Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Text and Images by James W. Jackson


In the first century the Roman Empire contains many cities, but none in a more beautiful setting than the cities and towns lining the Bay of Naples. On the 24th of August, 79 A.D., volcanic ash spews from Mt. Vesuvius. Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum disappear from the face of the earth. Gradually grass and vines cover the land where the towns stood. The local people eventually forget even the name of the buried towns.

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. By the mid-eighteenth century, when scholars made the journey to Naples and reported on the findings, the imagination of Europe was ignited. Suddenly, the classical world was in vogue. Philosophy, art, architecture, literature, and even fashion drew upon the discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum for inspiration; the Neoclassical movement was under way.


Villa of The Mysteries

This villa, built around a central peristyle court and surrounded by terraces, is much like other large villas of Pompeii. However, it contains one very unusual feature; a room decorated with beautiful and strange scenes. This room, known to us as "The Initiation Chamber," measures 15 by 25 feet and is located in the front right portion of the villa.

The term "mysteries" refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world. The Greek word for "rite" means "to grow up". Initiation rites, then, were originally ceremonies to help individuals achieve adulthood. The rites are not celebrations for having passed certain milestones, such as our high school graduation, but promote psychological advancement through the stages of life. Often a drama was enacted in which the initiates performed a role. The drama may include a simulated death and rebirth; i.e., the dying of the old self and the birth of the new self. Occasionally the initiate was guided through the ritual by a priest or priestess and at the end of the ceremony the initiate was welcomed into the group.

The chamber is entered through an opening located between the first and last scenes of the fresco.

The fresco images you will see in the Villa of Mysteries seem to part of a ritual ceremony aimed at preparing privileged, protected girls for the psychological transition to life as married women. The frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries provide us the opportunity to glimpse something important about the rites of passage for the women of Pompeii. But as there are few written records about mystery religions and initiation rites, any iconographic interpretation is bound to be flawed. In the end we are left with the wonderful frescoes and the mystery. Nevertheless, an interpretation is offered, see if you agree or disagree.

Interpreting the Frescoes

At the center of the frescoes are the figures of Dionysus, the one certain identification agreed upon by scholars, and his mother Semele (other interpretations have the figure as Ariadne).

As he had been for Greek women, Dionysus was the most popular god for Roman women. He was the source of both their sensual and their spiritual hopes.

Scene 1.

The action of the rite begins (below) with the initiate or bride crossing the threshold as the preparations for the rites to begin. Her wrist is cocked against her hip. Is she removing her scarf? Is she listening to the boy read from the scroll? Is she pregnant?

The nudity of the boy may signify that he is divine. Is he reading rules of the rite? He wears actor's boots, perhaps indicating the dramatic aspect of the rites. The officiating priestess (behind the boy) holds another scroll in her left hand and a stylus in her right hand. Is she prepared to add the initiate's name to a list of successful initiates?

Entry and first wall (above). Magnification of scene one (right).

(above and to the right) The initiate, now more lightly clad, carries an offering tray of sacramental cake. She wears a myrtle wreath. In her right hand she holds a laurel sprig.

Scene 2.

A priestess (center), wearing a head covering and a wreath of myrtle removes a covering from a ceremonial basket held by a female attendant. Speculations about the contents of the basket include: more laurel, a snake, or flower petals. A second female attendant wearing a wreath, pours purifying water into a basin in which the priestess is about to dip a sprig of laurel.

(Above right) Mythological characters and music are introduced into the narrative. An aging Silenus plays a ten-string lyre resting on a column.

Scene 3

A young male satyr plays pan pipes, while a nymph suckles a goat. The initiate is being made aware of her close connection with nature. This move from human to nature represents a shift away from the conscious human world to our preconscious animal state. In many rituals, this regression, assisted by music, is requisite to achieving a psychological state necessary for rebirth and regeneration. The startled initiate has a glimpse of what awaits her in the inner sanctuary where the katabasis will take place. This is her last chance to save herself by running away. Perhaps some initiates did just that. The next scene provides hints about what both frightens and awaits the initiate.

Scene 4.

The Silenus looks disapprovingly at the startled initiate as he holds up an empty silver bowl. A young satyr gazes into the bowl, as if mesmerized. Another young satyr holds a theatrical mask (resembling the Silenus) aloft and looks off to his left. Some speculate that the mask rather than the satyr's face is reflected in the silver bowl. So, looking into the vessel is an act of divination: the young satyr sees himself in the future, a dead satyr. The young satyr and the young initiate are coming to terms with their own deaths. In this case the death of childhood and innocence. The bowl may have held Kykeon, the intoxicating drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries, intended for the frightened initiate.

Scene 5

This scene is at the center of both the room and the ritual. Dionysus sprawls in the arms of his mother Semele. Dionysus wears a wreath of ivy, his thyrsus tied with a yellow ribbon lies across his body, and one sandal is off his foot. Even though the fresco is badly damaged, we can see that Semele sits on a throne with Dionysus leaning on her. Semele, the queen, the great mother is supreme.

Scene 6.

The initiate, carrying a staff and wearing a cap, returns from the night journey. What has happened is a mystery to us. But in similar rituals the confused, and sometimes drugged initiate emerges like an infant at birth, from a dark place to a lighted place. She reaches for a covered object sitting in a winnowing basket, the liknon. The covered object is taken by many to be a phallus, or a herm.

To the right is a winged divinity, perhaps Aidos. Her raised hand is rejecting or warding off something. She is looking to the left and is prepared to strike with a whip.

Standing behind the initiate are two figures of women, unfortunately badly damaged. One woman (far left) holds a plate with what appear to be pine needles above the initiate's head. The apprehensive second figure is drawing back.

Scene 7.

The two themes of this scene are torture and transfiguration, the evocative climax of the rite. Notice the complete abandonment to agony on the face of the initiate and the lash across her back. She is consoled by a woman identified as a nurse. To the right a nude women clashes celebratory cymbals and another woman is about to give to the initiate a thyrsus, symbolizing the successful completion of the rite.

Scene 8.

This scene represents an event after the completion of the ritual drama. The transformed initiate or bride prepares, with the help of an attendant, for marriage. A young Eros figure holds a mirror which reflects the image of the bride. Both the bride and her reflected image stare out inquiringly at us, the observers.

Scene 9.

The figure above has been identified as: the mother of the bride, the mistress of the villa, or the bride herself. Notice that she does wear a ring on her finger. If she is the same female who began the dramatic ritual as a headstrong girl, she has certainly matured psychologically.

Scene 10

Eros, a son of Chronos or Saturn, god of Love, is the final figure in the narrative.