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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Abracadabra

This is a bit more highbrow than I usually want to get around here, but I’ve recently become aware of a couple of interesting posts about the supposed meaning of Abracadabra.

First, Steve Caruso of The Aramaic Blog sets out to refute the idea that the term is originally Aramaic and means something like “I create as I speak.” This has been the dominant assumption for the past fifty years or so, but Steve sees little to commend it. Along the way, he shades into Harry Potter territory by noting Stephen Jay’s 1977 conjecture that the term “may be from the Aramaic: Avada Kedavra, ‘May the thing be destroyed.'”

Next, Jim Davila of PaleoJudaica writes a brief note to caution us against so quickly dismissing the Aramaic hypothesis:

 Technically [Steve] is correct, but I think it’s a little more complicated. Steve acknowledges that the first part of the phrase, “Abra,” could come from the Aramaic word “to create,” although it is badly pronounced (but ancient Greek-speaking magicians were less than rigorous about such things) and that the middle part, “ca” could be a preposition meaning “as” or “like.” The problem is the last part, “dabra” which looks like an Aramaic form (with the emphatic ending “-a”) of the Hebrew (not Aramaic) word davar (דבר), “word” (not “I speak”). As far as I can tell, this Hebraism is not attested in Aramaic, but we should be cautious about this, since the Hebrew root was borrowed into Aramaic, as we see in the word dibbura (דיבורא), “speech, “utterance,” etc., in Rabbinic Aramaic (Jastrow, 295; Sokoloff, Palestinian, 144; Sokoloff, Babylonian, 326). If we allow for the possible similar (and otherwise unattested) borrowing of davar, Abracadabra could be a badly pronounced rendition of “I create according to the word” or the like. It seems entirely plausible to me that an ancient Jewish or Greco-Egyptian magician could have come up with this sort of cool-sounding incantation.

Magicians in the Hellenistic world seem to have frequently adopted words of power from other languages. That is how the Hebrew name for God became mixed up with Greco-Roman magic in a number of different forms and spellings. I think Jim is right that this is at least a plausible explanation for this almost archetypical magic word.

The Leukrokottas

Faith M. Boughan at Fantasy Faction has the lowdown on the leukrokottas (or crocutta, corocutta, krokuta, etc.), an obscure creature from Classical mythology. I seem to remember the creature from D&D, and I know some of them show up in one of the Percy Jackson stories.

According to Pliny the Elder’s Natural Historyfrom the 1st-Century A. D., the Leukrokottas lives in Ethiopia and is about the size of a donkey, with the haunches of a stag, the breast/neck/tail of a lion, a badger’s head, cloven hooves, a mouth so enormous that it opens up all the way back to its ears, and bone ridges instead of teeth. In fact, he describes that the monster’s mouth is an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw that forms a “continuous tooth without any gum” that is “shut up in a sort of case.” (And if you can make sense of that, you’ll be safer than the rest of us!)

It’s a quite obscure creature that doesn’t seem to figure at all in mythology. It’s just out there, apparently accepted as an ordinary—albeit terrifying—beast. Faith suggests the leukrokotta may be what happened when people saw a hyena for the first time and struggled to find words to describe it.