Satyrs: The Spirits of the Countryside
Greek art is filled with unusual images of strange men with the tails and ears of horses. They are always nude, almost always accompanied by women, and very often clutching a cup of wine.
These are the satyrs, a type of nature deity in Greek mythology.
They’re sometimes confused with the panes, the gods with the legs and horns of goats, but satyrs have horse or donkey features instead.
The satyrs were not villains, though. Beneath their obscene behavior was a wisdom that was as ancient as any in the Greek world.
Read on to find out more about these followers of Dionysus!
While their female counterparts, the nymphs, were known for their beauty and grace, the satyrs were much different.
These male nature gods were not considered attractive, refined, or elegant in any way. They were bestial in both appearance and behavior, the antithesis of the more cultured Olympians and even the civilized men of the Greek city-states.
The satyroi were immediately recognizable for their animalistic traits. They combined human and animal features in a way that most people found grotesque and unnatural.
In the earliest surviving pieces of art, the satyrs were depicted as related to horses or donkeys. They often had long furry ears and almost always had a horse’s tail.
Sometimes they also had the legs of an animal. This was most common in early Greek art, but by the Classical era they were depicted in a way that was more human.
They were closely related to the panes, the goat-legged relatives of the god Pan. The Romans, who knew Pan as Faunus, classed them together and all nature spirits came to more closely resemble goats than horses.
Many of them, whether they were more like horses or more like goats, also had horns. These could be small points or more prominent horns that curled like those of a ram.
While their horse ears and tails made them more animal-like, their human features were just as unappealing. They were usually shown with snub noses and distorted faces, often exaggerated for further effect..
Even their hair was unattractive by Greek standards. While it often resembled an unkempt mane in the back, they were shown as balding and with the thick beards most Greek men would have associated with barbarian foreigners or the very old.
They were also identifiable by their prominent and permanent state of arousal. While nudity was not at all unusual in Greek art, the immodesty of the satyrs further set them apart from the more ideal forms of the gods and heroes.
The ideal Greek male was attractive but did not glorify the most private parts of his body. The satyrs were hideous and flaunted their basest instincts at all times.
These grotesque figures were common in Greek art, particularly vase painting, and appeared often in the mythology.
Their physical forms gave a glimpse into the character of the satyrs as well. Their actions were as uncivilized as their bodies.
One of the earliest written descriptions of the satyrs, penned by Hesiod in the 7th century BC, described them as “good-for-nothing, prankster Satyrs.” That characterization didn’t change much in later centuries.
The satyrs were mischievous spirits who enjoyed drinking, dancing, and causing trouble. They sought amusement by playing tricks on people and disturbing their property.
Satyrs were also known for their lustfulness and they were constantly chasing after both nymphs and mortal women. They were not always successful in these pursuits, often to comedic ends.
As companions of Dionysus they were often drunk. Silenus, in particular, drank wine almost constantly because only when drunk could he make prophecies about the future.
Their natural inclination toward merriment combined with their alcohol consumption made the satyrs a rowdy group. They were usually shown playing music and dancing, always in the company of nymphs.
Despite their bad behavior, satyrs were still revered as a type of god.
They were believed to possess great wisdom, even if they would not always share what they knew. Satyrs often spoke in riddles and jokes, but at the heart of what they said was wise counsel and deep philosophy.
The satyrs may have been comedic, bawdy mischief-makers, but there was still reason to revere them.
The satyrs were consistently linked with one Olympian god above all others – Dionysus, the god of wine and feasting.
The lustful and riotous satyrs formed a natural part of the god’s entourage. Along with various nymphs and maenads, they followed him from place to place, causing mayhem wherever they went.
The relationship between Dionysus and the nature spirits began early. As an infant whose mother had been killed, Zeus gave Dionysus to a group of nymphs to be raised.
Growing up in the countryside, the young god spent much of his time cavorting with the spirits who lived there. His tutor, Silenus, was regarded as the oldest and wises to the satyrs.
When Dionysus had grown and adopted wine as his special domain, Silenus stayed close to him. The older satyr came to be depicted as a rotund and drunken being who often had to be carried or ride on the back of an ass because he couldn’t walk.
While the satyrs loved to cause mayhem with their festivities, they also provided the god with entertainment.
Satyroi (Satyrs) also, it is reported, were carried about by him [Dionysos] in his company and afforded the god great delight and pleasure in connection with their dancings and their goat-songs (tragedoi or tragedies). And, in general, the Mousai (Muses) who bestowed benefits and delights through the advantages which their education gave them, and the Satyroi by the use of devices which contribute to mirth, made the life of Dionysos happy and agreeable.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 5. 3 (trans. Oldfather)
A work from later in the classical period depicted Dionysus going to war, sent by Zeus to bring his authority, along with wine, to India. In Dionysus’s Indian War, the majority of his troops were satyrs.
