Mythos Visits: Paphos Mosaics
A stunning find in the heart of Paphos’ Archaeological site are its four Roman Villas; the House of Aion, the House of Theseus, the House of Orpheus and the House of Dionysus. These buildings are named not for the people thought to have lived in them, but instead for the gods and heroes that decorate the beautiful mosaics found inside them.
House of Aion
Only partially excavated, the main room of the building shows an incredible floor mosaic spilt into five panels, with each one depicting a different scene from mythology. These show Leda and the Swan, a child Dionysus, a beauty competition between Cassiopeia and the Nereids, the punishment of Marsyas and, in the centre, a depiction of Aion, after whom this house was named. The god Aion was a god who personified time – more specifically he was associated with eternity, and with the Zodiac. While some of the mosaic is damaged, many of the scenes remain largely intact.
In the upper left-hand corner of the mosaic, we have the partially destroyed depiction of Leda, princess of Sparta, preparing to bathe in the river Eurotas. The princess was known for her beauty and had unknowingly drawn the attention of the god Zeus. While Leda bathed, Zeus took the form of a swan in order to get close to and rape Leda. Leda later gave birth to four children. One of whom, Helen, was also known for her incredible beauty, which is said to have caused the Trojan war.
The panel in the upper right depicts a child Dionysus, held in the lap of Hermes his older brother. Dionysus had been given to Hermes by Zeus to hide him from Hera’s anger. Hera was the godly wife of Zeus who, understandably, objected to his many affairs with mortals. She would often intercede to cause the downfall of Zeus’ mistresses and any children that they may have had. In the case of Dionysus’ mother, Semele, Hera persuaded Semele to ask Zeus to appear before her in his full godly guise. Though Zeus knew this would kill her, he had previously promised to fulfil any of Semele’s requests and so was bound by his word. When she died, Zeus managed to save their unborn child, sewing the foetus into his thigh until the infant Dionysus was ready to be born.
The central two panels depict two different perspectives of the same scene – a beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids – the fifty daughters of the sea god Nereus. On the left, Cassiopeia is being presented with an award by Aion for winning, on the right, the Nereids can be seen looking dissatisfied with the result. Cassiopeia was a mortal queen who is said to have once declared herself (sometimes herself and her daughter Andromeda) far more beautiful than the Nereids. Angered at the mortal’s boasting, the Nereids went to Poseidon for vengeance. Poseidon sent the sea monster Cetus to ravage the city. Cetus was later killed by the hero Perseus, saving the life of Cassiopeia’s daughter, Andromeda.
The last two panels depict two completely different scenes. One is an image of Dionysus proudly riding in his chariot surrounded by his followers. The second depicts Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo. Marsyas was a talented flute player, talented enough to believe that he could challenge the god Apollo in a competition of music. When Marsyas lost, Apollo decreed that he be killed for his hubris. Disturbingly, Marsyas was bound to a tree and flayed alive.
House of Theseus
The house of Theseus was named for the Greek hero depicted in one of the most stunning mosaics at the Pathos site.
The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is a well known one. The young hero Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens. The people of Athens were under the sway of King Minos of Crete, following the assassination of his son, Androgeus, on Athenian soil. In punishment for this crime, every seven years seven of Athens strongest young men and seven of their most beautiful young girls would be sent to Crete, never to return. The Athenians were sent to the labyrinth, home of the terrifying minotaur, half bull, half man. Unable to escape the labyrinth, the Athenians would be hunted down one by one and killed by the minotaur.
On the third year of this sacrifice taking place, Theseus was determined to end the tragedy. He took the place of one of the boys, travelling to Crete in his place. When they were stripped of his weapons, Theseus managed to hide his sword, but he still would have been lost if it were not for the princess Ariadne. Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos, who fell hopelessly in love with Theseus upon his arrival in Crete. Ariadne gave Theseus instructions to make his way through the labyrinth as well as a ball of thread so he could find his way back out. At the heart of the labyrinth Theseus found and fought the Minotaur, eventually overpowering the beast and killing it. The mosaic shows Theseus in his moment of triumph killing the minotaur, surrounded by the images of Ariadne, the personifications of Crete, and the labyrinth. The scene is surrounded by a complicated pattern depicting the labyrinth and a series of diamonds and strings intended to symbolise Ariadne’s threads.
