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Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos

Peter Mark Adams

Fine edition

Limited to 64 copies; half bound in purple goatskin, marbled boards and endpapers, all edges gilt, finished with a silk ribbon and presented in a solander box.
– £295 (Estimated completion by mid November)

Standard hardback edition

Limited to 900 copies; bound in purple cloth, blind debossed and stamped in gold, textured Pompeiian red endpapers.
– £60 (Due last week of September)

Bibliothèque Rouge edition

A paperback edition will be available in due course.

4vo (210 × 290 mm, landscape)
192 pp
38 images including full colour photographs of the restored frescoes

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The Dionysian themed frescos of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries constitute the single most important theurgical narrative to have survived in the Western esoteric tradition. No other practitioner account of the ritual process for conducting a mystery rite has survived down to today. The frescoes’ vivid and allusive imagery illuminates both the ritual activity of the participants as well as its esoteric import. 

The frescoes, created in the most private rooms of the extensive Roman villa, were never meant to be seen by anyone other than the members of the all-female Bakkhic thiasos who conducted their most secret rites within them. Buried and preserved for posterity by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, these stunning proto-Renaissance images guide the viewer through the consecutive stages of a theurgic rite of initiation into the mysteries of Dionysos. 

Arising from within the unique interface between Greek and Roman culture in Southern Italy, the frescoes attest to the survival of an unbroken initiatic tradition of Bakkhic mystery rites on the Italian peninsula stretching back to the fifth century BCE. 

The recent restoration of the frescoes has provided a fresh opportunity to elucidate the ritual processes hidden in plain sight. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Peter Mark Adams draws on current scholarship on dithyrambic performance; the ritual dress of Greco-Roman priestesses; classical philology and the comparative ethnography of rites of higher initiation. With the same attention to detail which he demonstrated in The Game of Saturn, Adams reveals the stages of initiation encoded and accomplished in dance, gesture, ordeal and sign.

Adams interprets the frescoes through the distinct performative lens of the ritualist, throwing light, for the first time, on the significance of the ritual vocabulary and the phenomenology of ritual participation. We are pulled into the dance ourselves, and emerge transfigured by the experience.



I · The Performative Nexus of the Mysteries

The mysteries i: Myesis
The cultures of dance i: The Korybantic dance
The mysteries ii: Telete
The cultures of dance ii: The circular chorus
The mysteries iii: Epoptai
The cultures of dance iii: The chorus of the stars
The deixis of sacred choral dance

II · The Mysteries in their Campanian Social Milieu

Dionysos in Campania
Dionysian thiasoi and lineage holders

III · Reading the Frescoes’ Implicit Narratives

The Villa of the Mysteries
The rooms and their frescoes
Designing an esoteric narrative
Modes of visuality
Imagistic modes of religion and the theatre of memory
Heterotopias and the interstices of initiatory space
Chronotopic inversion
The frescoes’ exotopic female gaze

IV · The Initiatory Drama of the Mysteries

Reading the frescoes

The north wall

i · Family group of itinerant initiatrix
ii · Ritual of purification
iii · The rural idyll
iv · The ‘alarmed woman’

The east wall

i · The Korybantic scene
ii · The epiphany of the gods
On the epiphanies of gods
Ariadne as protomystēs
Ariadne’s thread
iii · The initiatory crux

The south wall

i · Of this men shall know nothing
The role of entheogens in Bakkhic ritual
ii · The dance of the bakkhe
iii · The robing of the bride

The west wall

The Domina




To be honest, this is all completely baffling and no amount of modern scholarship has ever managed to unravel the meaning.

– Mary Beard

The Dionysian themed frescoes that decorate two rooms of the Villa of the Mysteries, a Roman villa just outside the walls of Pompeii, are one of the most beautiful, and profoundly oblique, legacies to have survived from the lost world of Greco-Roman paganism. The frescoes are widely understood to represent the stages of initiation into a cult of Dionysos, operative in the villa sometime between 50 BCE and 79 CE, when the villa was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius; sealing and preserving this remarkable artefact in a near pristine state, as though time itself had suddenly been suspended.

