R. A. S. Seaford
The Dionysiac Mysteries of my title are those depicted in the famous fresco uncovered in 1909 in the so-called 'Villa of the Mysteries', just outside Pompeii on the road to Herculaneum. Most surviving ancient painting, with the exception of vase-painting, is from the cities covered by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. And of this our fresco is perhaps the finest specimen. But my primary interest is not in its aesthetic but in its religious significance. In fact of course these two aspects of the fresco, the aesthetic and the religious, are not distinct - something which is perhaps difficult to appreciate fully for those brought up in a Protestant tradition.
Painted towards the middle of the first century B.C., the fresco has been fairly well preserved by the volcanic eruption that destroyed its beholders. And inasmuch as the frieze goes around the four walls of a smallish room (22 ft. by 15 ft.), we may by standing in the middle of the room find ourselves inside the represented events: an unusually direct relationship with an ancient spiritual document, comparable perhaps to acting in a Greek play. But the immediacy of our aesthetic response will be enriched beyond measure if combined with an understanding of the religious significance of the obscure events on the walls around us.
This understanding does not come easily. The fresco depicts the process of initiation into the mysteries of Dionysos. And initiation is something that we find difficult to understand because our society has developed in such a way as to have eliminated it, apart from a few vestiges, such as baptism and University Degree Ceremonies. If on the other hand we look at those societies that are commonly called `primitive' we find initiation ceremonies of various kinds. In particular, we are likely to find a ritual of initiation which, for want of a better term, I will call `tribal initiation': this is the ritual by which the young people are converted into full adult members of the tribe or community. It has been documented in various parts of the world: Africa, Asia. Australasia, Polynesia, Europe, North and South America; and although of course no two examples of the ritual are identical, the general similarity between the numerous and widespread cases is so striking that it is worth our while to construct a rough morphology of tribal initiation, that is to say an account of its most general features and structure. Morphologies of this kind have indeed been constructed by comparative anthropologists, most recently and thoroughly by Angelo Brelich.
Summarising the morphology of tribal initiation, speaking that is in the most general terms, we may say that the most central and typical features of the ritual are the following: the initiands undergo seclusion at some distance from the community, instruction, purification, beatings, contests, special food, a special dress (notably transvestite or in animal skins), the revelation of sacred and mysterious objects, death and rebirth, contact with the regenerative powers of nature, and finally marriage or the first act of sexual union. All of this is kept carefully secret from all save the initiated. he fundamental importance of this kind of ritual in the life of the community can hardly be overestimated, inasmuch as this is the ritual by which the clan or tribe creates and perpetuates itself and its culture. The novices die as children and are reborn as adults; they learn the myths and ritual of the tribe; they experience the rites which they have from early childhood known as inevitable and yet utterly mysterious and terrifying; they pass from ignorance to knowledge, which may include sexual knowledge; they become full adult members of the tribe; they acquire, in effect, knowledge of the Mysteries.
Among societies in a primitive stage of development, tribal initiation usually possesses a central position in the social and religious life of the community. And so when these societies develop and disintegrate, the function of tribal initiation cannot remain unchanged. And in fact it does tend to change in various characteristic ways. Firstly, it tends to lose its central position. But precisely because of its original centrality, and importance, the ritual does not disappear. It persists in various forms, n ritual with a new function derived from the old, or as a shadow of ritual in myth. One characteristic feature of the development or decline of the ritual is the gradual reduction f the number initiated. Originally, it seems that everybody (or at least every man) is at certain age initiated into his kinship group, his clan or tribe. But then the number initiated may decline to a smaller group or a representative individual. (The reasons for his decline are obviously of great interest, but outside our present scope.) The typical smaller group of initiates is the secret society, which may be modeled on the old clan; he typical representative individual is the priest-king. Initiation into a secret society is generally of the same type as tribal initiation. And coronation of the priest-king is a specialized rite of tribal initiation. Indeed it may be possible to show that the magic religious powers still conferred by the coronation in Westminster Abbey derive ultimately from the powers conferred in initiation on the rising generation as a whole. We tend to be uninterested in anything that the Greeks have in common with primitive peoples', to regard the whole process of comparison as somehow suspect. This is partly because philhellenes have, unconsciously for the most part, taken the Greeks as a model and guarantee of their own supposedly civilized conceptions of what society and religion should be. And yet for two generations it has been recognised by some that certain elements of Greek civilisation are best understood in the context of comparative anthropology. The Greeks are not after all set mysteriously apart. I am not a comparative anthropologist; and yet my study of the particular subject of tribal initiation has convinced me (and I am not alone in the conviction) that among the ancient Greeks, a people no longer wholly primitive', we find rituals which are both strikingly similar to 'tribal initiation' and different from it in precisely the respect that the observable development of tribal initiation' leads us to expect at an advanced stage of that development. This is to say that in the process of the decline of initiation the Greeks stand somewhere between our own society, which has lost all save a few traces of initiation, and those primitive societies in which tribal initiation has retained its central importance. Once fully appreciated, this point sheds a flood of light on the origins of numerous features of Greek myth and religion, of which we are limited here to a small sample. Initiation into the Greek mysteries is, I believe, derived ultimately, by a characteristic process of development, from tribal initiation. Not only is almost every item of our morphology of tribal initiation found also in initiation into the Greek Mysteries, but furthermore the structure and function of the two kinds of initiation are closely related.
