??they heard the crash of falling roofs; an instant more and the mountain-cloud seemed to roll towards them, dark and rapid, like a torrent; at the same time, it cast forth from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with vast fragments of burning stone! Over the crushing vines- over the desolate streets- over the amphitheatre itself- far and wide- with many a mighty splash in the agitated sea- fell that awful shower??
Even though destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius August 24, 79AD, The Villa of Mysteries is full of Pompeian artifacts. The famous mural featuring the cult of Dionysus is amongst this 55room villa. Villa of Mysteries was once flourishing with plant life, bronzed statues, and people working and living in and around the villa. The frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries provide us the opportunity to glimpse something important about the rites of passage for these privileged women of Pompeii.
The interior design of the homes or villa’s were not paintings hanging from nails, but they were painted actually onto the wall. The cult of Dionysus is one of these painted murals founded in the Villa of Mysteries, the frieze is 10 ft high and 56 ft long. The term mysteries refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world. The mural exploits the Initiation rites, which; were originally ceremonies to help individuals ?grow up?. This ceremony was designed to bring women into the marrying stage of life. Occasionally a priest or priestess guided the initiate through the ritual; and at the end of the ceremony the initiate was welcomed into the group with open arms. Villa of Mysteries seem to be 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 these privileged women of Pompeii.
Their bodies seem to be very relaxed, in an open standing position. With the vibrant scarlet Pompeian background that has lasted over 2000 years, and still has a faint shininess to its color. A red so rich, rich like blood. First figure holds a piece of her cloth very elegantly and seductively to cover a gap in her dress, but to those in the cult she is revealing a something under her garment. Her position is reminiscent of one who is about to execute the steps of a martial art in which the purpose of standing loosely centered is to be able to move easily in response into whatever comes. This figure is the beginning of 10 movements throughout the mural. The figures have movement they precede in a single file line along the walls. She eagerly listens to the story of a drama from a small, naked wild child; he reveals the instructed tales of what happens to Dionysus and those who are impelled to follow him. These boots suggest sacrifice in this Dionysian tradition where kids (goats) were booted at birth in preparation for ritual death. The next figure along the mural looks back at the naked boy, yet has movement towards Dionysus’s throne while she carries objects towards the priestess.
Next a Papposilenus plays on his lyre, while another member of the thiasos brings a veiled basket. Another pours pure water as a blessing for those who are about to be initiated into the cult. We know that we are still in a place of instruction because of the scroll tucked into the tunic of the attendant to the right of the high priestess. This scene shows us some of the objects used in the initiation process. Women throughout the mural take on different roles some look like they are watching, though some are partaking in the details of ritual helping the adolescent Roman brides into womanhood. In many rituals, this regression, assisted by music, is requisite to achieving a psychological state necessary for rebirth and regeneration. This leads us to the next scene where the initiate learns how she is to become closer to nature.
The realization of nature is among the initiate now, a Pan nursing a kid shows this. While another Pan plays a flute and watches the kid feeding on its immortal breast. This is initiates last chance to save herself by running away. With dancing obviously being a part of the cults ritual this third mural leads us to a corner of the room. The Pan’s hand gestures towards the next scene guides us closer to Dionysus. Though the image is flat it gives us such a sense of movement, you can see the frightful, dreading in her eyes. Though with the blood red color of the background, it accentuates the foreground setting it off showing some depth.
This is the point of no return; once you have learned how nature is apart of your life there is no turning back. 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. We take it as the bowl has powers of the future, which is why the young satyr looks as if he has seen a ghost. The bowl may have held Kykeon, the intoxicating drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries, which the initiate drinks. Sacrifice was usually a major part in rituals, this is even found in today’s Christianity. Sometimes young satyrs or animals were used as sacrificial items. The look on the Silenus’ eyes tells us that she is about to be in the midst of Dionysus. The powers and magic of Dionysus become more evident now.
When standing in the chamber the fifth scene is on the main back wall. This scene is of Dionysus (which fragments are missing) and Ariadne. This is where the initiate is brought into her womanhood. The women engage in the passion of Dionysus, not a sexual act, this passion does not produce offspring. It just means that the initiate has allowed herself to become a woman, wife and mother in this world. Little girls are not allowed in this part of the ceremony, only a woman is allowed to follow. Though fragments are missing we know that the large figure is Semele, the Queen, a great mother. Dionysus wears an ivy wreath on his head, and looks to be tired with the position of his body, and his thyrsus lying on her hips. He is also wearing one sandal. The exhausting look on Dionysus’ face tells us that the journey has almost come to an end, but first the initiate will encounter some whipping before her journey is over.
The themes of this scene are of torture and transition, and the climax of the ?rites?. Notice the complete abandonment to agony on the face of the initiate and the whipping across her back; a woman sometimes identifiable as a nurse comforts her. Her face is not quite to that as in agony, but almost ecstasy. To the right a nude woman clashes celebratory cymbals and another woman is about to give to the initiate a thyrsus, symbolizing the successful completion of the ?rite?. The initiate is now allowed to enter womanhood on her own. She has become apart of Dionysus herself, she has seen and the mystery and wonders of this cult. She is now able to in tune herself with nature, childbearing, and being a noble Roman bride.
However, the last and final scene their eyes are barely focused, it looks as if they are reflecting back on the ritual. The seem to be in a dazed world all their own. They are also looking back instead of forward. If you look closely at the mirror that the angle is holding no reflection is found in it. This completes the Cult of Dionysus banquet room.
The mural has adds great significance to the entire villa. The megalographia of the painting allows us to see and feel the process into ?the rites? of Dionysus. The Villa dei Misteri has a special reference to marriage with the mural in its midst. Even though the rites are not given to us in great deal, we still have some idea of how and when the ritual had taken place.
…and here are the Venuses, and Bacchuses, and Adonises, making love and getting drunk in many-hued frescoes on the walls of saloon and bed-chamber
from The Innocents Abroad: The Buried City of Pompeii by Mark Twain
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