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Secrets of Pompeian fresco

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman fresco showing the Dionysian mysteries
Roman fresco showing the Dionysian mysteries

September in Campania was far from what we had imagined. Together with a Polish couple, permanently living in the cool, rainy Scottish Highland, we naively expected room temperature, perfect for long hiking trips. Instead, the Campaign greeted us with over thirty degrees of heat and humidity of ninety per cent. In a word, horror.

Many hours of wandering the Pompeian streets scorched by the sun of Italy gave us a hard time, but we did not skip a visit to a place outside the walls of Pompeii, which is basically considered an example of a suburban villa, not an element of the city. Everyone who has been able to visit the Villa with Mysteries knows that it was worth it.

Among other things, to protect against this scorching sun, but also from rain, the enormity of Pompeian frescoes, mosaics and marble statues, a lover of ancient Rome will not see in the ruins themselves, but in the Archaeological Museum located in Naples. Pompeii itself offers tourists the most often copies. The Villa of the Mysteries, whose roofs have been restored, is an interesting exception. And it is good. The old artists did not create their works in isolation from the surroundings, frescoes, mosaics and accessories constituted a coherent composition of the room. Tearing out individual elements and placing them in museum display cases will guarantee us dry knowledge, but it will not provide a full picture of the era, and especially it deprives us of our emotions. For example, imagine white museum walls with a wooden secretary behind a glass case. Nearby, in separate display cases, there are stylus, wax tablets, papyri, parchments, powders for making ink. An excellent source of knowledge about early writing arts? Yes of course. But it is only when all these exhibits are combined into one composition, similar to an open-air museum, that gives us a true picture of the working conditions of the ancient scribe. Villa with Mysteries is such an open-air museum in miniature. Especially one of its rooms, on the walls of which there is probably the most interesting and mysterious fresco of antiquity.

On the day we visited Pompeii, this room could only be viewed through the threshold, unfortunately entering was forbidden. I do not know if this is the case now. It is significant for Pompeii that not all positions in this city are always available, some are subject to renovation works, and then they are excluded from tourist traffic, so when choosing a visit, you should take into account that not always everything can be seen or can be seen in all its glory, as in our case, wherefrom the front we were only able to look at the central part of the villa’s fresco. Hence, a certain problem, about which later. And that is why in the article I will use publicly available photos, e.g. those posted on Wikipedia. Moreover, they are of better quality than pictures of a tourist taken with a “freehand” camera.

The fresco is located on three walls of the room. The longest fragment is on the left side. The shortest, central part, unfortunately, was significantly damaged. The right side is separated by a wide window facing the portico, which is important for some researchers arguing about the purpose of this room. While there is no doubt that this fresco contains numerous religious allegories, there is a dispute as to whether this room really served the Dionysian mysteries, or how some would like it, this fresco is the most ordinary decoration of the household of a wealthy Roman family, and together it is only a metaphor for marriage. For if it were to be a place of secret rites, shouldn’t it be more hidden from the outside world? In my article, as a lover of secrets, I am arbitrarily in favour of the more mystical lineage of the symbolism of this room. Such a view has more poetry in my opinion, especially when combined with the magic of a city frozen in time. As even opponents of this concept admit, it is not without foundation. It simply cannot be shown unequivocally.

When starting to analyze the content of the fresco, it will be necessary to go back in time and space, that is, enter ancient Greece several centuries before the fresco was performed, and look at the cult of Dionysus. This is important for understanding the symbols on the walls. Contemporary man, with a limited course in mythology at school, does not understand the characters and archetypes of antiquity, we have our own cultural patterns, including the currently popular Internet memes. A Roman, torn from 50 BCE, will unmistakably recognize most of the beings and gods depicted on a Pompeian fresco, and immediately list their hidden religious meanings. But imagine his helplessness when we present him with a simplified drawing scheme in the form of a hill with three crosses placed on it. The symbol of the torment of Jesus of Nazareth, which is obvious to our culture, will be a mystery to them. Not to mention the dogs, sad frogs, or a certain moustachioed city guard who, to his dissatisfaction and despair, has become the archetype of a Pole. Looking at the figures of the fresco, let’s reach for a handful of Dionysian myths in order to better understand its hidden content.

