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House of Mystery in Pompeii

Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

A woman prepares for the Mysteries

This important site in Pompeii is named for a series of fresco paintings that are found inside. The House of Mystery in Pompeii –  known as Villa dei Misteri in Italian – was buried under meters of ash after the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79 AD, bust escaped destruction.

This once luxurious Roman villa that overlooked the sea and Mount Vesuvius is filled with an eclectic mix of architectural style and paintings. The villa originally dates from the 2nd century BC, but its current layout was set between 70 and 60BC. After the earthquake of AD62 the villa was extensively remodeled, changing what had been a patrician villa into a working farm house. This villa had a vineyard and farms. The building also housed a large wine-press and wine-cellar.

The fresco covered walls measure 15 x 22 feet and the room has two windows, indicating this was a place of importance in the house. It was probably a dining room known as a Triclinium because of the traditional placement of three banqueting couches along the walls.

What these paintings depict is a matter of much debate amongst scholars and historians. The fresco series on three walls is thought to represent the various stages of female initiation associated with the Eastern mystery cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The god Dionysus, was associated with vineyards and wine-making and drinking. His public ceremony involved much drinking and feasting, using intoxicants and trance-dancing with music and song.  Known as Mystery cults, which came from the Eastern parts of the world were generally distrusted in the time of Pompeii, where the only accepted forms of worship were to the Roman gods. One theory is that it is depicting the Mystical marriage of a human maiden to the god Dionysus.  It is painted in what is known as the Second style wall painting and the fresco gives a dramatic feeling of space and dimension.  This Second style of painting filled with movement, emotion is quite different from the flat style characterized by First style wall painting.

The action of the rite begins with the bride crossing the threshold as the preparations for the rites to begin.

At the center of the series is the unmistakable figure of Dionysus in a relaxed pose of Unbridled pleasure. He is sprawled in the arms of what is probably his mortal lover Ariadne.

Eros, a son of Saturn, god of Love, is the final figure in the narrative.

Another way of looking at these paintings is to see them as separate scenes related to the Dionysian cult instead of as an inter-connected ritual. This room may have been used for some kind of ceremony with freshly-harvested grapes and newly-pressed wine, for which a feast of Dionysus and some rites for him were held. Most activities related to the Dionysian cult such as food offering, feeding goats for sacrifice, wearing of masks for dance, initiation rites, music on cymbals and a woman dressing to join the revelry are depicted on the wall of this room, while Dionysus himself presides over all these activities.

 Pentheus : “Of what fashion be these mysteries?”

Dionysus : “Tis secret, save to the initiate.”

Euripides, (The Bacchae 471-2)

In addition to this incredible and important fresco series there inside the villa are also plaster casts of the bodies found after the terrible eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

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By Priscila Siano (266 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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