An ancient tomb in Italy bears the only known picture of a mysterious monster of the underworld.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Tomb of Orcus”
The Tomb of Orcus (Italian: Tomba dell’Orco), sometimes called the Tomb of Murina, is a 4th-century BCE Etruscan hypogeum (burial chamber) in Tarquinia, Italy. Discovered in 1868, it displays Hellenistic influences in its remarkable murals, which include the portrait of Velia Velcha, an Etruscan noblewoman, and the only known pictorial representation of the daemon Tuchulcha. In general, the murals are noted for their depiction of death, evil, and unhappiness.
Because the tomb was built in two sections at two stages, it is sometimes referred to as the Tombs of Orcus I and II; it is believed to have belonged to the Murina family, an offshoot of the Etruscan Spurinnae. The foundation is inscribed with the following enigmatic phrase:
“Larthiale Hulchniesi Marcesi Caliathesi munisule nacnvaiasi thamuce Le…”
which may be interpreted as:
“Le[ive] erected this monument for posterity [during the magistracy] of Larth Hulchnie and Marce Caliathe.”
Orcus I was built between 470 and 450 BCE; a separate hypogeum, Orcus II, was built c. 325 BCE. At some point in antiquity, the wall between the two was removed, creating a large tomb with two dromes (entrances).
The tomb was excavated in 1868 by an officer of the French Army. Upon its discovery, the excavator mistook the painting of the cyclops for the Roman god of the underworld, Orcus, hence the name “Tomb of Orcus.” The Italian name (Tomba dell’Orco) can also mean “Tomb of the Ogre,” and it is used that way in Italy today.
The second tomb has never been fully excavated.
Though most of the walls are muraled, the artists did not complete the ceiling. A scientific analysis in 2001 revealed that the paint used contained cinnabar, ochre, orpiment, calcite, copper, and Egyptian blue. While the artwork in Orcus I is highly praised (particularly the painting of Velia Velcha), some of the artwork of Orcus II is considered poorly done.
It is likely that the French excavators of the tomb tried to remove some of the murals for exhibition in the Louvre, which resulted in significant deterioration.
2.1 Orcus I
The Tomb of Orcus I (also known as the Tomb of Velcha) was constructed between 470 and 450 BCE. The main and right walls depict a banquet, believed to be the Spurinnae after their death in the Battle of Syracuse. The banqueters are surrounded by daemons who serve as cupbearers.
One of the banqueters is a noblewoman named Velia Velcha (or by some interpretations, Velia Spurinna), whose portrait has been called the “Mona Lisa of antiquity.” Her realistic profile (especially her eye) bears the influence of Hellenistic art. Unlike the Mona Lisa, however, she is noted for her grimace or sneer.
2.2 Orcus II
The Tomb of Orcus II (sometimes distinguished as the Tomb of Orcus) was constructed over a hundred years after Orcus I, around 325 BCE. Its entrance is guarded by paintings of “Charun” (Charon), the keeper of the underworld, and a cyclops (possibly Polyphemus or Geryon).
The back wall depicts a funeral procession overseen by “Aita” (Hades), the Etruscan god of the underworld, and his wife “Phersipnei” (Persephone). The left wall is believed to depict Agamemnon, Tiresias, and Ajax in the underworld.
On the right wall are depicted “These” (Theseus), visiting the underworld, and his friend, Pirithous, seated at a table playing a board game, where they are threatened by the Etruscan chthonic daemon “Tuchulcha,” who is depicted with pointed ears (perhaps those of a donkey), a hairy face, a hooked beak (perhaps that of a vulture), and wielding snakes in his hands. According to Nancy Thomson de Grummond, “This monster is often referred to as male but in fact is very likely female (or neither gender), for she wears a woman’s dress… and even appears to have breasts.” De Grummond also identifies the diamond-marking of Tuchulcha’s serpents as indicative of the poisonous adder (Vipera berus berus).
The Tomb of Orcus II is unique in that it bears the only known historical depiction of Tuchulcha.