Dionysian Mysteries

Why the Dionysian Mysteries? Well, because in the central part, the most damaged[B], it is Dionysus who rests against the woman. In Greek art, he is depicted either as a mature, bearded man, or as a frivolous young man. On the Pompeian fresco, we find him in such a smooth form. The god’s hallmark is the thyrsos, or the sceptre of Dionysus – a long staff ending with a bunch of vines with a ribbon (sometimes a pine cone is visible instead of a vine). On his left side, he is accompanied by three silenes, i.e. creatures similar in appearance to satire, but their animal parts come from the horse (usually ears, tail, legs). Dionysus accompanied by a silenian is a frequent theme in Greek iconography. Here we have a typical silly, elderly fat man offering the younger a jug of wine, while the other silly youth is holding up a theatrical mask. This is another prop that shows us that we are dealing here with Dionysus. The mask was an important element of the worship of this deity, and during some rites its presence was symbolized by placing a large mask on a wooden pole, which was served, for example, with the first gulp of wine. There is no doubt that the central figure depicted in this room is Dionysus. For the whole religious interpretation it is also important on whose lap it is resting, but let’s not anticipate the facts, let’s go to the left side of the fresco, for now, [A].

The left side of the fresco of the fresco The Dionysian mysteries.

Looking from the left, we see a dignified matron supervising a young boy busy reading, in the background another young man (a woman?) Also holding a scroll. Then we see (here I owe a slight technical note, when discussing groups of characters, please do not pay attention to the black bars painted on the fresco) four women, as is usually interpreted, engaged in the sacrificial rite. Behind a group of women we have three fairy-tale characters. Once again, an obese, ageing silencer playing the lyre, a faun and a gentleman playing the flute, next to a female version of fauna is feeding a kid with her own breast. The left side is crowned with a female figure, waving a robe, immersed in an ecstatic dance. At first glance, it looks like a mix of genre scenes without order and composition, a reading lesson under the supervision of mum and older brother (sister), mixed with pictures of a feast and a handful of fantastic creatures to make it more interesting. Things are different when you have some knowledge of the Dionysian orgies.

Oho, orgies. It will be spicy, since then people under the age of eighteen do not read the article. Of course, none of these things. The word orgy in ancient Greece meant nothing less than ecstatic dancing, and all secret rituals were adopted as such in time. We are, however, interested in Dionysian orgies, and we can speculate about these on the basis of Euripides’ surviving tragedy “The Bacchae”, staged for the first time in 405 BCE to remind yourself what the ancient drama was, I encourage you to familiarize yourself. We will focus not on the content of the piece, but on the account of the messenger who reports the antics of bacchantes to the Theban king, Pentheus. So who were these women, and what did their not bacchanalia look like?

The messenger tells us that they were three groups of women, each led by a sedate woman, one of whom was the mother of a Theban king, who gathered in the forest at night. When it came to rituals, they decorated themselves in leaves and ivy, one of the elements of the ritual was also breastfeeding forest animals. Like Dionysus, they were armed with a Thyrsus stick, which gave them superhuman strength and magical power, which they were given to test in battle when the villagers tried to capture Agave, the mother of Pentheus. Bacchae could not be touched by arrowheads, sword blades, or fire, and they were able to tear people and animals alive into pieces. Some ancient sources also suggest that it did not end there, and those crazy bacchants devoured the raw meat of the victims (from the Greek omophagia).

So much for Euripides. In fact, it probably did not look so bloody, because the women who indulged in orgies did not have to fight with the peasants and their herds. They indulged themselves into a state of intoxication through ecstatic dances, not battle frenzy, and since they did it in the forest, it is probably obvious that forest creatures played them on their instruments – satyrs, silenians, fauns.

After such an introduction, the content of the left side of the fresco seems, hopefully, more understandable. The sedate matron on the left presides over the mysteries, like Agave. The boy reading the scroll is identified with the novice who may recite the oath before proceeding. In the background of the preparation of the sacrificial rite, maybe even with raw meat, and one of the bacchantes, carried by the music of forest creatures, puts into a dance trance. Even if it doesn’t make sense to breastfeed your pet, it at least becomes a familiar phenomenon.

Before we go any further, there is a linguistic curiosity, because I noticed that somehow I unintentionally insisted on the name of a bacchant, and there were several names of crazy, dancing women. Bacchae (from the collateral name Bakchos, from which the Roman Bacchus is derived), Maenades (from the Greek mainomai, “I’m crazy”), or even Thyiades (Thyia, the daughter of Kastalios or Kefisos, the woman who first honoured Dionysus with an orgiastic dance).

Right side of the fresco Dionysian mysteries.

You can also see the Maenades on the right side of the fresco. that it is about two women, one of whom performs a crazy naked dance, and the other, like Dionysus, wields the thyrsus. The fragment is complemented by a woman cringing in fear, on whose back the whip of the demonic figure on the right side of the central fresco will fall. We have here a metaphorical ritual of initiation.

