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Touching Ecstasy: Dionysian Women's Initiation Rites at Pompeii


I recently attended Erica Lorentz' lecture at Smith College (Northampton, MA) on the Dionysian women's initiation frescoes at Pompeii, Italy. Her reflections were based upon her background and training as a Jungian analyst, first hand encounter with the images in Pompeii, and Linda Fierz-David's work Women's Dionysian Initiation: The Villa Of Mysteries In Pompeii, recently re-issued under the title, Dreaming in Red: Reading the Women's Dionysian Initiation Chamber in Pompeii (Spring Pub.). I'd like to incorporate some of her reflections, along with my own, to further illustrate the psychological potency that these images reflect for modern men and women.

The frescoes were constructed within the "Villa of Mysteries" around the mid-first century B.C.E. and covered by volcanic ash following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. burying them for over 1700 years. The Villa and its paintings were only re-discovered and excavated in the mid-18th century, and became a part of the celebrated neo-Classical movement of late Italian humanism.

The powerful frescoes depict an initiatory rite of passage for women, and believed to have served as a preparation ritual for marriage. The frescoes unveil, scene by scene, a young woman, and her journey to the inner sanctum of the mystery - the unio mystica, or sacred marriage - with the god/dess, represented here by Dionysius, a male god of passion, ecstasy, and fertility, and his goddess-lover, Ariadne (others interpret the female goddess as his mother, Semele, which would have its own interesting implications).

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The scenes unfold upon a field of deep crimson, a red reminiscent of the rubedo in Western alchemy - the stage of union and erotic enfleshment where the "blood" is brought back into the work. The opening panel depicts the initiate fully clothed in a multi-layered garment, signifying her former status in the world, and symbolizing the layers of self that she will need to shed as she crosses the threshold to the god/dess within. Already, this process has begun, as her left hand (associated with mystery and the forbidden) reveals her heart, the liminal space of transition and transformation. A young boy, associated with the cult of Dionysius, reads the sacred rules of the ritual, as a priestess looks on. The initiate is then seen exiting the scene, clothed in royal purple, and carrying her gift to the god/dess - honey cakes, representing the sweetness of the mysteries - as she moves with eyes on us towards the first threshold of initiation.

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Here, a second priestess removes a purple covering from a sacred basket (which will appear again later), while an attendant pours water into a basin. To the right, Silenus, an archetypal male figure strums the lyre, or harp, connecting the rites to their ancient source in the Orphic mysteries. Note that Silenus' physical form is not that of a hardened or chiseled masculine; rather, his body's curvature is soft, fluid, and more aligned with the feminine dimension of the ritual. He is half-naked, representing his divine stature.

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This next scene portrays the initiate entering into the animal kingdom, where Satyrs - nature spirits and companions of Dionysius - play the pan-flute while nourishing their wild counterparts, a goat and fawn. This scene can be interpreted as a necessary regression to the animal self, inherent yet repressed in the human condition, in order to re-claim its vital and potent energies. The initiate, however, appears to withdraw or flee from what awaits her in the next scene. Is she attempting to conceal herself from - or reveal herself to - the sacred mysteries awaiting her within the innermost chamber: the encounter with Dionysius and his consort, Ariadne.

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It is clear here what frightens her. The terrifying theatre mask of Dionysius, held by a young boy; gentle Silenus, appearing in a more threatening aspect; an ominous reflection in the sacred cup, perhaps holding wine, or the kykeon, a psychoactive substance used in rituals to alter consciousness and induce visions or ecstasy. All of these strange, bizarre, and even terrifying male images greet the initiate in preparation of approaching the dark god.

Beyond them, however, lies the central figure of the rites - Dionysius - in ecstatic embrace of his goddess-lover, Ariadne, who sits elevated on her throne. He is completely at ease, reclined at her breast, with thyrsus (sacred staff) laid across him, and sandal cast off to the side. His soft body is entirely relaxed into her. He is at home at the side of the feminine: entranced, impassioned, embraced. It is interesting that the only aspect of the frescoes damaged during the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius was the image of the Goddess herself. She remains hidden in the mysterium, never to reveal her face, concealed in the mysteries of the ritual that she presided over.

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The next scene shows the initiate on her knees, half naked, with the purple garment falling from her waist. She is wearing a cap, and attempts to lift a purple canopy from the winnowing basket - believed to hold the child Dionysius. An angelic figure holding a whip, with left hand outstretched, stops her. She has already witnessed enough. It is time for her to return to the world. The intimacy and the ecstasy of that which she experienced in the central chamber is now comitted to the memory of her flesh. Flesh that is now ritually marked, in the next scene, with the tail end of the whip, as an attending priestess reveals the initiate's flesh so that it may receive the meaningful reminder of all that has passed. Two women - one clothed, one naked - rejoice and dance in a powerful and poetic depiction of the revelation and concealment that attends to all rituals of psychological passage and transformation. She will never be the same again.

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The concluding images portray the initiate transformed. No longer a young girl of the world, but an adult woman transformed through her erotic encounter with the god/dess. The image on the left, shows a young Eros mirroring to the initiate her identity transformed, re-created through her ritual enaction. The final scene at right depicts her as Domina, the Lady Lord of her family, her household, and most importantly, her self. She is entirely her own. Through the rites of the unio mystica she knows that her very human and worldly destiny mirrors that of the gods. The mundane is infused with the sacred. Her approaching marriage enacts the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage, touching upon the very nature of divinity itself. The symbolism of the ritual teaches her that her marriage is a sacred oath not only to her future partner, but to the divine masculine and feminine energies within. She now knows that it is only when these energies are aligned and integrated from within, that her relationships can flow in harmony from without.

These ancient frescoes emerge from a culture and mythology entirely different and foreign from our own yet they depict with stunning psychological accuracy the transformations of consciousness undergone by one who is courageous enough to respond and surrender to the journey within. Through her transformative encounter with the numinous, the initiate has been invited into a powerful transfiguration of her soul through entering into a new and conscious relationship with the revitalized masculine and feminine dimensions of herself. These images depict a masculinity and femininity almost entirely forgotten and foreign to our current preconceptions of what it means to be men and women. Here, in the Dionysian, sensuality, emotionality, and the positive madness of ecstasy are celebrated, as women and men are taught how to harness and integrate these forces in service of vitality, creativity, and the fertility of the soul. May we honor these dark gods, and again learn to serve at their forgotten altars.

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