The Magic Rites Complex in Pompeii

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The Magic Rites Complex (il Complesso dei Riti Magici) in Pompeii is a historical residence that was utilized for the practice of magic and occult ceremonies. This dwelling was frequented by both adepts, who were skilled in the art of magic, and patrons who sought the services of these adepts. The site was excavated in multiple phases between 1954 and 1985.

The origin of the name of this complex is rooted in the discovery of two bronze figurines known as “magic hands,” which were crafted in the image of the ancient Roman deity of vegetation of phrygian and thracian origin, Sabazius (Sabadios). Sabazius, a god whose cult included the use of votive images of hands, was typically depicted with the fingers forming a gesture of benediction, a practice still familiar in Christianity. The opening in the wrist, shaped like a temple, had a hinged door that revealed an unknown, lost object, which might have been a reclining mother and child, as seen in other examples.Additionally, two terracotta vessels were also discovered, which were believed to have been used for the purpose of making sacrifices during these rituals. These artifacts played a significant role in giving the complex its unique name, and they continue to be an important part of the historical significance of the House of Magic Rites in Pompeii.

The complex was adorned with intricate decorations that were believed to allude to agrarian deities and the forces of nature. These decorations were crafted in relief and depicted a variety of images such as lizards, snakes, tortoises, bunches of grapes and bread. Researchers who studied the complex have identified a room near the entrance which was intended for propitiatory meetings and votive banquets, possibly to honor and appease the deities that the decorations represent. The courtyard of the complex also featured an altar, which was located behind an exedra. This exedra was believed to have been used for the performance of magical rites, as the presence of graffiti in this area would suggest.

Magic Rites Complex in Pompeii
Magic Rites Complex in Pompeii

The complex features a triclinium, which was the focus of the recent excavation campaign. The triclinium’s mural paintings date back to the early first century AD (35-45 AD) and are divided into three levels. The lower level features illustrations of plants, birds, insects, and other small animals set against a black background. The middle section displays panels in various colors, while the upper band showcases still-life images that indicate the triclinium’s use as a banquet hall.

Initially, it was believed that the artifacts found in the House of the Pompeian Sibyl were associated with a sibyl, or a female prophet, who performed her rituals in the building. However, recent studies have proposed that the building, which was constructed in 62 A.D. and was destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., was primarily used for the celebration of the god Sabazio. This theory is supported by the discovery of a bronze bust of the god in a nearby domus, and by the unique layout of the complex, which consists of three large open areas connected by smaller rooms.

One of the punctured coins found during the excavation
One of the punctured coins found during the excavation

The House of the Pompeian Sibyl is also notable for its rich history of construction and renovations. It is believed that the complex was built on top of a series of “terraced houses” that were constructed between the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. and were later merged to form a larger dwelling. Over the centuries, the building was remodeled and reorganized multiple times, making it a unique structure with a fascinating past.

The Magic Rites Complex in Pompeii

The team behind the “Pompeian Residential Architecture: Environmental, Digital, Interdisciplinary Archive” project (PRAEDIA) has released preliminary findings from their 2022 excavation campaign at the Magic Rites complex in Pompeii. The presentation is led by experts Anna Anguissola, Riccardo Olivito, and Alberto Martín Esquivel, who provide insight into the discoveries made at the site, including those related to the worship of the god Sabazius. The video also covers the complex’s building history and the team’s theories on its usage throughout the centuries.


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