The Mysteries of Dionysos were not the only Mysteries into which one might be initiated in the Graeco-Roman world. There were also the famous Mysteries at Eleusis, for example, as well as the Mysteries of imported Oriental gods such as Sabazios, Isis and so on. All these initiations, because they are all derived ultimately from the same kind of ritual, resemble each other, and because they resemble each other they tend to fuse with each other: one initiatory cult may contain features drawn from another initiatory cult sacred to another deity (an obvious example is the peripheral association of Dionysos with the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis). But the deities are of secondary importance; the initiations themselves, in the name of whatever deity they are performed, exhibit the same basic pattern: the fate of the initiand is radically altered by a ritual in which he is purified, he is instructed, he sees and hears sacred things, together with certain other features such as the eating of a special meal and the assumption of a special dress.
I must pause here to clarify two basic points. Firstly, the word 'initiation' implies initiation into something. I have spoken of initiation into the Mysteries of Dionysos. In the ritual of tribal initiation it is perfectly clear what the novice is being initiated into: he is being initiated into the clan or the tribe, into the adult community. But what happens when this community loses its coherence, for example when all power becomes vested in a smaller group within it, when the community disintegrates in one way or another? - that is to say, when the entity into which the novice is initiated ceases to be a coherent entity at all? What appears not to happen in these circumstances is the simple disappearance of the ritual: it is too important and significant for that. The ritual survives, but with a new function: it may effect entry into a smaller group within the community - the secret society, for example - or it may cease to effect entry into any group at all: that is, while no longer conferring social benefits, no longer changing the social status of the initiand (making him a full adult member of the community), it may nevertheless continue to confer the magical and religious benefits that it has always conferred. Thus there is a sense in which we can talk without absurdity about initiation rites where nobody is being actually initiated into anything very definite. To illustrate this point it might be helpful to take one of the few remaining examples of initiation in our society, the University Degree ceremony. An MA ceremony, for example, is actually an initiation into something, into the community of MAs. This act of incorporation once had far more significance than it does today, because the MAs once formed a more definite, coherent body than they do today. Indeed, I venture to suggest that the ceremony nowadays is generally conceived not as an entry into a guild f learned men, but as a piece of ritual or a picturesque tradition, valued for its own sake: the society of MAs is there in the background, but with no more than a shadowy and incoherent existence.
The second point concerns primitive conceptions of life and death, which are entirely different from our own. (Here I must perform even more dangerous feats of abstraction and simplification, in an area in which I have no detailed knowledge.) Primitive society ends to be divided into various grades, of which the most typical are CHILD, ADULT, ELDER, ANCESTOR. In general, transition between the grades is effected by a rite of passage, of which the most important tends to be what we have called tribal initiation, which effects the transition between child and adult. Usually tribal initiation requires he death and rebirth of the initiand - and often not as a metaphor: in the eyes of all hose concerned the initiand actually dies and is reborn as a new person; the child dies and an adult is born. If the most crucial of transitions is not physical death (what we call death) but the momentous transition through death from child to adult, then there is a sense in which tribal initiation is initiation not just into the adult community, but into the adult community of living and dead. The adults, the elders and the ancestors are often loosely associated with each other: e.g. in the ritual of tribal initiation the older men (the initiators) are often found impersonating or embodying the ancestors.
Now, when tribal initiation develops in the ways that I have mentioned, what happens?. Firstly, the idea that the initiand dies and is reborn may be weakened, or disappear altogether. Secondly, as the ritual ceases to be an entry into the community of he living, it may nevertheless of course continue to be an entry into the community of he dead. Ceasing to be a preparation primarily for life, it becomes a preparation primarily for the afterlife. This is the fundamental fact underlying most mystery-religions. Scholars sometimes argue about Dionysiac and other mysteries, as to whether they concerned the afterlife or not. If we bear in mind the origins of mystery religion, the ambiguity of the evidence for whether the mysteries concerned the afterlife or not is precisely what we expect. For example, initiation into the Dionysiac secret society (or 'thiasos') may be incorporation into an actual living community, which is nevertheless also a community of the next world. It secures the fate of the initiated in this world and the next: when compared with the unforgettable experience of his initiation, the physical death of the initiate hardly counts as a transition at all.
To be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries was not to be initiated into a clearly defined community. But it did ensure a happy existence, particularly in the next world: 'Happy is the man' says the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (480-82) 'who has seen these Mysteries [the Eleusinian]; but he who is uninitiated, who has no part in the Mysteries, does not have a share of the same things after death.' In Aristophanes' Frogs Herakles tells Dionysos of the [Eleusinian] initiands whom he will later see in the underworld enjoying the benefits conferred by initiation: they are grouped in bands, in thiasoi. This suggests that although the Eleusinian Mysteries were primarily a ritual conferring benefits on the individual, they were also to some extent an initiation in the full sense: that is, they effected the initiand's entry into a community, a thiasos (just as Dionysiac initiation effected entry into the Dionysiac thiasos) - albeit these Eleusinian thiasos had as far as I know a shadowy existence, confined to the enactment of the ritual and to the next world.
The thiasos is associated especially but not exclusively with Dionysos. On the one hand there are real Dionysiac thiasoi - secret associations of people meeting and performing ritual in his honour - and on the other hand there are mythical Dionysiac thiasoi - for example those in Euripides' Bacchae - which are of course mythical pictures of real thiasoi; and even the actual thiasoi tended to conceive of themselves in mythical terms, as Nymphs and satyrs, for example, the companions of Dionysos. The characteristic features of the mythical as of the real thiasoi are the performances of dances (particularly ecstatic dances), a strong sense of solidarity, a distinctive tradition, a distinctive ritual, and distinctive accoutrements such as the thyrsus and tile fawn-skin. The female thiasos is composed typically of Maenads, the mythical male thiasos (and sometimes also the actual male thiasos) of satyrs. Sometimes, especially in myth, the thiasos is imagined as united by kinship.
