The Women of the Villa of Mysteries (Pompeii)

Pompeii Mystery FriezeThroughout history, societies have always found a way to make their mark and over the period of thousands of years, some of these “marks” have not only survived the tests of time, but have been restored for us to be able to better identify the many significances of these societies. A great example of one of these well-preserved artifacts is found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, in the form of a large painting known to be a Dionysiac frieze. There has long been much speculation as to the significance of each individual figure depicted and their roles in the grander meaning of this frieze in relation to cult practice, yet how much does it tell us in relation to the lives of women at this time and place? Although much of the analysis of this frieze may leave more questions than answers, it can certainly be said that the role of women are far from excluded in this work of art, and thus if they are contributors to the narrative in the art, they must have been contributors to the practice of this cult, as well as initiates.

Before beginning to interpret who these women of the Villa of Mysteries were and their significance in this society/cult, we must first unravel the complexities of the symbolically abundant Dionysiac frieze on which we will focus our attention. The painting contains life-sized figures rendered in the second of two identified styles of painting found in the Villa itself (based on Alexandrian figures).  It is thought that these painted scenes show the initiation rite of a woman into the Dionysiac mysteries, perhaps preparing her for adulthood. (Guzzo & D’Ambrosio, 1998, p. 156). The technique used in the painting creates what is known as a “trompe l’oeil”, which creates the illusion of the room extending further beyond the walls (Guzzo & D’Ambrosio, 1998, p.157). This might contribute to the initiation rituals and the experience of the initiates in that it makes the room feel more open and inhabited.

Let us consider this painting to be linear, our eyes moving across from the left, where one would enter the room, to the right. Throughout this entire scene, similarities between figures may indicate relations in their roles and significance. Although it could perhaps be read as a progression of the same figures through time, some distinctions of appearance and attire are not clearly depicted enough to be consistently identified as the same figure (though similarities are present); therefore I will be interpreting this painting as one “snapshot” of simultaneously occurring events (different people), as opposed to a progression of figures (same people) in an elapsing time frame.

Pompeii Mystery Frieze1

In the first segment of the painting, we are presented with one of our possible “priestess” figures (standing beside a little boy, reading from a scroll, in front of a seated woman), and another woman who looks over her shoulder while bringing a tray towards the next scene. We have inscriptions from Miletus from 276 BC detailing the responsibilities of the priestess of Dionysus Bacchius there. The priestess was responsible for leading the public “thiasos” (Browden, 2010, p. 121), which has lead me to interpret her as a “religious adviser/guide” of sorts. The first figure on the far left is depicted with a mantle-style headdress, which may identify her as a priestess, a bride, or simply someone with a higher significance. She seems to be supervising the figures to her right (the boy and the “scroll bearer”), holding a pose that implies a degree of attention, impatience, and perhaps a strict supervision. To her right is a woman seated behind a little boy who reads from a scroll similar to one in the woman’s hand, which indicates that she is the one who possesses the responsibility to hold or conceal the information found within. It is probable that the scroll contains an outline/plan for the sacred events that are to follow. I believe the reason for the little boy being the reader of this scroll may be due to the limitations of women as public speakers, as perhaps a male reader of this information would be more acceptable. This may also demonstrate the early exposure of these rituals to the young, who may eventually participate in them in some way. However, no “human” males are seen depicted anywhere else in the painting. To lead us into the next segment of the painting is a woman who looks over her shoulder towards the boy reading from the scroll, carrying a tray away from this scene to the next. Her attire leads the viewer to believe that she is perhaps someone who has previously been initiated (possibly indicated by the wreath around her head), yet has no additional attributes that contributes to more significance in the ritual (i.e. she is not depicted as a bride or a priestess). Although her role as a tray-carrier may be a simple one and gives her the possible status of a servant-maiden, she may be contributing to the narrative in an essentially significant way. Perhaps the contents of this tray are rather innocent, but we must consider the context in which this painting is found; that is, a ritualistic context. This being said, every little detail in this work may have a grand significance in relation to what went on inside of the Villa of Mysteries. Inscriptions from various places mention [kistophoroi and liknophoroi] (carriers of container and baskets), who presumably carried these things in processions. The containers probably concealed “hiera” (sacred objects) similar to those in the Eleusinian Mysteries (Browden, 2010, p. 121). Thus, perhaps the woman with the tray ispresenting sacred objects to then be used to begin ritualistic processes. The following scene may direct us to a similar conclusion, as the events contained in this segments confirm this idea.

