A mystery or spousal initiation in the Villa of Mysteries? Priestesses and Mystica Vannus Iacchii in secret breezy rites veiled with female caution.
The fresco in the Pompeian villa we are examining is given the explicit status of a representation of a mystery rite for the presence of the sacred vannus. The secret scenes also introduce an aspect rarely considered when the Mystica Vannus Iacchii was artistically represented. But why did an agricultural device reach such a position in Dionysian liturgies?
In the II b.C. last decades, the “Greek” Roman aristocracy, or the upper classes familiar with Greek culture, began to build villas in Campania. Caesar and Cicero were among them. During the Augustan era, the phenomenon became a fashion. Livia and Iulia, Augustus’ wife and daughter have their villas there, though we don’t know where. The Campanian region was a combination of a mild climate and fertile soils, and it had been a real Greek colony centuries before. From there, Pythagorean and Orphic ideas eventually came to Rome, never gaining the importance they had in Campania.
The villa’s ownership is unknown, as is the case with many private homes in the city of Pompeii. However, certain artifacts give clues. A bronze seal found in the villa is named L. Istacidius Zosimus, a freedman of the powerful Istacidii family. The presence of a statue representing Livia, the above-mentioned wife of Augustus, has caused some historians to instead declare her to be the owner. Probably the villa had been already almost abandoned by important owners before the 79 A.D. eruption.
Archaeologists didn’t find luxury objects or items to run a house like that inside. Probably at the time of the catastrophe, it was inhabited only by a few service personnel. Some corpses, or better, empty spaces in the volcanic ash then filled with chalk, were found in the villa’s area, usually for domestic workers’ use.
Architecture and building techniques would date the villa of Mysteries back to II b.c., that is, at the beginning of this Campanian fashion. The magnificent palace lies outside the main town and can be considered a suburban villa. In fact, its sumptuosity lets us immediately think of a real “otium,” or leisurely, luxurious country house, lacking the features of an agricultural farm. That’s to say we don’t find here an original division in “pars urbana,” the villa’s features, and “pars rustica,” the typical farm commodities.
The majority of the walls, and most particularly the paintings, survived largely undamaged despite being covered with meters of ash. So the Villa of Mysteries could be named after the series of metallographic frescoes in one room of the residence, in a space that may have been a triclinium. The term “mysteries” refers to secret initiation rites of the classical world.
Unquestionably, there are feminine presences scattered everywhere in the fresco. And that’s not strange: women were the priestesses of Dionysus, and I don’t refer here to the orgiastic and later degenerations of the Bacchanals, but to the early secret rites of the immortality of the soul.
Livius, during the Augustan age, describes the embarrassing affair of bacchanals in Rome occurring in 186 b.c. (Ab urbe XXXIX, 8–18). He tells of the degeneration caused by the arrival in the capital of the original Dionysian rites from Campania. He spoke about the transformations carried by the priestess Paculla Annia, who had allowed men in rites previously set apart for women only, to admit her sons for the first time. Sexual degenerations took place, to the extent that they turned the ancient secret rites into mere orgies. Till the consequent Bacchanals ban. But, while still in Pompei, women were the unique celebrants and Dionysus’ companions. Very often we can find images of priestesses, whose practices were an aristocratic privilege handed on from mother to daughter.
In fact, the final character in Villa of Mysteries is the “Domina,” the lady of the house. This aspect has led many art critics to consider the painted rites as a sequence celebration for passing certain milestones and consequently promoting psychological advancement through the stages of life. In short, a kind of guide for a young girl who had to face the trauma of leaving childhood to enter the new, difficult world of marriage.
This could seem to be the most immediate explanation, as apparently, the drama gives the first impression of including a simulated death and rebirth. Perhaps Dionysus had been chosen precisely to represent the death of the old self and the birth of the new self. But some details have little to do with the psychological troubles of an inexperienced bride.