Such is their interleaving of myth and ritual, of the natural and the supernatural, of the life-like and the imaginal, that the frescoes have defied decoding for the last century. As a result, we are no closer to seeing a scholarly consensus across the interested academic disciplines on their meaning, purpose or interpretation. One, often repeated, explanation is that the frescoes depict a bridal initiation ritual; but no such ritual has ever been attested – Roman customs covering betrothals and marriages are well documented. By far the most common observation is that the room is a triclinium or dining room and that the frescoes are merely sumptuous decorations; and yet of one hundred and thirty-seven Pompeian triclinia only forty-six carry Dionysian imagery and of those in only seven does a Dionysian theme predominate. Even when a triclinium exhibits a preponderance of Dionysian imagery, we do not encounter the god so much as his entourage; satyrs, panthers, maenads and his standard symbols, such as thyrsoi. Given the size, scale, artistry, and the sheer saturation of Dionysian ritual imagery, of the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries, the concordance between the imagery and the known phases, activities, dress codes, aitiai, and the specific tasks associated with Dionysian rituals of initiation, are simply too overwhelming for any realistic doubts concerning their purpose to remain. The frescoes do, in fact, depict the rites of initiation into the mysteries of the deity. Given the formidable levels of scholarship expended on explicating their meaning over the course of a century, the question naturally arises, what is it that makes this masterwork so oblique, so problematic?

Art historian Jas Elsner has proposed that Greco-Roman art evinces two distinct modes of visuality: one, naturalistic, and the other, ritually-centered. Whereas recognising and responding to naturalism in art is culturally normalised, in a secular age, the demands presented by ritually-themed artwork present quite a challenge. The worldview that it presupposes – both metaphysically and ontologically – is not only remote from most people’s experience, it directly conflicts with fundamental culturally and educationally ingrained attitudes and beliefs. To comprehend a rich, polytheistic ritual environment requires more than the deployment of familiar aesthetic criteria. It requires an understanding of culturally embedded ritual processes and their accompanying techniques, tools and practices. If we fail to adopt an ethnographic perspective commensurate with the types of ritual activity being depicted, we will fail to understand the semantic field presented by the imagery. The frescoes depict an esoteric initiatory ritual that sought to affect a direct encounter between the initiand and a specific deity. Such rites, popularly known as ‘the mysteries,’ were enacted for many different deities throughout the ancient world. Whilst we cannot date their origins, they are artistically attested from the seventh century BCE and continued to operate for over one thousand years until the established sanctuaries, such as Eleusis and Samothrace, were closed by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius at the end of the fourth century CE.

The rites of Dionysos were extremely ancient, but the first identifiable image of the deity only occurs in the seventh century BCE; and evidence for the practice of his mysteries can be dated no earlier than the mid-sixth century bce, when mystery related imagery starts to regularly appear on ceramics. The mysteries belong to a near universal, but still obscure, body of practices characterised as rites of higher initiation; a tradition which is both different to and separate from the better known rites of passage. The distinction is an important one and failure to observe it has caused endless confusion. The rites depicted in the frescoes do not obey the same structural logic as the more familiar rites of passage; nor are they directed towards achieving the same ends. Rites of passage seek to transition a person from one social role and its concomitant responsibilities to another. Rites of higher initiation seek to overcome the existential limitations attendant on mortality by transitioning the individual’s awareness, if only momentarily, to the contemplation of a higher order of being, one that transcends both life and death.

The mysteries of the ancient Mediterranean world were a geographically and culturally situated version of such rites. Within that culture, they can be seen as the summit of an equally vital tradition; one captured by the Greek imperative, heautou epimeleisthai, to ‘care for oneself’; a regime of disciplines and practices, evolved over the course of centuries, to promote one’s personal and spiritual development. We find the second century CE author and priest, Lucius Apuleius, positioning his own engagement with a variety of mystery cults in just such a context, ‘I have learned numerous cults, manifold rites, and various ceremonies in my ardour for truth and my sense of duty towards the gods.’

This is the language and commitment that we would expect from someone deeply immersed in a ritually-centered worldview. The specific mysteries practiced at the villa were those of Dionysos. An archaic deity, he first emerges into a clearly identifiable social and political context with Peisistratos’ populist usurpation of the Athenian aristocracy, the rites of Dionysos – ever the god of the oppressed and unrepresented portions of any population – received state support and encouragement. Under Peisistratos the era saw the rapid growth of the major dramatic art forms (dithyramb, satyr play, tragedy and comedy), all of which ultimately derived from the rites of Dionysos and were increasingly celebrated at major polis festivals. The same era also saw the emergence of a female ritual praxis in connection with the god’s rites. This societal revolution quickly found its way to the Greek coastal cities of Southern Italy where we find representations of women-only groups conducting the rites of Dionysos from the mid-sixth century BCE onwards.