The Dionysiac thiasos is of course a religious association; but the word thiasos also occurs in fifth-century Athens to denote a social grouping, a subdivision of the phratry: that is to say it refers to a social grouping based nominally at least on kinship (the phratry is nominally at least a group of kin). The French scholar Louis Gernet believed that the religious associations known as thiasoi, like those known as orgeônes, were derived from, or modeled on, ancient social groupings - units of society like the phratries. These social groupings, based largely on kinship, had religious as well as social functions (the two being hardly separable); as Society developed the social thiasoi disintegrated; but because of their fundamental hold on the emotions of the people, they did not simply disappear: their religious functions persisted; they survived, no longer as kinship groupings with religious functions, but as purely religious associations. People related to each other not by kin but by sentiment meet to perform the ancient collective clan rituals, the rituals of the old order. This is why, in myth and in reality, the Dionysiac thiasos appealed in particular to the humble and downtrodden, notably to the women of a fiercely patriarchal society. Those who had no part in the society of the day found a sense of belonging in the thiasos, in the more immediate and familiar social relations and ritual of the society of yesterday. And so the thiasos, although a merely religious association, an intense shadow of its former self, might nevertheless come into conflict with the authorities of the day: this is the conflict embodied in Euripides' Bacchae.
Our hypothesis is that initiation into the Dionysiac thiasos is derived from a ritual both ancient and fundamental; the initiation of the youth as full members of the clan. The connection between this hypothesis and our fresco lies not just in the interpretation of certain details, nor just in the principle that a full understanding of anything of this kind requires some account of its origins and development. There is more to it than that: it is only by reference to the traditional power and significance of initiation, which derives from its social origins, that we can understand how a ritual of the type found in this fresco and elsewhere exerted such a profound, widespread and persistent attraction, here, in the fresco, in scene F, is a naked girl being whipped; there, in scene C is a satyr giving suck to a fawn; between them, in scene E, a drunken god sprawls against his friend. Now this is a splendid villa, its owners people of urbane and sophisticated taste. How seriously did they take the fresco? Would they see it rather as we see a painting of a rustic ritual by Poussin? Or should we go further and say that the painter clearly had an interest in the rituals for their own sake, and that the owner of the villa was probably a connoisseur of the mysteries of Dionysos? We should say neither of these things; this is not mere connoisseurship. Unlike any other painting I know, the fresco expresses the emotions of an actual ritual, a religious experience.
I have said that the Dionysiac thiasos appealed in particular to the powerless and the oppressed. That seems to be true in general of the classical period of Greek history. Here, in first-century BC Pompeii, we find it in more splendid circumstances. In expanding up the social scale Dionysiac mystic ritual exhibits a typical tendency, exemplified also by early Christianity.
The best of the early evidence for initiation into the Dionysiac mysteries is provided by Euripides' Bacchae. In particular, it has never been realised that the change of personality and dress undergone by Pentheus in the course of the play is based on the ritual of initiation into the Dionysiac thiasos: an allusion recognisable at least to those in the audience who had been themselves initiated. In the Hellenistic and Imperial periods evidence for the Dionysiac thiasoi increases - inscriptions, references in ancient authors, tomb reliefs, paintings and so on - and in particular there is a great number of explicit depictions of the ritual of initiation. This growth in the evidence reflects the spread of the cult, the growth in the number and importance of thiasoi, and he profanation and vulgarisation of the mysteries.' Thus the Dionysiac initiations in Rome, according to Livy, were at first confined to the women and known only to a few; later they came to be known generally, he says, among both men and women. This passageof Livy (39.8ff) is actually of particular interest. It concerns the suppression of the Dionysiac mysteries throughout Italy by the Roman authorities in 186 BC, four generations before the painting of our fresco. Apart from being an excellent illustration of the tendency of the Mysteries to come into conflict with the authorities of the day, it also provides evidence for the various details of the cult in Italy.
Livy's account is the official version. This means of course that on any point that bears on the evaluation of the cult we cannot trust a single word of it. Connoisseurs of the reactions of state authorities to anything that threatens to undermine their dominance will find here a particularly choice example: in fact it exhibits striking points of similarity to the example I have already mentioned, King Pentheus' reaction in Euripides' Bacchae to the spread of Dionysiac religion in Thebes. And it does so because of course the Bacchae is a dramatic reflection of the same phenomenon: the main difference being that, unlike Dionysos in the play, the Italian priests of Dionysos, once imprisoned, proved to be incapable of a miraculous escape (though the Roman authorities did take precautions against suicide in jail). Livy's view of the cult is much the same as the consul's, whose speech he reports; 'This Dionysiac mystery-cult,' according to the consul 'is a growing evil; its adherents grow more numerous every day it weakens loyalty to the state; it is a conspiracy; it is the sole cause of all the evils of recent years; and unless we are vigilant, it will take over the state (for that is their aim).. .' This kind of rhetoric is familiar enough in contemporary politics. 'The rites themselves take place by night, and so lead to sexual abuses.' That is also what King Pentheus says in the Bacchae. 'One should never allow foreign religions into the state.' Again, very much like Pentheus. The consul even goes on to say that the male adherents are 'men very like women' (simillimi feminis mares); - and that, you may remember, is an accusation made by Pentheus against Dionysos.
Unlike Pentheus, the Roman authorities succeeded in suppressing with considerable brutality the Dionysiac mysteries, and rewarded with money and honour the informers who were therefore no doubt only too happy to contribute to the official fictions. Nevertheless, as our fresco for example shows, the Mysteries were not finally eradicated from Italy; though perhaps they never regained support in a form that threatened loyalty to the state; a quiet unexuberant cult within the familia would be tolerated. Certainly one of the few things that we can be certain of from Livy's account is that the cult had indeed to some extent threatened traditional loyalties, and that the alleged conspiracy (coniuratio) reflects the reality that the initiates were actually initiated into actual communities or thiasoi.
