This article tackles the issue of the mysteries of Mater Magna using representations of the cista. This wicker basket closed by a lid is broadly interpreted as an allusion to the mysteries. The majority of the representations of the metroac cista are related to the goddess’ cult personnel. They use the cista as a hallmark of their self-representation, likely because they serve a function in ‘restricted’ ceremonies. Considered as belonging to the most secluded part of the sanctuary, the cista alludes to more intimate rituals. The iconography accompanying its representations may suggest that these ‘mysteric’ ceremonies were related to the myth of Attis.
After a few reflections on our present knowledge of the bacchic mysteries in Archaic and Classical Athens, I turn to the question of the extent to which the imagery of vases may tell us about the existence of mysteries in Athens. I present some examples of black-figure images which we might imagine evoke Dionysiac initiatory rituals by 540 BCE at the latest. I end by bringing into the discussion Apulian images of the fourth century BCE, which may also allude to the bacchic rite.
Dionysiac imagery was much appreciated in domestic decoration in the Late Roman Near East. But images can be ambiguous: often merely decorative, at other times they suggest broader religious or cultural contexts. Some figures (Eros, Telete, the maenad-nurse, tropheus) and objects (whips, vases with wine, small bells, cistae mysticae) appear to depict mysteries, or, at least, to echo an association with the initiatory liturgy. Two series of examples are discussed here: the group of the “Eros/Telete” images (the House of Poseidon in Zeugma and the Sheikh Zoueid mosaic) and the “nurse/tropheus” group (the Sarrin mosaic and Abegg Foundation tapestry).
Whereas evidence for Roman “mysteries” devoted to Liber-Dionysus is not easy to find, images figuring dispositifs with Dionysiac rituals in domestic and funerary art are more numerous than in the Greek world. The study of a relatively unknown long frieze adorning the first Neronian palace on the Palatine Hill allows us to question the semiotic status of Dionysiac mysteric signs, such as the phallus or the liknon: if it cannot be asserted that they directly echo actual ritual gestures, their juxtaposition might have represented a symbolic religious memory correlated to the context of reception.