"The Revelation of the Mask "

"And the paths undiscerned of our eyes, the Gods unseal them." Euripides, (The Bacchae,1391)

The Villa of the Mysteries at Pompei


by Raichel le Goff

presented as a seminar at Courtauld Institute 1995

The cycle of wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii is thought to illustrate rituals relating to the cult of Dionysus, God of the vine, of poetic inspiration and of mystic ecstasy. More specifically, the entire fresco seems to illustrate the various stages of female initiation. Much further than that, scholars like Seaford and Henderson are not able to venture.

Exactly how the paintings are meant to be read by the viewer and what this room functioned as in a Pompeian villa remains a mystery. We cannot even determine which figure is the initiated.

If we, as modern viewers have lost the knowledge required to understand this work of art, we can at least look back beyond the historical context of Pompeii circa 1st century B.C. to discover the etymology of the visual language expressed on these walls. Firstly, we should note that the fresco is referred to as celebrating the rites of Dionysos - a Greek God as distinct from Bacchus, his Roman identity. Whether this is simply a result of modern classification or not, is not the issue, for even if the God on the walls was "Bacchus" to the inhabitants of this villa, Dionysus originally a fertility god worshiped in the form of a bull or a goat is his protogenitor (proto-gennhtora..).

In Greece the cult had a particular attraction to women and the Maenad, Dionysus' female devotee, with her typical swirling drapery, her figure expressing physical abandonment, is first known to us on Greek drinking cups of the 5th century B.C. Whilst it is true that no Greek paintings survive to us, existing in another artform, Greek pottery, is a wealth of material from which we can extract myriad corresponding references to the iconography found in our Pompeian fresco. There was a large volume of trade in export to Italy of Athenian pottery in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Dionysus features as a dominant figure in Classical art and his cult is that most commonly shown on vases. From the second century BC the Mysteries of Dionysus made their way into Italy, where they took root very quickly among the people of southern Italy.

villa of the mysteries Pompeii

Classical Athens was much concerned with new religions and the promise of immortality achieved through initiation at Eleusis and participation in the Mysteries acquires special significance in vase painting in the fourth century. Many vases carry scenes connected with the cycle of the Mysteries of Eleusis and Dionysos shared the rights to the city of Eleusis with the triad Demeter-Kore-Triptolemos.

In this essay, I hope to look back to the images produced on vases and vessels of Classical Greece and trace various iconographical links to our fresco at Pompeii. In those vases, lies the immediate heritage of the people of Pompeii. Through their Hellenic origins kept alive via popular lore and the oral tradition, these people would have inherited the awareness of the famous mysteries of Eleusis and of Dionysos. Like the fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries, the episodes reproduced on the vases reveal not what the Mystery is, but hint at its secrets. By its very nature, the precept of something being a Mystery, becomes inexpressible in images. Legend tells how Dionysos himself had played the role of initiand when he had been admitted into the cult of Cybele in Phyrgia. So when the artist of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii lifted his brush, he was able to draw from a rich visual, verbal and literary narrative history of the phenomenon of the Mysteries and ritual initiation.

The Villa of the Mysteries images by Google

Reading the fresco at Pompeii clockwise from the left of entry into the room, we can very roughly group the figures into eight episodes.

1. Woman on a couch.

2. Woman standing, young boy reading, woman seated.

3. Woman bears offering on a tray, woman holds the liknon, woman seated, woman pours libation.

4. Silenos playing the lyre, young satyr plays pan-pipes, young satyr and two goats.

5. Woman runs in fright, Silenos holds a mirror/bowl, young satyr looks into mirror/bowl, young satyr holds mask.

6. Dionysos reclines in lap of enthroned woman, torch-bearing female figure kneels next to liknon.

7. Winged figure with whip, naked girl kneeling, seated woman, woman with thrysus, naked woman dancing.

8. Eros figure, woman seated, woman standing, second Eros figure.

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall refer to the above numbers identifying the different groups. I would like to systematically parallel the images in the fresco to examples from Classical Greek pottery. As far as I am able, I will try to confine my comparison to vase paintings which are specifically related to Dionysiac rituals or closely related themes.