Livy's account of the ritual is an absurd picture of every kind of sexual abuse, murder, even the forgery of wills. But he gives certain details which, because they are not designed to denigrate the cult, may reflect reality. For example, he says that among the leaders of the cult in 186 BC was a Campanian. Campania was the part of Hellenised Southern Italy nearest to Rome, and so we would expect it to be a source of the Greek Mysteries in Rome; and indeed our fresco is just one indication of the continuing strength of the Mysteries in Campania. Livy also says that the cult was originally confined to women, but by 186 BC there were a few men, and a few nobiles of both sexes. Initiation required a certain preparation, consisting of at least a meal and purification. There appear to have been two grades of initiate, the first grade consisting of those who had merely made their prayers from the sacred formula (ex carmine sacro), the priest dictating the words. Another detail which may derive from reality is the youth of those initiated (boys under 20, as Livy explains it, being desired for the purposes of vice and corruption).
Livy says that if you were initiated you were quite likely to be murdered in the course of initiation, and your body would probably never be discovered. It is curious therefore to read in the same passage that the cult was growing so rapidly in popularity. Still, the absurdity may be based on a reality. If the initiate was conceived as suffering death in order to be reborn as a member of the Dionysiac community, then it is easy to see how this might confirm the suspicions of those anxious to denigrate the cult, just as the early Christians' celebration of the Eucharist caused them to be accused of cannibalism. The accusation of sexual abuses was probably no more justified than the same accusation made by Pentheus. But again this may be an exaggeration and distortion of a less shocking reality, as we shall see when we turn, as we must now do, to the fresco.
The Villa is composed of three sets of living quarters grouped around a central atrium. The fresco is in the largest room (probably a dining room) of one of these sets. The figures, which are slightly smaller than life size, have been painted over an architectural background. There are several scenes (see Plate 5); and though they are in sense distinct from each other, they are not contained (as so often in Roman wall painting) in separate panels. In fact the continuity of the scenes has been expressed by overlap between them in relationship to the architectural background.
Now the fresco is not the only surviving representation of the Dionysiac Mysteries. But the number of the scenes and the apparent continuity between them, as well as their size and good state of preservation, all this makes the fresco the most important surviving representation. It also presents us with immediate problems. In what sense are the scenes continuous? I mean, are the various events to be regarded as occurring simultaneously or successively? Or are they merely an incoherent collection of typically Dionysiac scenes? If the frieze is continuous, where does it start? To these and related questions my answers will emerge from my exposition. I ask them here imply as a warning that others have answered them differently. In fact the work done on the fresco constitutes an astonishing variety of opinion on almost every element of it. And I do not even have the time to comment on every significant detail.
The problem is of course that the object of our enquiry is itself a mystery. The secrets of the Mysteries were fully known only to those who had been initiated into them. We have to help us no ancient text which expounds these secrets. The full significance of the fresco is therefore, you will quite rightly say, necessarily beyond our grasp. But we do have a considerable number of allusions to the Mysteries, pictorial and literary illusions recognisable even to the uninitiated, that is to say ourselves. And there is a point at which allusion becomes profanation. Aeschylus in the Oresteia alludes persistently to the Eleusinian Mysteries, on the principle expressed by his watchman, manthanousin audô - 'I speak it to those who understand'. But there were of course plenty of initiated among the audience, and Aeschylus was accused of profaning the Mysteries. The Dionysiac Mysteries, with their spread and growth in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, appear to have been subject to a considerable degree of profanation, most of it pictorial. On the basis of such allusion and profanation everybody agrees on the fundamental point, that at least the central scenes of the fresco, scenes D to F (Plates 6 and 7), represent an initiation into the Mysteries of Dionysos. It appears that the central group of the fresco is the one immediately facing us as we enter by the larger of the two doors, the seated couple of scene E. Although the top part of the group is lost, it is possible to identify the couple, from similar depictions elsewhere, as Dionysos and Ariadne, the partners in a sacred marriage hieros gamos. Consider now the adjacent scene, scene F: in the foreground of this scene a crouching woman appears to be about to remove a veil from a basket. This basket is recognisable as the liknon, a winnowing-basket in the shape of a cradle; it reappears in ancient art and literature with a sacral use, notably in the Mysteries of Dionysos, where we find it containing secret holy objects (or sacra,) - usually a phallos and fruit, which are revealed to an initiand in the course of initiation, sometimes by the removal of a veil from he liknon. We may therefore infer that the crouching woman in scene F is about to unveil the contents of the liknon, which consists probably in a phallos and some fruit. and that this is an act of initiation into the Dionysiac Mysteries. The initiand in this case can be none other than the kneeling half-naked girl (Scene G, Plate 9) who is being flagellated (across the corner of the room) by the winged figure next to the liknon. Notice that her eyes are shut. The words 'mystery' and 'mystic' derive from muein, referring to the closed eyes of the candidate for initiation. What is the point of the revelation of the phallos? My guess is that it is derived from a feature of tribal initiation: sometimes the sacred objects revealed in tribal initiation are models of the genital organs, which may then be used to instruct the young in the secrets of sexuality and reproduction. Whatever the truth of that, it is easy to see how this sexual content of the Mysteries would fuel the authorities' suspicions of sexual abuses.