Their first victory was won not by having superior strength of arms or skill on the field of battle, but because they got the opposing armies drunk.
The nature spirits not only accompanied their god to war.
As the god of wine, Dionysus was also the patron of feasting and celebrations. Descriptions of the feasts held on Olympus include his followers, who played music and danced to the delight of the other gods.
Many of the stories about Dionysus and his satyrs are lighthearted. For example, the god was sometimes credited with discovering honey.
After a long bout of drinking and dancing, Dionysus and his retinue laid down in a meadow. There was a beehive nearby, though, and they could not rest without being stung.
The clashing cymbals of the revellers only attracted more bees. Annoyed, the god shut them in a hollow tree trunk.
When he later opened the tree to release the bees, he found honey inside. Silenus and the satyrs immediately tasted it, hoping for a new type of wine, and enjoyed the sweet flavor so much that they ate every drop.
In an effort to get the last of the honey out of the beehive, Silenus was stung in the face. The younger satyrs chased him around the field laughing at the old man’s bloated face.
Satyroi was the collective name for the many animalistic male nature spirits that existed in the Greek imagination. Like the nymphs, there were many divisions among them even they they were all of the same basic species.
The seilenoi were those who most resembled their namesake, Silenus. Usually numbering three, they were regarded as older than their fellow satyrs, but no less rowdy.
Silenus and his peers were often depicted with long beards and white fur covering their bodies, signalling their age. Silenus was said to be so old, and drunk, that he had be carried even into battle.
The satyriski were child satyrs. The tityroi were those who played the flute, named for the sounds their instruments made.
The panes, goat-legged nature gods, were a distinct type from the satyrs but the two were often conflated. In depictions of Dionysus’s retinue the two often appeared together and in the Roman Empire most of his followers were shown as panes.
In art and plays the satyrs appear as a large, motley group. With the exception of famous figures like Silenus or Pan they are anonymous and interchangeable.
In written legends, though, the satyrs who appear are given individual names. While their personalities and depictions are still interchangeable, some effort was made to individualize the many nature spirits who appeared in mythology.
Some of the particularly memorable named satyrs include:
- Silenus – The former tutor of Dionysus, the oldest satyr became a central figure in the god’s celebrations and came to personify drunken excess.
- Ampelus – The young satyr was loved by Dionysus, who know that the lovers of gods often met terrible ends. When he was gored to death by a bull, Dionysus transformed him into the first grapevine, from which he made the first wine.
- Comos – A young satyriskos, he was Dionysus’s cup bearer.
- Leneus – An older satyr, he was the patron demigod of wine making.
- Marsyas – He invented flute music and was flayed alive as punishment for arrogantly challenging Apollo to a music contest.
- Aristaeus – Not usually listed as a satyr but sharing many of their attributes, he was an ancient god of shepherds, hunting, beekeeping, and olive cultivation.
- Crotus – He invented rhythmic beats to accompany the songs of the Muses. As a reward he was elevated as the constellation Sagittarius.
Many other, unnamed, satyrs were mentioned in the various myths of Greece. They were the anonymous causes of trouble, assaulters of famous women, or keepers of foreign grape crops.
The legendary King Midas was sometimes said that have satyr ancestry. He was often described as having the ears of an ass, and was sometimes a companion of Dionysus as well.
There was another myth that explained this characteristic, however. When Midas claimed that the rustic flute of Pan was better instrument than Apollo’s fine lyre, but Olympian gave him donkey ears so that their appearance matched their taste.
Athens was known as a centre of the arts and culture, and in the celebrated theaters there the satyrs played a prominent role.
Greek theatre provided more than just entertainment. Plays, particularly those that portrayed the stories of the gods, were a form of devotion and religious instruction in Greece.
While classical theatre is remembered for its comedies and tragedies a third form, the satyr play, was the most popular of its time.
Greek plays made use of a chorus, a group of speakers who acted as narrators to the story being portrayed. In satyr plays, the men who made up the chorus were dressed as those spirits of the wild.
These plays were bawdy in nature and showed the great myths and legends of the distant past in a way that differed from the way they were usually told.
Satyr plays were known for their crude humor and rude jokes, even when they showed otherwise serious scenes.
The chorus of satyrs was led by Silenus, who they described as their father, and they all sometimes played a part in the action of the story. In one surviving play that told of the travels of Odysseus, for example, Silenus is on hand when the hero faces the cyclops Polyphemus and tricks both parties into continuously giving him more wine.
Stories that would otherwise be counted among the tragedies took on a lighter tone when the chorus interjected by yelling at the characters.