There is another puzzle related to the wall on the right, possibly resulting only from the insufficient knowledge of the author of this article. I modestly admit that I am only an enthusiast of ancient Roman history, not an expert in this field. Well, after the break at this unfortunate window, we see another scene in which our whipped bride, already joyful after the initiation is finished, cares for her hair, looking at herself in the mirror held by the cupid. And honestly, for me it is the end of the fresco, as you can see in the photo[D]. I found such a picture when visiting Pompeii in September 2014. A horse with a row, who will show me where to squeeze the missing scene, which is mentioned in many sources, and which can be seen in the photo used in the article[C]. It is not about a bride anymore, but the lady of the house, who sits proudly on a chair with a footstool like a priestess, rests on a gold and purple cushion, as it is vividly described by, for example, Michael Grant in “Cities of Vesuvius”. I would have a hard time stuffing that second cupid there, let alone the rest. Or is the window a newer addition and the fresco has been moved? But Grant’s book contains a plan of the villa and the window is in it. If anyone knows the solution to this puzzle, let him share his knowledge.

End of the fresco Dionysian mysteries.

We are going back to the mysteries of mystical nature. It’s time to fill in the missing information about the central part of the fresco and move on to the summary.
There are two women in the direct company of the demonic character with the whip. It is difficult to point out what one of them deals with, due to significant losses, in the case of the other, researchers are inclined to unequivocally recognize that it reveals some phallic shape, which is probably related to the cult of fertility, also associated with Dionysus. However, the most important for the whole mystery, apart from the person of Dionysus, is the woman on whom our young god rests. From the multitude of representations on Greek vases, paintings, as well as from lyrical works, including Roman ones (Catullus, Carmina, 64), we have every reason to say that it is none other than Ariadne. Yes, this is one of the better-associated characters of Greek myths, well, what if, but probably everyone has heard about Ariadne’s thread (by a thread to a ball). The daughter of the Cretan king Minos and his wife Pazyfae, who fell in love with the hero Theseus, and gave him a ball of thread, thanks to which, after defeating the Minotaur, he got out of the maze.
We all know it, as well as the fact that Theseus forgot to change his sails with joy, and when he came to Athens with an unchanged black sail, his father, out of despair, threw himself into the sea, hence the Aegean Sea. We know so much from the lessons, and the slightly older teenagers in their thirties, also from the comic book “Legends of the Labyrinth Island”. The question is where did Theseus lose Ariadne? Because she stopped performing at his side.

On the island of Naxos. We know that. It’s harder to answer why this happened. Plutarch admits he doesn’t know, but the ancestors hinted that they were reportedly separated by a wave of water, or that Theseus was already targeting another woman, so he simply ditched a Minoan princess on the way. The second option is open perfidy and meanness, which definitely do not match the image of a righteous hero. In later centuries, the myth spread that Ariadne simply caught the eye of someone more eminent. If Theseus was one of the greatest Greek heroes, it is known that the better party could only be a deity. That someone was supposed to be Dionysus. According to Apollodorus, our god of wine fell in love with the girl, and took him to Lemnos, where Ariadne gave him four sons – Toas, Peparetos, Staphylus and Oenopion. Malicious shouts like Plutarch did not fail to mention that the last two probably had Theseus as their father. But the subject of our inquiry is not paternity, but the relationship between Ariadne and Dionysus. Well, our god was to bestow his chosen one with immortality, and this was supposed to be the goal of Roman lovers of Dionysian orgies.

And this is the hidden meaning of our fresco. The participant of the mysteries, after plunging himself into the favours of Dionysus, having passed a certain dose of trials and initiations, counted on a comfortable eternal life. Do you feel the climate? Yes, it’s nice close to Christianity here. In the Dionysian cult after the hardships in the earthly valley, the afterlife was also supposed to be one great idyll.

In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate banned the worship of Bacchus as allegedly the source of a general scandal. Religion in some form survived, evolved, and a century later became one of the most popular secret and mystical cults.
The Villa with the Mysteries, with its fascinating fresco, was not the only manifestation of this. Dionysian masks were found in many Pompeian homes. Numerous pubs in this city were under the patronage of Bacchus. According to some painters, Apollo himself played the love thunderbolts of Dionysus and Ariadne on the lyre. We do not know if and what rituals were held at the Villa of the Mysteries, but its most famous fresco, even today, is a source of many sensual experiences.

Also regarding the villa itself. The first excavations began at this site in 1909. The obstacle was a several-meter layer of sediment and, additionally, poisonous fumes, so the actual research began for good in 1929. A statue of Livia, Augustus’ wife, was found on the property, which gave rise to insinuations that it was the villa of the imperial family. Its size and décor allow us to assume only that it belonged to a significant family, besides, Livia was already counted among the gods at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, so her statue could only be an element of the home chapel.

Author: Gajusz Juliusz Krisbaum (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Beard Mary, Pompeje. Życie rzymskiego miasta, Poznań 2010
  • Euripides, The Bacchantes
  • Grant Michael, Miasta Wezuwiusza
  • Kubiak Zygmunt, Mitologia Greków i Rzymian

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