Why is the poor girl being flagellated, and who is the winged female figure flagellating her? A few examples of ritual beating and flagellation are known from the Greek and Roman world: e.g. at the Roman Lupercalia and in the female cult of Dionysos at Alea in Arcadia. And these cases have been cited to demonstrate (unnecessarily perhaps) that this is a ritual flagellation, perhaps designed to confer fertility on the victim. It was however pointed out in 1965 that no clear parallel had yet been produced for flagellation forming part of a ritual of initiation. Now there are In fact numerous examples of flagellation and beating forming part of the ordeal of the initiand, but outside the Greco-Roman world. This kind of ordeal is one of the most typical and widespread undergone by the candidates in tribal initiation, where it may have the dual function of an ordeal and a fertility ritual. Given our hypothesis that initiation into the Mysteries is derived from tribal initiation, it is satisfying to discover flagellation as an initiatory ritual here in our fresco. Still, even though our evidence for the Mysteries is admittedly sparse, it would have been more satisfactory to find at least a second example of flagellation in Greek initiation ritual. This has now been provided in spectacular fashion by Angelo Brelich, who, without making any mention of our fresco, has demonstrated that the most famous example of flagellation in antiquity, the flagellation of the Spartan boys at the altar of Artemis Ortheia, is along with other features of the cult derived from tribal initiation. Sparta was one of the most socially conservative areas of the Greek world, and the flagellation of the Spartan boys, whether it was still actually conceived as a teletê (initiation) or not, preserved its social significance: that is to say it was, at least in the early period before it became a tourist attraction, an official ritual undergone for the good of society by the young men, 'the ephebes', and not a means of entry into a secret community on the margins of society.
As to the identity of the winged figure, an astonishing number of suggestions have been made: Artemis, Iris, Isis, Lyssa, Nike, Tyche, Telete, Aidos, a Fury, Ananke, Agnoia, Adresteia, Nemesis, Hosia, and Dike. The question of her identity is of course inseparable from the question of what she is doing, and the question of what exactly she is doing cannot be settled without consideration of what the function of ritual flagellation tends to be elsewhere (particularly in initiation ritual). This point well illustrates the distinction between the subjective and the objective method. Rather than merely contemplating the picture and prompting our imagination to provide us with a solution, we discover that in general flagellation tends to have the function of an ordeal and a fertility ritual, and that it may be both at once, particularly in initiation ritual. Thus the first theory to be dismissed, put forward by one Pottier, is that the figure has just flow down with her whip to abolish the obscene sacra as unworthy of the Augustan age. In the same way Zuntz, for no apparent reason, said in his British Academy Lecture on the subject that the flagellation conveys a deprecation of extra-marital sexual relations. Now we are of course dealing with a divine female, no ordinary flagellator; but this means, not that the flagellation cannot be compared with any other ritual flagellation, but rather that the female divinity expresses some part of the ritual flagellation. I mean that here, as in general in Greek religion, we may reasonably expect the divinity to be at least partly an expression of the ritual; she emerges out of the ritual, not the other way round. We should, therefore, I think, dismiss the candidature of the punishing or avenging deities such as Nemesis, Dike or a Fury; because punishment, the usual function of flagellation, is not the function of ritual flagellation.
This point is supported by the occurrence of a winged female in other depictions of the unveiling of the Dionysiac sacra (Plate 8 (a) and (b)), in which at the moment of revelation of the sacra she is turning away or even running away, and making a defensive gesture with her left hand (and it appears that the crouching woman revealing the sacra may be trying to restrain her). Now we notice that the winged female in our fresco too is making the same defensive gesture with the left hand towards the sacra. Surely it is the same deity. But why should Dike, Nemesis and so on run away at the revelation of the sacra? The most plausible candidates left in the field, it seems to me, are Aidos (Modesty) and Agnoia (Ignorance). Aidos because Modesty might be repelled by the sight of the phallos, Agnoia because Ignorance would be put to flight by the revelation. Both these deities might be regarded as embodying the initiand's emotion lust before the sacra are revealed to her. In most pictures of the revelation the sacra have been revealed; our fresco, on the other hand, depicts the moment just before revelation. Ignorance is still in command. The candidature of Agnoia (Ignorance) has been made even more plausible by further iconographical parallels adduced by Karl Lehmann. On a fourth-century AD mosaic in Algeria (Plate 8 (c)) a female makes towards the revelation of the Dionysiac sacra a defensive gesture reminiscent of those we have already seen, and very similar to the gesture made by another female in a second-century AD tomb-painting from Hermoupolis in Egypt (Plate 8 (d)). This latter female appears to be urging Oedipus to kill his father Laios; and the letters above her head identify her as AGNOlA, Ignorance.
Agnoia is the deity who speaks the prologue of Menander's Perikeiromene. Lehmann's identification of her with the winged flagellator of the fresco has so far as I know been neither accepted nor refuted. But consider how appropriate she is here. Firstly, she is winged: when all is suddenly revealed, Ignorance is just as suddenly nowhere: she has taken flight. Secondly, being Ignorance, she must reject knowledge of the sacra. Thirdly, she tortures the initiand. The ignorance of the initiand, just before the final moment of revelation, her fear and trembling, are regarded as an ordeal. As is normal in tribal initiation, the terror of the initiand is based on his ignorance of what is to come. An ordeal too is the ritual flagellation of the initiand. The flagellation by Ignorance represents, I think, an assimilation of these initiatory ordeals to each other. The terrified ignorance of the initiand is conceived as a divine flagellation.