Dionysos’ role as a liberating force, Dionysos Eleftherios, continued to inspire social movements throughout the succeeding centuries. We find his image used to rally and unite restive populations against Rome during the Servile Wars (three uprisings between 135 and 71 BCE), the Social War (91–88 BCE), the Athenian uprising (87–86 BCE) and the three Mithridatic Wars (89–63 BCE). We also see a persistent trend, evidenced from the third century bce onwards, of state authorities seeking to regulate and control the independent practice of Dionysian rites by having their practitioners register with the authorities.

The liberating spirit associated with Dionysos was still evident in the daily life of first century bce Campania, the region around Naples that includes Pompeii and some of the earliest Greek colonies. Parallel with the creation of the villa’s frescoes, we find the Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus, describing the continuing tradition of the exclusively female enactment of Dionysian rites and mysteries.

As we will see, the creation of a gendered Dionysian ritual space, one free from male intrusion and institutional control, appears to have existed within the Villa of the Mysteries. In this space we encounter a sophisticated, multilayered visual narrative; one in which metaphysics and rhetorical sophistication are combined with a distinctive Greco-Roman ritual grammar. The frescoes mark the first emergence of a distinctive ‘female gaze’ employed as a challenge to the attainment of that civilising reflexivity that lies at the very heart of self-cultivation. It is the explicit depiction of this extraordinary insight, coupled with their high degree of personalisation, attention to detail in the often small – but significant – variations in ritual dress, decoration, hairstyle and personal accoutrements that leads one to conclude that the fresco cycle was almost certainly designed and closely supervised at every stage by women.

The ritual structure and grammar that informs these frescoes can be reconstructed by the application of knowledge gained from similar rites, still practiced today, within traditions that are themselves over one thousand years old. In particular, recent findings in the area of performance studies, visuality and the ritual dress codes of the late Republic have made a significant contribution to the effort to decode the frescoes’ narrative from a vantage point situated within a ritually-centered worldview.

The present work is intended to present a close reading of the ritual grammar and dynamics of the process of initiation into the mysteries of Dionysos as depicted on the walls of Rooms 4 and 5 of the Villa of the Mysteries. The word ‘dynamics’ is an appropriate one since the artist has taken considerable trouble to impart both movement and stillness to the figures. In effect to breathe a virtual, cinematic quality into the ritual process that unfolds before us. Our aim is to begin the process of reading this unfolding narrative to re-enter and revitalise what I consider to be the most important esoteric narrative to have survived from antiquity.

We need to prepare ourselves with an appreciation of the performative logic of ritual enactment; and the social, religious, mythical, archaeological and historical background neccessary to accurately address the frescoes. The work is structured in five parts: Part I describes the structure of Dionysian initiatory ritual and how each stage was performed. Part II situates the practice of the rites within their Greco-Roman social and organisational context in Campania in the relevant time period. Part III focuses upon the villa and the frescoes’ position within it, their design, iconography and execution. In addition, this section provides a number of conceptual lenses or frameworks that help to focus on and clarify certain of the more obscure aspects, especially those implicated in the frescoes’ deeper, implied narratives. Part IV guides the reader through the fresco cycle image by image, discussing the contribution that each step makes towards creating the conditions for a direct encounter of the initiate with, and possession by, the deity.

The testimony of prominent initiates, such as Cicero, Plutarch and Apuleius who recorded their reactions to undergoing initiation into the mysteries, unambiguously affirms that the rites brought them face to face with the gods and fundamentally changed their outlook on both life and death so that they learned, ‘how to live in joy, and how to die with better hope.’ Such is the abyss separating ourselves from their world, the claims made for the mysteries by those learned and sophisticated participants two thousand years ago cannot be reconciled with modernist discourse. My approach, therefore, has been to adopt a phenomenological perspective, since this allows the troubling ontological issues – which constitute the very essence of esoteric experience – to be bracketed and indefinitely deferred. Ironically, it is, of course, precisely the enduring testimony of these initiates that has captured people’s interest and curiosity. It appeals to that yearning for some larger domain of meaning in the face of life’s uncertainties and the inevitability of death; and that tantalisingly offers the possibility of a solution, of some form of personal salvation.