Frescos at the Villa of Mysteries: Panel 4.


My final paper for my humanities class this semester

Author: Kara Adamo.

 August 24, 79 AD.

 Cradled against the enchanting shade of Mt. Versuvius, the city of Pompeii woke to the stretch of warm sunrays sparkling against the Sarnus River. They swept across the city and touched on the impressive villas; they glowed against the temples and amphitheaters, and gleaned against shop fronts.


The city began to wake up. The streets began to fill with the chattering sounds of Greek, Germanic, Latin and Hebrew (Freeman). The ships that bobbed along the river were loaded up with jugs of wine for export.


At noon, a rumbling shook the walls; the beautiful women painted on tapestries and frescos danced with the movement.


A pillowing cloud of gray sprang from the top of Mt. Versuvius (Sigurdsson). The city streets became peppered with ash and pumice at a rate of six inches per hour.


This continued through the night until finally, the next morning, a surge of gasses, rock and lapillus shot towards the city (Sigurdsson).


And in an instant, it was gone.


For years, it was hidden.


Swept beneath a carpet of earth and pumice, the city of Pompeii lay dormant beneath the surface (Nappo). Its inhabitants and the city they knew remained encased: frozen in time beneath a world that had long forgotten them. The streets down which they walked, the temples where they said their prayers and the tables at which they took their meals were forever isolated…preserved and intact…beneath the lava that engulfed them and swallowed them whole.


In 1755, a preliminary excavation took route with the intention of uncovering Pompeii and the neighboring cities that were lost in the eruption. The attempt was futile, however, but a second excavation in 1814 at least managed to uncover the south wall of the amphitheater (Jashemski).


By 1909, however, techniques and tools had much improved. Successful excavations led archeologists and scholars to reconstruct, figuratively, what life would have been like in Pompeii before its end nearly 2,000 years ago (Seaford).


A fascination with the Villa of Mysteries began to take route when Amedeo Maiuri (Nappo) uncovered what is now referred to as The Initiation Chamber (Jackson). Perfectly preserved despite the trauma of the eruption and the two thousand years that followed, this room remains brilliantly painted with many thematic frescoes. The meaning behind these wonders taunts scholars the world over—forever shrouded in visual conceit, the actual intention may forever remain a mystery.


The currant thesis, however, views these frescoes as a chronological representation of a marriage ritual to the god, Dionysus. (McDonald).


For the purposes of this paper, we will look to one of the many scenes throughout the room: the fourth panel.


Here, the Silenus looks disapprovingly at the initiate in the third panel. He holds a silver bowl. Behind him, a young satyr gazes into it. It is speculated that he is staring at a reflection of himself in the future after he has died: symbolizing the act of coming to terms with one’s own death (Jackason). Given the supposed context of the panel, one could imagine that, in this case, it is the death of childhood and innocence. This is a rite of passage within the Cult of Dionysus: a form of divination during the course of growing up (Seaford).


It is also assumed that the bowl contains Kykeon, a drink used during participation in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries (Jackson).


That the utilization of Dionysian images was so prominent comes as no surprise. The Villa itself was situated beside—and possibly attached to—a vineyard and the prominent export in Pompeii was wine (Freeman). What does come as a small surprise is the unabashed, shameless adherence to a cult that deviated from the state religion of the time.


And so, these magnificent frescoes and their heretical tribute to a cult long-lost but fully encased in the rich cultural influences of their time, remain a mystery to us. They remain, perhaps, the most direct of connections to our past and the intrinsic qualities that have stood the test of time (Nappo): the qualities that make us human and define who we are during the course of our lives.




Works Cited


Sigurdsson, H. et al.   “The Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.”  National Geographic Research. 1, 3.  1985, pp.  332-387.


Freeman, Charles. “Egypt Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean.” Oxford University Press. 1996.


Nappo, Dr Salvatore Ciro. “Pompeii: Its Discovery and Preservation.” 2011: n. page. Web. 28 Jul. 2013.


Jashemski, Wilhelmina.  “Excavations in the Foro Boario at Pompeii: A Preliminary Report.”  American Journal of Archaeology.  72, 1 (Jan. 1968), 69-73.


Seaford, R.A.S. “The Mysteries of Dionysos at Pompeii.” Pegasus: Classical Essays from the University of Exeter. 1981: 52-67. Print.


MacDonald, Elaine Rosemary. “The Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.” Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg (2010).


Jackson, James W.. “Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.” Old Stones. Web. 28 Jul 2013.



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