The terror of the initiand seems also to be the subject of scene D (Plate 10), which corresponds to scene F by position, straddling as it does the other corner of central and -side wall, on the other side of the sacred marriage. What is going on here? When the fresco was first discovered, it was thought that the young satyr was drinking from the cup. But that is very unlikely: he seems rather to be looking intensely into the cup; and the whole context of the scene, as well as the solemn expression on Silenos's face, the holding up of the mask behind him, and the terror of the girl across on his right, all this suggests that some ritual is here being celebrated, not an idyllic drinking scene. It is now generally believed that the scene is one of lecanomancy, divination by the observation of images seen in a liquid in a basin, or of catoptromancy, divination by images seen reflected on a shining surface. The satyr-medium tells Silenos what he sees. Silenos then interprets it, as an oracle, to the girl; and it is by the content of this oracle that the girl is terrified.
These are not the only interpretations of the scene; it still remains a mystery. Without being able to banish ignorance entirely, I want to make a few points that have not been properly appreciated in the controversy that has surrounded it.
Firstly, the scene is surely a unity. The composition of the figures is such that, as in the corresponding flagellation scene, it is difficult to believe that several unrelated actions are taking place in it. Consider the Silenos-mask held up behind the seated Silenos. We find Silenos-masks, in representations of the Dionysiac thiasos, in a purely decorative role or as a disguise. But here the mask is deliberately held up, held up to some purpose. What purpose? The only ritual function that the Silenos-mask has in depictions of the Dionysiac thiasos is, as far as I know, as a sacrum, one of the sacred objects of revelation. In particular, in the cameo in Plate 8 (b), the object revealed is not a liknon containing fruit and phallos but a Silenos-mask. We may therefore tentatively infer that in the fresco too the mask is an object of revelation, like the liknon and its contents in the corresponding scene F on the other side of the sacred marriage; and we may tentatively dismiss those theories according to which the mask is apotropaic (to ward off evil spirits) or an expression of the prophecy. For these theories are unsupported by the objective considerations.
If the mask is an object of revelation, how does it relate to the rest of the scene? A minority of scholars believes that the mask is seen by the young satyr reflected in the bowl. This is I think correct As for the startled girl across the corner, I imagine that she has been startled not by what Silenos says, but by her direct vision of the mask. (We find fear at Silenos' masks depicted elsewhere, though with the notable exception of the cameo in Plate 8 (b), not in a Dionysiac ritual.) I should also say at this point that in tribal initiation masks are frequently used to inspire fear in the novice, usually worn by the initiators, but sometimes as sacred objects.
If this scene is one of revelation of the mask, what becomes of the "theory that it is a scene of divination? The divination theory, though generally held, is in fact far from certain. Nobody can agree on what the content of the oracle is, on why the girl should be startled by it, and on what the function of an oracle is in an initiation. Let us at least try the theory that the scene is one of revelation of the mask. Now if it is, then there is a thematic as well as a formal correspondence with the scene of revelation and flagellation, scene F, on the other side of the sacred marriage. How detailed this thematic correspondence is depends on our detailed interpretation of scene D. If it is a scene of revelation of the Silenos-mask to the initiand, who is the initiand? Is it the startled girl, who may have seen the mask directly, or is it the young satyr, who sees it reflected in the bowl? The fresco as a whole seems to concern the various stages of female initiation: all the human figures in it are female, the only male figures being Dionysos and his mythical following (Silenos and the satyrs). Has the female initiate intruded on the mysteries of the male thiasos, and seen the terrifying sacred mask, which even the satyr-initiand has as yet seen only indirectly? If so, she has a male Counterpart in Pentheus, who spied on the secret objects of the female thiasos (Theocr. Id. 26), thereby incurring the fury of the Maenads.
Here we must pause to discover what the part played by mirrors and reflection may have been in Dionysiac ritual. First of all, we should remember that even the best of ancient mirrors gives a more obscure image than a modern mirror. The mirror is in fact one of the sacred objects of the Dionysiac Mysteries, associated in particular with another sacred object, the rhombos. The rhombos seems to resemble the bull-roarer, a piece of wood attached to a string by which it was spun in the air, thereby producing a roaring sound. The bull-roarer is a widespread feature of tribal initiation ritual, in which it is spun where the novice cannot see it, and so terrifies them with its sound unseen. It seems likely that this was the function of the rhombos, or at least its original function, in Greek initiation too. But what of the mirror? If it had a function, then its function must have been reflection. This is the function of the bowl acting as a mirror in our view of the Mysteries at Pompeii. Certainly, the satyr would have seen a confusing image. The crucial question is - what might be the function in initiatory ritual of this confusing reflection?
This question is perhaps unanswerable. Still, I cannot resist suggesting that the answer might be found in some of the allusions to the Mysteries that I have mentioned before, in this case allusions in theological writings, usually Christian. As an example I take a passage which will be already familiar to you.
'When I was a child I spake as a child; I understood as a child; I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.' (Paul, I. Cor. 13)Why should the image 'for now we see through a 'glass darkly, etc.' be thought to be analogous to the passage from childhood to adulthood? Elsewhere Paul alludes to the Pagan Mysteries,' or at the least uses language derived from them: a Greek audience would be expected to understand. The Greek for 'through a glass darkly' is di esoptrou en ainigmati: we see 'through a mirror in a riddle'; a curious conjunction of images. The passages that have :been adduced from the Judaic tradition are inadequate to explain this passage fully. The important point is that the function of the mirror in this context is negative, it is an agent of obscurity: now we see merely through the mirror, but then we shall see directly, face to face. Ancient mirrors do not achieve the clarity of modern. Riddles are also agents of obscurity. By asking somebody a riddle you stimulate him by deliberately confusing, partial revelation of the thing to which you refer. The riddle is in this respect like the ancient mirror. And so the phrase 'through a mirror in a riddle is not such an ill-assorted pair of images as it might seem. Furthermore, riddles asked of the initiand are a typical feature of tribal initiation; and there is also evidence for their occurrence in Greek initiation. Perhaps the negative function of the mirror in Paul is derived from initiation into the Greek Mysteries. If this is the point of Silenos' bowl, then the partial revelation of the mask corresponds to the partial revelation of the liknon to the terrified initiand in the formally corresponding scene on the other side of the sacred marriage. Still, I do not conceal from myself the difficulties in this hypothesis and its highly speculative nature.
