National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Rehearsal for the Mysteries T HE CULT of Isis with its promise of immortality and bodily resur rection competed for a long time suc cessfully against the rising faith of Christianity; but the most formidable competition came from Persia through Syria and centered in the mysterious figure of Mithras, the slayer of the bull. Since this IAithras worship was strictly confined to men, women who sought a more emotional outlet than was offered by the rites of Isis turned to initiation in the secret revels held in honor of a god whom the Greeks called Dionysus, and Greeks and Romans alike recognized as Bacchus. The effects of alcoholic intoxication are usually ascribed by primitive dev otees to some sort of divine posses sion-taking. To partake of wine was, therefore, to commune directly with godhead and attain a more-than earthly state. Wherever the process of extracting and fermenting the juice from the ripe grape was introduced, the wor ship of a wine god accompanied it. From the interior of the Balkans the rites of this god reached Greece. The Greek emigrants who settled southern Italy brought them to the peninsula. Thence they spread among the Latin and other Italic people. But in Italy there was already an indigenous worship of a pair of deities, Father Liber with his wife Libera; and, as often with pagan cults, the worship of the Greek Bacchus some how fused and became identified with that of Liber and Libera. Of the native pair, Libera was naturally the women's deity, as Liber was the men's; and since Libera seems to have been a protector of mother hood and childbearing, her worship added the notion of feminine fertility to the Bacchic rites which were con ducted in her honor. Such a combination of functions, abetted by nocturnal celebration, could easily give rise to misapprehen sions among the noninitiated; and the staid Roman senate seems to have become thoroughly alarmed when it was informed, in 186 B. C., that Bac chanalian rites were being celebrated clandestinely within the city limits. Convinced that such practices were inimical to State religion and morality alike, they issued a national decree still extant among our Latin inscrip tions-on the strength of which they proceeded pitilessly to stamp out the offending cult. By the time of Julius Caesar the cult had been reintroduced into Rome. A villa on the outskirts of Pompeii has preserved around the walls of a large room a series of paint ings devoted to the celebrations in honor of Bacchus and Libera. In these pictures, some of the char acters seem to be contemporary Pom peian women, while others are even more obviously the imaginary cre ations of mythology. The chief theme appears to be a ceremony of initiation of young matrons, to whom is revealed the mystery of generation and upon whom is imposed a ritual flagellation to ensure fertility (a common super stition). We have chosen to imagine that the mortal celebrants among the people of these wall paintings have assumed flesh and blood. Within this very room they are rehearsing their roles for the initiation ceremony which they intend to perform in honor of Bacchus and his consort, whom Greek my thology identified as Ariadne, but whom Italic piety had endowed with Libera's powers to induce fertility.