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
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
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.
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
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.