Pompeii Mystery Frieze2

Continuing to make our way through the painting brings us to the next segment, the “table scene”. This is where we have a group of women sitting around a table, to which the possible servant-maiden is approaching. On the left of this scene sits a woman, likely an initiate, whose gaze is directed at Silenus with the lyre who is, without a doubt singing a divinely inspired song (de Grummond, 2002, p. 74). The fact that she is so attentive to this divine song may imply that it “speaks” to her as an initiate. Also considering that she is not quite participating in the preparation for the ritual and lacks a headdress (of either kind we see depicted throughout this work) leads the viewer to believe that she is a first-time initiate. In the center sits another woman, possibly a priestess or bride (again, based on the mantle-style headdress). Her hands are busy, her left raising a blanket that could conceal something underneath (possibly sacred, or it might hint that something will soon be revealed), and her right seems to be preparing something. To her direct right is another woman, again wearing the wreath-style headdress, who is pouring a liquid from a vessel for the “priestess” woman. The fact that she is wearing a wreath and handles possibly sacred objects further solidifies the interpretation that the wreath is a symbol used to identify people playing a more senior role in the rituals and not necessarily participating in them as an initiate.

Pompeii Mystery Frieze3

The next segment on which we will focus our attention is that of the woman catching the wind in her robe. This moment in particular is loaded with potential significances that may not be easy to identify on its own. The first crucial observation to make is that this woman is not wearing a headdress or a wreath, so she must be an initiate (based on what we’ve previously established). This is also confirmed by her posture: her head is turned to one side, one arm is bent up and back, one arm down, and her legs are slightly flexed, which is iconic of women and satyrs who danced in Dionysian rites (Evans, 1988, page 57). However, in this instance she does not seem to be dancing, although she does mimic this iconic pose. Her cloak billows out as if catching the wind. It is suggested that the wind she is catching is actually a prophecy which “comes to her with the force of the wind of inspiration” (Grummond, 2002, page 69). Because we know that Silenus is in fact sings a prophetic hymn (Grummond, 2002, page 74), as well as the direction to which he faces, that this is the source of what I consider the “wind of inspiration”. If the hymn being sung is truly prophetic, then it must be a prophecy relating to Dionysus, and if so, could have been perceived by this woman as a manifestation of this god (Seaford, 2006, page 39). This may account for her gesture and expression of shock and fear, despite the “divinity” of this manifestation/perception. One would imagine that if a god or deity appeared/manifested himself then it would come across as welcoming rather than fearful. However, this may not be the case, as the culmination of the anxiety of Pentheus (another mythological figure who faced a divine apparition) there appears a miraculous white light, which he attacks with a sword with severe hostility, identifying it with the god (Seaford, 2006, p. 52). This could be because the white light appearing in the darkness (an epiphany caused by a divine manifestation) transformed ignorant suffering if the initiand into enlightened joy (Seaford, 2006, p.53). This being said, perhaps the prophecy from the Silenus was so powerful that the transformation of dark to light became overwhelming, and thus evoked a response of shock and fear caused by enlightenment. This clearly demonstrates the extent to which these rituals can be extreme in relation to the god being worshipped, as Dionysos has ways of inspiring his subjects, clearly sometimes in a shocking manner, and through inebriation (Grummond, 2002, p.80).

