Satyrs: Animal Spirits of Ancient Greece

A satyr is an animalistic nature spirit associated with fertility found within Greek and Roman mythology.  Satyrs were short half-man, half-goat (or horse) like creatures with horns, tails, and long furry ears. In art, satyrs are always naked and depicted as being animalistic and hideous. 

Satyrs lived in remote forests and hills and could always be found engaging in drunken revelry or chasing nymphs. Satyrs were the companions of the Greek god of the vine, Dionysus, and the god Pan. 

Being the companions of Dionysus, they represented the luxuriant vital powers of nature. They are rather unsavory characters, having been described by Hesiod as being mischievous, good-for-nothing, little men that were unfit for work. 

What is a Satyr? 

Satyrs are snub-nosed lustful minor forest gods found in Ancient Greek mythology, as well as Roman, that resembled goats or horses. Satyrs appear in written history in the 6th century BC, in the epic poem, Catalogue of Women. Homer, however,  does not mention satyrs in any Homeric Hymn. 

Satyrs were a popular topic choice for ancient artists as they feature predominantly in ancient Greek and Roman art, usually in the form of statues and vase paintings.  

The origin of the word satyr is unknown, with some scholars claiming the name evolved from the Greek word for ‘wild animal.’ Other scholars believe the term originated from the term ‘Sat’ meaning ‘to sow,’ which would refer to the satyr’s sexual appetite. The modern medical term satyriasis refers to the male equivalent of nymphomania. 

Satyriasis is not the only word that has evolved from the name Satyr. Satire which means to ridicule human mistakes or vices, is derived from the word satyr.

Satyrs in Greek Tradition

In Greek tradition, satyrs are nature spirits who lived in the remote woodlands or hills. These brutish spirits appear to have been feared by mortals. These drunken wild men often appear chasing the female nature spirits known as nymphs or engaging in voluptuous dances with them. 

Greek satyrs are companions of the Olympian god Dionysus. Dionysus is the god of wine and fertility, usually associated with pleasurable group festivities. Being the followers of the god of wine and revelry, satyrs tended to overdrink and have an insatiable desire for sensual pleasure. 

These nature spirits are Dionysiac creatures and are therefore lovers of wine, dance, music, and pleasure. In ancient Greek art, Dionysus is often pictured as having a drunken satyr as a companion. Greek art often depicts satyrs with erect phalli, a cup of wine in hand, engaging in bestiality or sexual acts with women, and playing flutes. 

Satyrs are believed to represent the brutish and darker side of sexual desires. In Greek mythology, satyrs tried to rape nymphs and mortal women. Occasionally, satyrs were shown raping animals.  

Satyrs are depicted on red-figure vases as having the animal characteristics of goats or horses. They have the upper bodies of a human, with goat legs or the legs, pointed ears, tail of a horse, bushy beards, and little horns. 

Satyrs in Greek Mythology 

Satyrs frequently appear in Greek myths but take on a supporting role. Hesiod describes them as mischievous little men who liked to play tricks on people. Satyrs were often pictured holding the rod of Dionysis. The Thyrsus, as the rod is known, is a scepter, wrapped in vines and dripping in honey, topped with a pine cone. 

Satyrs are believed to be the sons of the grandchildren of Hecataeus. Although it is more widely accepted that the satyrs were the children of the Olympian god Hermes, the herald of the gods, and Icarus’s daughter, Iphthime. In Greek culture, during the festival of Dionysus, the ancient Greeks would dress up in goat skins and engage in mischievous drunken behavior. 

We know satyrs could age because they are shown in ancient art in the three different stages of life. Older satyrs called Silens, are depicted in vase paintings with balding heads and fuller figures, bald heads, and excess body fat were viewed unfavorably in ancient Greek culture. 

Child satyrs are called Satyriskoi and were often pictured frolicking in the woods and playing musical instruments. There were no female satyrs in antiquity. Depictions of female satyrs are entirely modern and not based on ancient sources. We know that satyrs aged, but it is unclear if the ancients believed they were immortal or not. 

Myths Featuring Satyrs 

Although satyrs only played supporting roles in many ancient Greek myths, there were several famous satyrs. The satyr called Marsyas famously challenged the Greek god Apollo to a music competition. 

Apollo challenged Marsyas to play his chosen instrument upside down, as Apollo had done with his Lyre. Marsyas could not play upside down and subsequently lost the musical contest. Marsyas was flayed alive by Apollo for the audacity of challenging him. Bronze statues of the flaying of Marsyas were placed in front of the Parthenon. 

