Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

This villa, built around a central peristyle court and surrounded by terraces, is much like other large villas of Pompeii. The Initiation Chamber measures 15 by 25 feet, and is located in the front of the villa on the right side.

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

The term "mysteries" refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world. The Greek word for "rite" means "to grow up". The rites we see in the Villa of Mysteries seem to be aimed at preparing privileged protected girls for the psychological transition to life as married women. There are few written records about mystery religions and initiation rites.

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.

The action of the rite begins with the initiate or bride crossing the threshold as the preparations for the rites begin. The nudity of the boy may signify that he is divine.

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.

A priestess, wearing a head covering and a wreath of myrtle removes a covering from a ceremonial basket held by a wreathless female attendant.

Mythological characters and music are introduced into the narrative. An aging Silenus plays a ten-string lyre that is resting on a column. A young male satyr plays pan pipes, while a nymph suckles a goat.

The initiate has a glimpse of what awaits her in the inner sanctuary where the katabasis will take place.

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.

This scene is at the center of both the room and the ritual. Dionysus sprawls in the arms of his mother Semele.

The initiate, carrying a staff and wearing a cap, returns from the night journey.

The two themes of this scene are torture and transfiguration, the evocative climax of the rite.

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.

This figure has been identified as: the mother of the bride, the mistress of the villa, or the bride herself.


A son of Chronos or Saturn, god of love.