Just as scene D corresponds with scene F, so scene C (Plates 11-12) on the further side of scene D, corresponds formally and thematically with the scene on the further side of scene F, scene G (Plate 9). In this scene Silenos plays the lyre. In the corresponding scene a Maenad dances and plays the cymbals. Both scenes form the same sharp contrast with the suffering of the initiand in the scene adjacent to them. The terrified girl almost impinges on the idyll in scene C. And the ecstasy of the dancing Maenad makes a striking contrast to the suffering of the flagellated girl beneath her. What is the point of this striking contrast in a picture of Dionysiac initiation? We remember that Dionysiac initiation is entry into the Dionysiac community, the thiasos, even though that thiasos may have only a shadowy or mythical existence. You might through initiation become a mythical follower of Dionysos, a Maenad or a Satyr. And once you were initiated the terrors of initiation were over. Might not the contrast so beautifully expressed in our fresco be an expression of the emotions of the initiand as she passes from the terrified ignorance of initiation to the idyllic certainty of the initiated thiasos?
For the subjective experiences of the initiand into the Dionysiac Mysteries we have hardly any evidence; but we are better informed for the Eleusinian. 'The soul on the point of death', writes Plutarch, 'has the same experience as the initiand in the great mysteries . . . at first wanderings and wearisome hurryings to and fro, and unfinished journeys half-seen as through a darkness; then before the consummation itself all the terrors, shuddering and trembling, sweat and wonder; after which they are confronted by a wonderful light, or received into pure regions and meadows, with singing and dancing and sanctities of holy voices and sacred revelations, wherein, made perfect at last, free and resolved, the initiand worships with crowned head in the company of the pure and undefiled...  Here we are reminded of the happy thiasoi of Eleusinian initiates in the underworld in Aristophanes' Frogs, in the myrtle groves, surrounded by a great light.
This interpretation of scenes C and G, if it is correct, coheres splendidly with our interpretation of the adjacent scenes with which they contrast. The flagellation and the girl startled by the mask express the ignorance, terror and suffering of the initiands just before the final consummation (pro tou telous autou), after which they take their place in the thiasos, joyful in the certainty of their salvation.
In general, I have said, the Mysteries ensure happiness for their initiates in this world and the next; and I do not think that our fresco is an exception. The next world is conceived in terms of the joy and eudaimonia acquired in the final stage of initiation. That is why the joyful Dionysiac thiasos of Maenads and Satyrs is so frequently depicted on tombs, notably in the imperial period, but also as early as the 7th century B.C. The initiate becomes a member of the thiasos [a Satyr perhaps, or a Maenad] - in life and in death. As an example of the latter I cannot resist quoting a Latin verse epitaph from Philippi: 'while we live in pain, you live renewed in the Elysian fields': nunc seu te Bromio signatae mystides ad se florigero in prato congregant in satyrum. The text and precise interpretation of these lines is uncertain, but the general picture is clear; the dead youth is imagined in the next world as a Satyr, surrounded by welcoming Maenads in a field full of flowers.
Is our initiand's passage through suffering to permanent joy conceived as a passage through death to new life? The possibility can be neither affirmed nor excluded. The flagellation and beating of tribal initiation is often conceived as affecting the death of the victim. And this seems to have been the case also with the flagellation of the Spartan boys at the altar of Artemis Ortheia. Perhaps our initiand's experience is comparable to the experience of Apuleius (Met. XI 23) when he was initiated into the Mysteries of Isis: accessi confinium mortis et calcato Proserpinae limine per omnia vectus elementa remeavi. 'I approached the confines of death and trod the threshold of Proserpina [queen of the underworld] and then returned, carried through every element.' If so, then perhaps the fear of the startled girl might be at some hint of her own impending death. And it is easy to see how this sort of thing would, in the official version preserved by Livy, by a slight change become the absurdity that the initiand was actually killed in the ritual, but his body never found.
The lyre-playing Silenos in Scene C and the cymbal-playing Maenad in scene G form the boundaries between the human and the divine. The area within these figures, scenes CDEFG, the scenes that we have already discussed, are dominated by divine beings (the flagellator, the sacred couple, the mythical thiasos): the scenes outside these figures, on the other hand, the scenes that remain to be discussed (ABHI), are entirely human.
Let us take scenes A and B first (Plate 12), the ones on the left of the lyre-playing Silenos. I do not want to go into them in detail. In Livy's account of the Mysteries (p. 58 above) we discerned three rituals preparatory to actual initiation: a meal, purification, and the making of prayers according to the carmen sacrum, the priest dictating the words. This coheres with what we know about the typical preliminaries to initiation elsewhere; and all three features are also found as typical features of tribal initiation. And so I would guess that these are also the three events of the first two scenes of the fresco. Two points cannot escape comment: firstly, the reading is done by a child. This presents no difficulty, inasmuch as we know of instances of child-priests of Dionysos; and Demosthenes (XIX 199) says of Aeschines that as a child he 'read the books out for his mother as she performed initiations'. The second question is whether we are to regard any of the figures in these scenes as the initiand: the woman entering from the left perhaps? or the seated woman with the scroll? This question seems to me simply unanswerable.