A form of Greek play known as a Satyr Play may give the impression that satyrs usually feature in ancient myths in groups. This is because, in the plays, the chorus consists of twelve or fifteen satyrs. In mythology, satyrs are solitary figures. Satyrs are usually portrayed as playing drunken tricks on men, such as stealing cattle or weapons.

Not all of the satyr’s actions were mischievous, some were violent and frightening. 

Another myth tells the story of a satyr from Argos attempting to rape Amymone, the ‘blameless,’ who was a nymph. Poseidon intervened and rescued Amymone and claimed Amymone for himself. The scene of the nymph being chased by the satyr became a popular subject to be painted on red-figure vases in the 5th century BC. 

Paintings of satyrs can often be found on attic red-figure psykter, presumably because psykters were used as a vessel to hold wine. One such psykter is on display in the British Museum and dates between 500BC-470BC. The satyrs on the psykter all have balding heads, long pointed ears, long tails, and erect phalli. 

Despite being regarded as lustful and brutish nature spirits, satyrs in Greek tradition were considered knowledgeable and to possess secret wisdom. Satyrs would share their knowledge if you could catch them. 

Silenus the Satyr 

Although satyrs had a reputation for being  drunken vulgar creatures, they were considered to be wise and knowledgeable, traits associated with Apollo, not Dionysis. An older satyr called Silenus, in particular, seems to embody these traits. 

Greek art sometimes depicts Silenus as a balding old man, with white hair, playing the cymbals. When shown like this, Silenus is called Papposilenos. Papposilenos is described as a happy old man, who liked to drink too much. 

Silenus is said to have been entrusted by Hermes to look after the god Dionysus when he was born. Silenus, with the help of the nymphs, watched, cared for, and tutored Dionysus at his home in a cave on Mount Nysa. It is believed Silenus taught Dionysus how to make wine. 

According to myth, Silenus was the chief of the satyrs. Silenus tutored Dionysus and is the oldest of the satyrs. Silenus was known to overindulge in wine and was believed to perhaps possess the gift of prophecy. 

Silenus plays an important role in the story of how the Phrygian king Midas, was given the golden touch. The tale is that Silenus was lost when he and Dionysus were in Phrygia. Silenus was found wandering in Phrygia and was taken before king Midas. 

King Midas treated Silenus with kindness and in turn, Silenus entertained the king with stories and imparted wisdom to the king. Dionysus offered Midas a gift in exchange for the kindness he had shown Silenus, Midas chose the gift of turning everything he touched into gold. 

Satyr’s in Greek Theater

Theater began in Ancient Greece as plays performed during the festival held to honor the god Dionysius. Satyr Plays evolved from this tradition. The first Satyr Play was written by the poet Pratinas and became popular in Athens in 500 BC. 

Satyr Plays 

Satyr Plays became popular in classical Athens and were a form of tragic yet comedic play called a tragicomedy. Satyr Plays consisted of a chorus of actors dressed as satyrs, who were known for their obscene humor. Sadly, not many of these plays survived, there is only one intact play still in existence. 

Two examples of Satyr Plays are Euripides Cyclops and Ichneutae (Tracking Satyrs) by Sophocles. Cyclops by Euripides is the only full remaining play from this genre. What we know of other Satyr Plays is through the fragments that have been pieced together from surviving segments.

Between twelve and fifteen thespians, or actors, would make up the rowdy chorus of satyrs. The actors would dress in shaggy pants and animal skins, have wooden erect phalli, ugly masks, and horse’s tails to complete their satyr costume. 

Satyr Plays were set in the past with the main character usually being a god or tragic hero. Despite the name of the plays, satyrs played a supporting role to that of the god or hero. The plays continued to be performed during the festival to Dionysus. 

Satyr Plays usually had a happy ending, and followed similar themes to those found in Greek tragedies and comedies. The chorus of satyrs would try to make the audience laugh with vulgar and obscene humor, usually of a sexual nature. 

The satyr chorus always included the famous satyr Silenus. Silenus was believed to be the oldest of all the satyrs and was their chief or father. Euripides Cyclops tells the tale of a group of satyrs who had been captured by the cyclops Polyphemus. Reinforcing the satyr’s love for wine and trickery, Silenus tries to trick Odysseus and the cyclops into giving him wine. 

Satyrs and Panes

Satyrs were not the only wild goat men to be found within Greek mythology. Fauns, panes, and satyrs all possess similar animal characteristics. Panes, who are sometimes confused as satyrs, due to the striking similarities in appearance, were companions of the god of the wild and shepherds, Pan. 