Pompeii Mystery Frieze4

Following the prophetic depictions of the boy looking into the water vessel who acts as the “medium” which provides the hymn for the Silenus to sing/announce (Grummond, 2002, p.74), and the segment that is damaged that would depict Dionysus and Ariadne, brings us to the scene with the black-winged figure who we find whipping another female. Based on prior distinctions, the latter can be identified as an initiate. The interpretation of the black-winged figure varies greatly and provides no concise identity. The winged figure is whipping the other woman, as perhaps it is defending or “healing” the other’s womanhood for the sake of protection through the initiation rites. This whipping scene could also be a metaphor for the two “faces” of Dionysus, the woman being painfully whipped being the painful aspect through which the initiate achieves liberation and dances. This could be interpreted as the “price to pay” to fulfill the initiation, the cost being rather unpleasant in comparison to the later achieved ecstatic state. Diodorus specifically mentions women gathering in Bacchis celebrations and engaging in ecstatic worship in his honour (Browden, 2010, p.112), and makes the distinction between younger women who engage in frenzied activity and the older women (who do not) and indicative of sexual presence which is iconic in Dionysian cults (Browden, 2010, p.121). This frenzied activity is the ecstatic dance itself, closely associated with Dionysus (Evans, 1988, p. 56). From what we can tell, the woman being whipped and the woman dancing are visibly relatively young, thus surely initiates. To the front of the dancer is another woman, again lacking a headdress and wearing identifiably similar clothes to the woman who is being whipped. This particular scene might be intended to be read as the progression of one same person; the painful, the ecstatic, and the reward. As we see the dancer’s golden drape as a potential symbol for completed initiation, the staff being held by the woman in front of her echoes this, and therefore could be interpreted as the woman having calmed down and standing having fulfilled the ritualistic processes. The remaining female figure in this scene is a priestess (indicated by the headdress) who is seen holding the female being whipped. Clearly this woman being whipped is being supported and requires the presence of this priestess, which could also indicate that the black-winged figure who whips is a metaphor; perhaps whatever the priestess is doing or has done to the initiate evoked a sensation similar to that of being whipped, and thus depicts a metaphorical (painful) means to a spiritual evolution.  However, it is difficult to point to one possible interpretation and claim it to be just that, and the mystery of the true intentions of all these symbols is what makes this painting so fascinating.

Pompeii Mystery Frieze5

Although we are approaching the end of the painting, the remaining symbolically significant content will assist in tying the remaining loose ends. Following the earlier scene of what could be considered a “physically brutal cleansing” is a scene of adornment of a possibly fulfilled initiate as a bride of Dionysus. She may also be identified as Malavisch, the Etruscan goddess of love who watched over brides, based on prior depictions in mirrors (de Grummond, 2002, p. 76). The little figures resembling children are identified as the ideal married couple Psyche (who is holding up the mirror) and Cupid (to the right of this “bridal adornment”). Grummond claims the scene reads as “the bride being adorned as the soul holds up a mirror for reflection. An attendant fixes her hair as the god of Love looks on. The future of the bride is probably indicated by the reflection in the mirror, which is not regarded by the bride but by the attendant. While the attendant may indeed see the vision in the mirror, Love must meditate and interpret the prophecy” (Grummond, 2002, p. 79). Keeping this in mind and considering the attendant’s attire (lack of headdress), she is perhaps a slave, or simply a woman who is yet to be initiated into the cult. This would also make sense as these ritual processes were one of the few religious events in which slaves could take part (Evans, 1988, p. 52). Because the mirror is catching the reflection of the “slave”, Cupid looks on the scene in a meditative manner. Mirrors have various potential significances in this context, such as it being used to intrigue or confuse the initiand (Seaford, 2006, p.54), to embody the double identity of the initiand (Blundel & Williamson, 1998, p.140), or to reveal one’s self to themselves or reveal something that is not otherwise there (Blundell & Williamson, 1988, p. 132). All this to say that perhaps the meditative state of Cupid derives from the reflection in the mirror in the adornment scene, as perhaps it reveals something about the “slave” who adorns the other woman. This something could be that perhaps this slave needs to go through the ritualistic process, or is perhaps a more significant figure due to the truths being revealed in the mirror that are perceived firstly by Cupid.