Finally there are the two last scenes of the fresco, on the other side of the central group, scenes H and I (Plates 15 and 16), which are separated from each other, and from the continuous frieze, by a window and doorways. When the fresco was first discovered it was thought by some that these scenes had nothing very much to do with the main frieze, that they were decorative scenes of domestic life, designed to fill the gaps left on the wall. About twenty years later, in 1928, it was suggested that in fact these scenes, so far from being a mere decorative appendage, were vital for our understanding of the fresco as a whole. Scene H was recognised from similar depictions elsewhere as showing the adorning of the bride, a preliminary to the marriage ceremony. As such it bears an obvious relation to the other of the two scenes, which shows a woman seated on the marriage bed. It was also pointed out that various features of Dionysiac initiation are appropriate to a wedding, especially the preliminary purification, the sacred marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne, the flagellation imparting fertility, and the revelation of the phallos. Indeed, the Greek wedding and Greek initiation had a common terminology (they were both called telete" for example) and a number of shared features: e.g. we know that the ritual formula ephugon kakon, heuron ameinon (I have fled the worse and found the better) was spoken by a child both at the wedding ceremony and at the Sabazian initiation rituals in Athens.
Such similarities can be explained by saying that both initiation and marriage are important rites of passage, and that e.g. the formula ephugon kakon, heuron ameinon is appropriate to any such transition to a more desirable state. But in fact the two rituals are not merely similar: they interpenetrate each other. For example, Firmicus Maternus (104) says that not only the words but even the ritual of marriage was used in the pagan Mysteries: the newly initiated was hailed as a bridegroom: khaire numphie, khaire neon phôs (Hail bridegroom! Hail new light!). A few Athenian vases survive of the fourth century BC in which a bride is shown surrounded by the Dionysiac thiasos. And in the Dionysiac worship of the time of Diodorus Siculus (contemporary with our fresco) it appears that the unmarried women were mere thyrsus carriers, and only the married women proper Maenads. In tribal initiation, we remember, the passage from childhood to adulthood is also the passage into marriage, or at least into the first act of sexual union. Greek initiation and Greek marriage are associated with each other because originally they were still more closely associated with each other: initiation into adulthood and marriage were two elements of the same celebration. Our fresco shows that a Pompeian initiand might be imagined as a bride, or that a Pompeian bride might also be an initiand, or at least that she might be imagined as an initiand. Perhaps also the room of the frieze was the room in which wedding celebrations were held.
Initiation into the Mysteries was associated not only with the marriage of the initiand, but also with the sacred marriage, in which at least one of the marriage partners was divine. One example of this is our fresco. Another is the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which (though some scholars have denied it) a sacred marriage was celebrated between Zeus and Demeter. How do we explain this? My answer will again refer to the origins of the ritual. I believe that in keeping with the tendency of initiation ritual to devolve on to a representative individual who is priest, king or god, the sacred marriage embodies the persistence of the practice of marriage or sexual union at initiation - except that this practice, once general, is now performed by a representative pair, who are divine inasmuch as they embody the divine powers once conferred on the initiands as a whole.
Returning once again to the fresco, we are now in a position to see that the link between the human marriage on the one hand and the initiation and divine marriage on the other is neither fortuitous nor arbitrary. The sacred marriage, which is derived from human marriage at initiation, is here in a sense reunited with it. By virtue of her marriage the bride is conceived as entering through suffering into a divine and blessed state, in which she participates in the mysteries of sex embodied in the marriage of the divine couple. It is a conception of marriage which, originating in tribal initiation, has not shaken off the traces of its origin.
The fresco falls into three parts: firstly the preliminaries, scenes A and B. Secondly the initiation itself, in which the initiand moves into the sphere of the divine (scenes DEFG: the mask and bowl, the sacred marriage, the revelation and flagellation, the dancing Maenad); and thirdly the adorning of the bride and the assumption of the marriage bed. These three stages should, I think, be regarded as succeeding each other, but not in the manner of a comic strip: they do not appear to depict the successive experiences of the same initiand (in fact the various figures who appear to be initiands are carefully distinguished from each other by dress), but the successive stages of the transition from girlhood to matronhood.
This tripartite arrangement of the fresco is probably derived from the ordering of the Mysteries themselves. Livy, we recall, appears to distinguish a preliminary grade of adherents, and this is in keeping with what we know about the Mysteries in general. In this respect, as in others, we are better informed about the Eleusinian Mysteries: here there appear to have been effectively three stages of participation in the ritual itself. Firstly, the preliminaries, notably purification, by which one became a candidate for initiation. Secondly, the initiation itself. And thirdly, epopteia. What was epopteia? The word means both 'onlooking' and 'supervision'; the epoptai were the initiated, who looked on and supervised the initiation of others. I must resume here the passage of Plutarch about the Eleusinian Mysteries which I quoted before to illustrate the subjective experience of the initiand: the initiands have been through the terrors of initiation, and are at last 'perfect, free and absolved, worshipping with crowned heads in the company of those pure and undefiled, looking down on the impure, uninitiated multitude of the living as they trample one another under foot and are herded together in thick mire and mist.'
Consider now the woman on the
marriage bed. She is regarded by some as the
initiand herself, by others as the mother of the initiand; and certainly she
appears a little older than the initiands of the previous scenes. But of
course, if our view of the way in which the scenes cohere is correct, to ask
for her particular identity is beside the point. The point is that she embodies
the final stage in the transition from girlhood to matronhood. At the
conclusion of the sequence she sits alone, her calm and thoughtful gaze
directed back across the room towards the flagellation, towards the ordeal of
initiation which she has herself endured, and on which she can now look back in
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This paper was first published in H. W. Stubbs (ed.), Pegasus: Classical Essays from the University of Exeter (1981) 52-67 and is reproduced here in Diotima by permission.