Satyrs: Greek Spirits of the Wild

Michelangelo, "Satyr's Head"

Michelangelo, “Satyr’s Head”

Satyrs are associated with forests and mountains in both Greek and Roman mythology. Hesiod (7th cent. BC) considered them the “brothers” of the mountain nymphs and Kouretes. Whatever their genealogy, they are uninhibited children of nature: earthy, reckless, seductive—and dangerous if threatened. They are the quintessential “bad boys” of the faery world, brazenly flouting the norms of civilized society. In keeping with their untamed nature, their traditional garment is a panther pelt.

Despite their wildness, satyrs do have an appreciation for at least some of the gifts of human culture. They love music and dance, for example. In fact, they have a special form of grotesque, vulgar dance called the sikinnis. They are also associated both with Pan, the Greek god of the wild, and Dionysus, the god of wine. They are notably hardy and resistant to fatigue, able to dance for hours on end, for example, or remain (relatively) sober no matter how much alcohol they consume. They are lovers of wine, women, and revels. They have a particular infatuation with nymphs.

There are two common depictions of satyrs in Greco-Roman art. Young satyrs are called satyrisci (singular, satyriscus). They are graceful beings with elfin features and pointed ears. Praxilites’s sculpture “Resting Satyr” depicts a satyriscus.

The earlier depiction of satyrs made them older, more animalistic, but also more powerful. These satyrs are classified as sileni (singular, silenus). Sileni are bearded and strongly built. They have the ears of a horse, a horse-like tail, and sometimes even the hooves (or the entire lower body) of a horse. Sileni are the oldest, wisest, and most magically adept of satyrs.

It should be noted, then, that satyrs are not to be confused with fauns or “goat-men.” As time progressed, Greek satyrs became blended with Roman fauns in the telling of the myths. The two, however, were originally different sorts of beings. Satyrs are, in fact, fully humanoid (at least in their youth). Medieval bestiaries often compared satyrs not to goats but to apes or monkeys.

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