For example, one fragment of a play depicts Danae with the infant Perseus who Silenus, interrupting Danae’s speeches, tries to lure to him like a doddering grandfather.
The few surviving examples of satyr plays provide ample amounts of what today we would classify as toilet humor. There are fart jokes, enemas, and sight gags that would rival any Hollywood comedy.
They often featured an element that would become a standard in comedy long afterwards as well – that of the serious character whose earnestness serves to highlight the bawdy wit of the comedian.
According to some descriptions of the ceremonies, Athenian festivals would often feature two or three tragedies followed by a satyr play. The tragedies, which also showed scenes from mythology and legend, were invariably serious.
For all their humor and obscenity, satyr plays served an important purpose. The immature comedy of the satyr chorus provided relief from the serious themes of the main stories.
By ending a day of tragic theatre with the more humorous and ribald satyr plays, the audience was able to go home feeling more entertained and relaxed than serious.
Few examples of satyr plays survived into the modern era, but their influence remained. Blending comedy and tragedy was a winning formula for playwrights long after the Greek theatres closed.
This tradition of comic relief would continue through the modern age. The inclusion of a character with over-the-top and sometimes inappropriate humor to diffuse tension continues to be a trope of films and plays today.
Over time, the satyrs grew more human-like. Their equine legs were replaced with those of men and their characterisation in the stories became more diverse.
Satyrs were shown playing the flute and partaking in other civilised activities more often, even if they did so in the raucous setting of Dionysus’s train of followers.
The early Greeks had usually shown the satyrs alongside Maenads, the wild female followers of Dionysus whose religious frenzies often turned violent. The more genteel nymphs shown in later art rebuffed the satyrs’ wild advances instead of taking part in them.
Eventually, satyrs came to be portrayed, like many other male figures in mythology, as attractive young men in the nude. The only hints of their species on some surviving sculptures are small tails or diminutive tails.
Their beards and balding heads were replaced with attractive curls and, for a while at least, satyrs in art were seen as desirable ideals.
In the later depictions of the Romans, however, the gentler satyrs did not last. They once more became more animal-like and less physically attractive.
Many artists and writers conflated them with primates from foreign lands, who seemed to mock humans with their gibberish noises. Apes and gibbons were considered types of satyrs, a view that persisted into the Middle Ages.
When Christianity overtook the old religions of Greece and Rome, the satyrs underwent an even more drastic change of character.
Their lewd and unmannered personalities were at direct odds with Christian morals and ideals. The overt sexuality and drunken revelry of the satyrs were seen as sinful and shameful.
The Christians depicted such creatures as demons. While the Greeks had used the word daimones for their rustic spirits, it took on a much more sinister meaning in the Middle Ages.
To this day, the most common images of devils in the Judeo-Christian world are based on depictions of satyrs and fauns.
Satan is more often than not shown with Pan’s goat legs and horns. This image actually came slightly later, and in the medieval era devils and demons were even more deformed and grotesque.
In medieval descriptions, a demon could be recognized by features like horns or a tail, just like the satyrs. They, along with many other fantastical creatures from various mythologies, were called pagan devils.
They were also associated with threats from folklore and local legends, like the bestial Wild Man and other menacing spirits of the forest. The Roman conflation of satyrs and primates continued, but in a Christian context they became devilish mockeries of the human form and its creation by the Biblical god.
In the Renaissance and afterwards, a renewed interest in classical art and literature helped to rehabilitate the image of the satyr. The ancient myths were rediscovered and the satyrs were once again painted as the companions of lovely nymphs.
By the Victorian era, the inhuman satyrs and beautiful nymphs became a way to portray sexual scenes in art that were less offensive to the sensibilities of the era. A classical subject and the depiction of someone who was not exactly a human male allowed for artworks that were acceptable enough to even be collected by Queen Victoria herself.
In the 20th century, the image was further changed. Juvenile works of fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and Fantasia incorporated elements from Greek mythology into stories meant for children.
The fauns and satyrs became less threatening, less riotous, and far less sexualized. They became playful and innocent, befriending and helping children in search of adventure.
Satyrs and panes were still comedic figures, as seen in the Walt Disney animated adaptation of Hercules, but now they were relatively harmless and served as helpful sidekicks to their human companions.
From powerful nature gods to demonic entities, they had now become child-friendly cartoon figures.
The Satyrs were not the only ancient figures to combine human and animal forms. Around the world, many cultures shared these types of gods.
Often, they had much in common with the satyrs. They were associated with nature, their human and animal features showing both their wisdom and their wildness.
Others were sometimes tricksters. Bestial features and shape shifting were common traits for deities and spirits that existed to fool the unsuspecting.
The Greek satyrs combined all of these elements. They were quintessential nature deities – uncultured, rude, and wild but exhibiting wisdom and wit.