly gleam.
Henceforth, she will hunt for him alone
and people come to pray
it will be Vanth who finds them in the end,
for she is beautiful to see
and never lets the suffering drag on.

What of her son?
Abandoned in a mansion of the dead?
The boy
is inaugurating funeral rites,
performing both the meanest task and the most sacred,
pariah and priest in ages yet to come.
A black tunic on the twilit streets of Rome.
A black hat in London bound with fog,
and even today,
his descendants labour beneath the shadow of wings.

[Kyla Lee Ward writes: Although living in Sydney, Australia, I am privileged to have traveled widely. I have seen the Valley of the Kings, the Ming Tombs, and the Etruscan collection in the Vatican, as well as many things less verifiable. Of these, I write. My collection, The Land of Bad Dreams, is available from P’rea Press.]