For example, we can see the Dionysus figure without wearing a sandal, that is, barefoot in half, which was a sacred symbol for heroes, scholars, and physicians willing to get in touch with the chthonic powers. It is known that sandals and footwear were for the ancient a symbol of mortality. So Dionysus is mortal. In fact, he is the intellect. But in our case, he lacks a shoe, so a part of him can aspire to immortality.
The presence in the fresco of a Phallus, or Phallos, might head us to neglect the sacrality of Dionysian cults, to make out just the wild orgiastic side, in fact, nowadays “bacchanal” reminds us only of gratuitous materiality and carnality. If a Phallus there’s to be, it is veiled and not directly recognized, as we can see on the left. In ancient times, the phallus could have even been a symbol of the union between heaven and earth; it was also often a symbol of fire, common and sacred, and often painted over Etruscan fireplaces.
Some art critics have thought of a purification rite painted on this Pompeian wall. Among Romans there was the practice of “Lustratio” (from luo: to purify), that’s to say a transition from practical to symbolic cleansing, from the removal of bodily impurity to deliverance from invisible, spiritual, and at last moral evil. At marriages, in Rome, the bride, on arriving at her husband’s house, was sprinkled with lustral water, and her feet were washed. So the idea of watery purification was commonly accepted. The villa of Mysteries frescoes seem to represent a flux, and more specifically it could be an airflow.
According to tradition, Nyx traveled the skies wrapped in her dark cloak, and the power and mystery that enveloped her represented her most precious garment. The ancient Greeks believed she fell from the stars and imposed herself on men and gods. Being one of the oldest cosmic personalities, this aspect placed her on the edge of the world, where there was only darkness and night. Hesiod claims that she lived in Tartarus. Porphyry says of her that she is the descending light into the depths of the earth.
Between her and Dionysus’s figure, the painter portrayed a Silenus holding up a silver, or white, bowl. Inside, we may think Kykeon is there, the drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries. A young Satyr gazes into the bowl and probably drinks from it. Another young Satyr, next to him, holds a theatrical mask.
However, there is another symbolic possibility for the cloaked woman: she may not represent Nyx, night, but the wind that inflates the fabric she holds. The detail of the mantle’s black color would not be decisive to define her as a nocturnal deity; in fact, it is the dominant tone of the other characters as well. In medieval Italian religious art, these cloaked female characters appear to both protect and give birth to multiple small figures within their tissue cavity. In short, they might almost look like caves. Woman-wind is not so uncommon to find in works of art. Definitely, this character could represent wind or air movement. In De Simulacris, Porphyry gives a similar meaning also to Silenus. So the latter could represent both the dance of Bacchus and the wind, or air movement. And we will see in the continuation of the article how relevant this will become.
Now let’s go back to the veiled phallus scene and notice the presence of the vannus (Latin) or liknon (Greek). Even better, the winnowing fan basket, sacred to Dionysus, does contain the anatomical part. Someone could make some superficial comments talking about a maiden’s preparation for marriage. But let’s look at another scene instead of a fresco in another area surrounding Naples, in Stabia, here on the left. A phallus arises from a liknon basket. And this is not a scene from a wedding. Back in the II century b.c., the preparation of a maiden for marriage drama could not be accompanied by a sacred winnowing fan, as these cults were well rooted in mysticism.
In the roman House of Farnesina, for instance, we can find a stucco painting, today detached and conserved in the Museo delle Terme, representing what has been defined as a Dionysian initiation scene. A Silenus in the act of the Mystica Vannus before a child enters the first stage of initiation to become a “mystic”, having his head covered and holding a thyrsos. An advocating, or officiating, woman and an attendant are present.
The Mystica Vannus was accompanied by the appellation “Iacchi” (of Iacchus), after the mystery name of Dionysus roman version, Iacchus, from Bacchus. While in Greece there was the worship of Dionysos Liknites, from liknon. Vannus-liknon can be translated into English as “winnowing fan”.