A mysteric or spousal initiation in the Villa of Mysteries? Priestesses and Mystica Vannus Iacchii in secret breezy rites veiled with female caution.
The megalographia in the pompeian villa we are examining is given an explicit status of representation of a mysteric rite for the presence of the sacred vannus. But why did an agricultural device reach such a position in Dionysian liturgies? Also, the secret scenes introduce an aspect very hardly considered when the Mystica Vannus Iacchii was artistically represented.
See the last page for a Villa of Mysteries series of frescoes Gallery.
We know that in the II b.C. last decades the “Greek” roman aristocracy, or the upper classes familiar with the 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 mild climate, fertile soils, and had been a real Greek colony centuries before. From there, Pythagorean and Orphic ideas eventually came to Rome, to never take the importance they had in Campania, though.
Architecture and building techniques would date the villa of Mysteries back at II b.C., that’s to say 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 immediately think of a real “otium”, or leisure, 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 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 names L. Istacidius Zosimus, a freedman of the powerful Istacidii family. The presence of a statue of Livia, 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 catastrophe time it was inhabited only by few service staff. 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.
The majority of the walls, and most particularly the paintings, survived largely undamaged to the covering with meters of ashes. So the villa of Mysteries could be named after the series of frescoes (megalographia) in one room of the residence, in a space which may have been a triclinium. The term “Mysteries” refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world.
Apparently, the painted rites seem celebrations for having passed certain milestones and promote psychological advancement through the stages of life. The drama gives the first impression of including a simulated death and rebirth; i.e., the dying of the old self and the birth of the new self. But for some details having little to do with the entry of a young girl in the difficult world of marriage. We can see Dionysus, for instance, without wearing a sandal, that’s to say with a bare foot, which was a sacred symbol for heroes, scholars and physicians willing to get in touch with the chtonic powers.
The presence of the vannus (latin), liknon (greek), or winnowing fan basket sacred to Dionysus, made some superficial commentaries talking of a maiden preparation to marriage. In fact it was taken for granted the presence of a phallus, although only imagined, into the villa of Mysteries Dionysian liknon, as instead was the case with a fresco in another area surround Naples, in Stabia, here on the left.
But things might be much more sophisticated, and less trivial. If a Phallus, or Phallos, there’s to be in the villa of Mysteries wall, it is veiled and not directly seen, as we can see on the left. In this case the covering cannot but lay emphasis on the frescoes Mysterical nature. In fact in this case the supposed item cannot but standing for our frenzy Spirit of Life/Mercurius.
Let’s now shift the focus to the winged character beside the Mystica Vannus. Some art critics have thought of a purification rite painted on this pompeian wall. By romans there was the practice of “Lustratio” (from luo: to purify), that’s to say a transition from practical to symbolic cleansing, from removal of bodily impurity to deliverance from invisible, spiritual, and at last moral evil. At marriages, in Rome, the bride, on arriving her husband’s house, was sprinkled with lustral water, and her feet were washed. So the idea of a watery purification was commonly accepted. In the villa of Mysteries frescoes we are always before a flux, but an air flux.
We nowadays tend to neglect the sacrality of Dionysian cults to make out just the wild orgiastic side, in fact “bacchanal” reminds us only of gratuitous materiality and carnality. But, back in the II century b.C., the preparation of a maiden to 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 a Dionysian initiation scene. A Silenus in the act of the Mystica Vannus before a child entering 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”, after the mysteric 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 in english as “winnowing fan”. Three scenes before the vannus-liknon, we can see a woman to draw a mantle over her head: perhaps the symbol of the night, as her mantle is dark, perhaps the symbol of wind. And it is known that air movements were a symbol of ‘ second Sun‘. Anyway, from that moment on, the sequence on the following wall represents the effective rite, which nobody, apart from the person to initiate, has never witnessed, but those who could not talk about.
So we are allowed to know that the Night, or Wind, introduces a Silenus holding up a silver, or white, bowl, which may have held Kykeon, the drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries. A young satyr gazes into the bowl, and probably drinks from it. Another young satyr holds a theatrical mask. On Kykeon I have already said, in Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon, not to take for granted the drinking composition. The mask is another Dionysian symbol, sometimes contained together with the veiled phallus and silver bowl in the vannus-liknon, as we can se below in another Pompeii house, that of Vettii.