Though this was the most striking of the mosaics found at the house, it was not the only one. Another mosaic depicts Achilles, hero of the Trojan war as an infant. The scene shows Achilles’ mother, Thetis, dipping him in the waters of the river Styx. This was done to make the child invulnerable to harm, as part of Thetis’ unsuccessful attempt to make her son immortal. While the water did make him invulnerable, he had one weak point – the place on his heel where Thetis had held him. Ironically, while much of the mosaic remains intact, it is the image of the infant (supposedly invulnerable) Achilles that has been destroyed.
House of Orpheus
Sadly, the House of Orpheus was undergoing further renovation words during our visit. Pictures at the site showed the covered mosaics included a scene of Orpheus, with his lyre, surrounded by beasts.
Orpheus is the tragic hero of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he travelled to Hades’ realm and attempted to bargain for the return of his lost love. Orpheus was known for his incredible musical skills and was able to play so sweetly that he could charm animals and even make the trees dance. Though his music managed to convince Hades to let Eurydice go, Orpheus ultimately failed the test which would free her – looking back before he hand Eurydice had escaped the underworld.
House of Dionysus
The House of Dionysus by far holds the most mosaics in the site. Included among them is a large square panelled mosaic split into nine parts. In each corner is depicted a personification of one of the four seasons, while the central panel depicts an unidentified figure believed to be either Dionysus or Aion. Some of the other mosaics that can be found in the house include Phaedra and Hippolytus, the story of Icarios, the romance of Poseidon and Amymone and the Rape of Ganymede.
In the tale of Phaedra and Hippolytus, Phaedra fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus. In one version of the story this was because of her own lust. In another version Aphrodite took offence to Hippolytus’ veneration of Artemis – the youth even going so far as to swear eternal chastity in the goddesses’ name – and cursed Phaedra to fall in love with her stepson. The mosaic shows Hippolytus uncomfortably receiving a love letter from Phaedra. When he refused her advances, Phaedra told her husband, Theseus, that Hippolytus had attempted to seduce her ultimately leading to Hippolytus’ death.
One panel of a different mosaic shows the story of Icarius. Icarius was an Athenian who had been taught the art of winemaking by Dionysus. Those who drank it were confused by their intoxicated state and believed they had been poisoned – killing Icarius in revenge. Dionysus punished the Athenians with a plague. The scene shows Dionysus and Acme – his Maenad companion – relaxing, while Icarius stands close by leading a oxen-pulled cart full of wine.
Another panel of this same mosaic shows the romance between Poseidon and Amymone. In a drought filled land, Amymone and her sisters had been sent out by their father to find water. In her journey, Amymone found and was seduced by the god Poseidon, who in return, created a spring of fresh water for her.
Elsewhere in the house is a smaller panel dedicated to the story of the Rape of Ganymede. This, once again, tells the story of Zeus taking the shape of a bird to assault a young human whose looks have attracted his attention. Ganymede was a Trojan prince who was swept up by Zeus in the form of an eagle and carried away to Olympus to serve as the god’s cupbearer and lover. In exchange, Ganymede was granted the gift of immortality – to remain in Olympus forever.
Though not all the mosaics are in perfect condition, and many are still undergoing renovations, the beauty of the mosaics of Paphos and the rich history of the site certainly make them worth a visit for any history or mythology lover who finds themselves on Cyprus’ Southwest coast.
If you are interested in learning more about the Paphos Archaeological Site, why not check out our previous article, 'Mythos Visits: Paphos Archaeological Site' where we look at some of the historical buildings.