The last figure in the painting is of a bride/priestess (near Cupid) whose seated gesture also indicates a reflexive or meditative state, again with a gaze towards the previous adornment scene. This time, she is not actively leading any ritualistic process, but is closely observing (indicated by the hand raised to the chin). In a manner similar to the cupid-figure, perhaps she is seeing something in the mirror or the woman being reflected that requires a ritualistic engagement on the part of the priestess, having to partake in roles previously discussed. Perhaps this insight of hers is a result of having completed the ritual initiation, and thus having completed the first cycle in order for there to be a second. Her contemplation that is too apparent to ignore, like everything else in this painting, serves a meaningful purpose.

Like most of the symbols and secrets hidden within this painting, the lives and roles of the women depicted in this painting tell us so much yet still so little; although we may know (to an extent) their roles in the ritualistic process, this makes it even more difficult to imagine their casual lives outside of the context of this cult environment. However, within this environment we are still presented with their responsibilities on a hierarchy (priestess/assistant/initiate) and how each acts or reacts in certain aspects of the ritualistic process, as well as their contribution to the overall scene that has been depicted.  What is most interesting about this painting is that we do acknowledge that this cult revolves so closely around women, and the few male figures found in this painting are a young child (too young to truly partake in the ritual itself), and then Satyrs and Silenus (which are divine figures), and Cupid. The omen are the only figures who we can actually consider either possibly real people, or the only people could have possibly truly been there. It is absolutely essential to remember that because of the involvement of “fictional” characters and the possible artistic dramatization for the sake of an interesting visual experience or narrative, this work may not be accurately representative of these women at the time. If the women are surrounded by “fictional” characters, why should we treat anyone in the painting any differently? Overall, this painting is truly a great work of art, and has the potential to tell us much of the lives of women who took part in this ritual. This painting is so loaded with information and symbols that even this whole interpretation is certainly just the tip of the iceberg of the possibilities of what the truth is behind this painting.




Works Cited


Guzzo, P.G & D’Ambrosio, A. (1998) Pompeii. Italy: Elemond Editori Associati

De Grummond, N. (2002) Mirrors, Marriage, and Mysteries. Portsmouth, Rhode Island: Thomson-Shore

Seaford, R. (2006) Dionysos. New York, New York: Routledge

Evans, A. (1988) The God of Ecstasy. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press

Blundell, S. & Williamson, M. (1998) The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. New York, New York: Routledge

Browden, H. (2010) Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

3 thoughts on “The Women of the Villa of Mysteries (Pompeii)

  1. Thank you so much for this essay. I have been pondering these frescoes for years and have some questions. Are we certain that the child reading from the scroll is a boy? I don’t discern any sign of male body parts, and if it is a boy, then it’s apparently the only human male present in a frieze in which all other human participants are female. All descriptions of the frieze describe the child as a boy, but that question keeps nagging at me.

    Another question relates to the identity of the winged figure whipping the initiate. She bears a striking resemblance to the Etruscan deity Vanth, a benign goddess charged with conveying the newly departed to the underworld. The size, the wings, the boots–I’m seeing a very Vanth-like deity. Is it possible that the climax of the initiation is a “katabasis,” a metaphorical descent into the underworld, and Vanth in her role as psychopomp is repelling the initiate and sending her back into this world?

    This sounds like it’s from left field–a hypothetical artistic syncretism with little evidence–but the resemblance in style, imagery and technique of these frescoes to Etruscan counterparts is striking. Pompeii was in the northern extreme of Magna Graecia, the heartland of the Dionysus cult in Italy, a long way from Etruria, but what if Etruscan fresco painters occupied a role similar to the one their Tuscan descendants did during the Renaissance?

    My final question concerns the identity of the figure on whom Dionysus sprawls. There seems to be general agreement that she is Ariadne, but again I have to ask, in my role as buzzkill, are we certain? There is another important female personage in Dionysus’ life–his mother, Semele. I might be wrong, but usually is not Ariadne portrayed in a subordinate position to Dionysus? Semele, by contrast, is usually portrayed occupying a higher position than her son, and she often drapes her arm possessively around him. There is even, mirabile dictu, an Etruscan mirror showing this very position. Jane Harrison has noted the importance of Semele to the Dionysus cult generally.

    Anyway, many thanks for this stimulating essay on an important work of Western art.


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