Panes are similar to satyrs in that they roamed the mountains and were considered to be wild mountain men. Panes, and indeed satyrs, are believed to have been made in the image of Pan. Pan possesses the horns and legs of a goat and plays a pipe with seven broken reeds, known as a pan flute. 

The children of Pan played the pan flute too, as did the fauns. Pan was known for his love of chasing women and leading the nymphs in dance. Panes are rustic nature spirits who were the children of Pan. Pan himself is regarded as the personification of basic instinct. 

Although satyrs are often confused with panes, panes appear more animalistic than satyrs in Greek art, sometimes having the head of a goat and are usually shown playing the pan flute. The panes, like the god they were companions of, protected goat herds and flocks of sheep. 

The epic tale by Nonnus, The Dionysiaca, tells the story of Dionysus’ invasion of India which he did with the help of his companions, the satyrs, and the children of Pan. Unlike satyrs, panes definitively resemble goats and have goat feet, ears and tails. Like satyrs, fauns and pans were also considered to be driven by sexual urges. 

The Roman satyr-like creature is a Faun. Fauns,  like panes, are often confused with satyrs. Fauns are the companions of the Roman god Faunus.   

Satyrs in the Hellenistic Period (323–31 BCE)

By the Hellenistic period satyrs started to take on a more human form, with the statues of satyrs created during this period showing a far more human-looking interpretation of the drunken mountain men. 

Art showing satyrs and centaurs (half horse, half man who walked on all fours) became popular during the Hellenistic period. Satyrs were depicted less and less as animalistic, hideous little men which had previously defined their appearance. Although satyrs were shown to be more human, they still had pointed ears and little tails.  

During the Hellenistic period, satyrs are shown with wood nymphs, usually rejecting the satyr’s sexual advances. It is believed that the more violent and unsavory aspects of sexuality were attributed to the satyrs. 

Satyrs in Roman Mythology

Satyrs are like creatures found in Roman mythology and are called fauns. Fauns are associated with the god Faunus. Fauns, like satyrs, are forest spirits, who dwelled in the woods. Fauns played the flute and liked to dance, like their Greek counterparts. 

Faunus  is the Roman adaptation of the Greek god Pan.  It is because of this that fauns and panes are sometimes considered to be the same creatures. 

Fauns and satyrs differ in their appearance and their temperaments. Satyrs are considered to be hideous, lustful creatures, who possessed animalistic features such as little horns that protruded from their foreheads, and horse’s tails. Human women and nymphs both feared the advances of a satyr. Fauns do not appear to have been feared as greatly as satyrs. 

Fauns were feared by travelers who passed through remote woodlands as it was believed the fauns haunted the most remote regions of ancient Rome, but they were also believed to help travelers who became lost. Fauns were considered to be far less wise than satyrs and have been described as shy.  

Unlike satyrs, fauns have always been depicted as having the lower half of a goat and the upper body of a human, whereas satyrs were rarely shown as possessing full goat or horse’s legs. The Romans did not believe satyrs and fauns were the same creatures as is evident in the work of Roman poets. 

Satyrs and Roman Poets 

Lucretius describes the satyrs as being ‘goat-legged’ creatures who dwelled in the wilds of the mountains and woods along with the fauns and the nymphs. The fauns were described as playing music with pipes or stringed instruments. 

Silenus from Greek mythology features in Roman mythology too. The Roman poet Virgil is responsible for many of the Greek myths being incorporated into Roman mythology through his early works called the Eclogues. 

Virgil’s sixth Eclogue tells the tale of when Silenius was held captive by two boys, who managed to capture him due to his inebriated state. The boys made the very drunk Silenus sing a song about how the universe was created. 

Virgil was not the only Roman poet to interpret the tales of Greek satyrs. Ovid adapted the tale of when the satyr Marsyas was flayed alive by Apollo. 

Satyrs After the Fall of Rome 

Satyrs do not just appear in Greek and Roman mythology, but continued to make appearances in the middle ages in Christian works and beyond. In Christianity satyrs, fauns and panes became evil demonic creatures. 

Satyrs remained lustful wild men who lived in the mountains. They were sometimes depicted in medieval bestiaries. Medieval bestiaries were popular during the middle-ages and were illustrated books detailing the natural history of various creatures and beasts from ancient mythology. 

The animal characteristics of the satyrs and children of Pan eventually were the distinguishable characteristic of the Christian entity known as Satan. Satan is the personification of evil in Christianity. 

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