The seated woman can be seen in various identities as matron, matriarch, priestess, goddess, bride. As a type, the seated woman appears in five different attitudes on a 4th century pelike by the Eleusinian Painter which shows Dionysos and other deities with the initand Herakles at Eleusis. Like the woman in the fresco, a woman rests her chin on her hand and observes the scenes before her. Here she fulfills the role of bystander. (1.) On the same pelike can be seen a similar group to the two women in (8.) where the mistress is seated and another woman pays her attendance. Closer still is the model of two women on a Lebes gamikos by the Washing Painter where the standing woman is also dressing the hair of her mistress, distinguished by her more elaborate gown. They too are interrupted when an Eros flies in to deliver a message. On the same vessel ritual figures appear bearing sacred objects and torches. A torch-bearer appears in the fresco (6.)

The little Eros figures feature constantly on Greek vases. They seem to be in order to bring messages to others or just as impious observers.

A winged Eros perches on the shoulder of a seated woman, possibly a priestess, on a lekythos in the manner of the Meidias Painter whilst other females seemingly involved in some ritual surround her. (302). And on a oinochoe by the Shuvalov painter (223) an adolescent Eros comes to deliver a message, or possibly the box the seated woman holds just as the small cupid in the fresco has interrupted the women to offer them an object in his outstretched hands.

The other seemingly domestic scene in the fresco is the group where it appears a mother is seated with her hand resting on a little boy who reads, whilst a woman wearing a peplos stands by. It has been suggested that this represents the education of Dionysos and this might have been due to similar scenes.appearing on Greek vases.

Women are seen preparing Dionysos' mask in a liknon on the Vlasto oinochoe by the Eretria Painter. This image brings us back to the world of 5th century ritual. The bearded and crowned mask lies in a ritual basket and receives honors and offerings from two women. The liknon in the Pompeian fresco is also tended to by women although the contents are kept secret.

The initiand is subjected to trials, suffers, undergoes purification and is initiated into the mysteries at Eleusis. We suspect that the most important moment in the ritual consisted precisely in the face-to-face encounter with the divinity. As with the scene of Lecotmancy in Pompeii.

Furthermore, women figure as personifications or abstractions on Classical and later Greek vases - where they are of no identifiable personality but

The Mysteries of Eleusis were open to all those who are driven individually to spiritual needs.

Images to refer to : Bell crater by the Pourtales Painter, Initates at Eleusis; Herakles and Dioskouroi (stars), Triptolemos - london, F 68, and no.392, Leningrad.

One of the most celebrated is the trials of Kore, the daughter of Demeter. It is a history of a girl abducted to the Underworld and allowed to return to her mother after a terrifying experience. A girl who is joined in a sacred union with Hades the God of Darkness. This is analogous to the female initiand of Pompeii, who endures flagellation and perhaps other trials to enter a to re-sruface enlightened.

On the base, the mask of Dionysos alone bearded and crowned is often shown head on , taking up all or part of the image. Men call on the God, , invoke him and seek through ritual to establish him among them. The animated women whom he inspires amnd subjugates to his possession. It is in them that he is to be found, as much as in the liknon or mask, much more than in his impenetrable appearance.

As Seaford points out, the mysteries of Dionysos were associated with the Mysteries of Demeter at Elusis. (p.54)

Seaford asks the question - "what might be the function in initiatory ritual of this confusing reflection?" He suggests that the answer to this may lie in literary allusions to the Mysteries and quotes from the Bible. I would like to submit that a further clue lies in the text which Seaford admits is "the best of the early evidence for initation into the Dionysiac mysteries", the Bacchae of Euripides. In it, Dionysos, pretending to be one of his own mortal followers, tells Pentheus of his initiation into the mysteries : "I saw the god see me." . He looked upon an image and saw the image looking back at him.

It may have only been a mask held up to reflect off an ancient mirror, but for any initiand, for the startled woman in the fresco and for the character in Euripides' play, it was the face of a God.


Pentheus : "Of what fashion be these mysteries?"

Dionysus : "Tis secret, save to the initiate."

Euripides, (The Bacchae 471-2)


 It is thought that the Greeks settled in Pompei sometime in the 6th Century BC. After an interval of Etruscan occupation, Pompei was again occupied by the Greeks from 474-424 BC. (cf. R. Etienne, Pompeii: The Day a City Died, New York, 1986, p.44)

 ibid. p.189.

 The line in the Greek text could also be translated as "eye-to-eye, his mysteries he bestowed." The translation of "I saw the god see me" is used by Francoise Frontisi-Ducroux in Les limites de l'anthropomorphisme: Hermes et Dionysos in Corps des Dieux (Le Temps de la Reflexion VII, 1986), p.39. 

copyright © Raichel Le Goff
ISBN 960-855312-0-9
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