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Greek mythology has a variety of fantastic beings that have gone beyond the frontiers of Greece and have come into modern western culture. One such creature is the Satyr, the half-goat half-human being, similar to the centaur, and commonly referred to as fauns in literature and movies. Here’s a closer look at their myth.
What Are Satyrs?
Satyrs were half-goat, half-human creatures. They had the lower limbs, tail, and ears of a goat and the upper body of a man. It was common for their depictions to show them with an exaggerated erection, maybe to symbolize their lustful and sex-driven character. As one of their activities, they tended to chase nymphs to mate with them.
The Satyrs had to do with winemaking and were famous for their hypersexuality. Several sources refer to their character as mad and frenzy, like that of the Centaurs. When there were wine and sex involved, the Satyrs were crazy creatures.
However, these creatures also had a role as the spirits of fertility in the countryside. Their worship and myths began in the rural communities of Ancient Greece, where people associated them with the Bacchae, the companions of the god Dionysus. They also had connections with other deities such as Hermes, Pan, and Gaia. According to Hesiod, the Satyrs were the offspring of the daughters of Hecaterus. However, there aren’t many accounts of their parentage in the myths.
Satyrs vs. Sileni
There is controversy regarding Satyrs since they and the Sileni share myths and the same characteristics. The differences between the two groups aren’t noteworthy enough and they’re often considered to be the same. However, some scholars attempt to distinguish Satyrs from Sileni.
- Some authors have tried to separate these two groups, explaining that Satyrs are half-goat and Sileni are half-horse, but the myths differ in that theory.
- There are also propositions that Satyr was the name of these creatures in mainland Greece. Sileni, on its part, was their name in Asian Greek regions.
- In other accounts, the Sileni were a type of Satyr. For example, there’s a Satyr called Silenus, who was the nurse of Dionysus when he was a baby.
- There are other specific Satyrs called Silens, who were three elderly Satyrs who accompanied Dionysus on his travels throughout Greece. The discrepancy might have come from these similar characters and names. The precise origin remains unknown.
The Satyrs in the Myths
The Satyrs don’t have a central role in Greek mythology or any specific myths. As a group, they have little appearances in the stories, but there are still some famous events that feature them.
- The War of the Gigantes
When the Gigantes waged war on the Olympians under Gaia’s commands, Zeus called for all the gods to show up and fight with him. Dionysus, Hephaestus, and the Satyrs were nearby, and they were the first to arrive. They arrived mounted on donkeys, and together they managed to repel the first offensive against the Gigantes.
- Amymone and the Argive Satyr
Amymone was the daughter of King Danaus; therefore, one of the Danaids. One day, she was in the woods searching for water and hunting, and she accidentally awoke a sleeping Satyr. The creature woke up maddened with lust and started harassing Amynone, who prayed for Poseidon to appear and rescue her. The god showed up and made the Satyr run away. After that, it was Poseidon who had sex with the Danaid. From their union, Nauplius was born.
- The Satyr Silenus
Dionysus’ mother, Semele, died with the god still in her womb. Since he was a son of Zeus, the god of thunder took the boy and attached him to his thigh until he had developed and was ready to be born. Dionysus was the outcome of one of Zeus’ adulterous acts; for that, the jealous Hera hated Dionysus and wanted to kill him. Thus, it was paramount to keep the boy hidden and safe, and Silenus was the one for this task. Silenus took care of the god from his birth until Dionysus went to live with his aunt.
- The Satyrs and Dionysus
The Bacchae was the group that accompanied Dionysus in his travels spreading his cult throughout Greece. There were Satyrs, nymphs, maenads, and people who drank, feasted, and adored Dionysus. In many of Dionysus’ conflicts, the Satyrs also served as his soldiers. Some myths refer to Satyrs, whom Dionysus loved, and some others who were his heralds.
Plays with Satyrs
In Ancient Greece, there were famous Satyr-plays, in which men dressed as Satyrs and sang songs. In the Dionysian festivals, the Satyr-plays were an essential part. Since these festivals were the beginning of theater, several authors wrote pieces to display them there. Unfortunately, only a few fragments of these plays have survived.
Satyrs Beyond Greek Mythology
In the middle ages, authors began to connect the Satyrs with Satan. They became a symbol not of lust and frenzy, but evil and hell. People thought of them as demons, and Christianity adopted them in their iconography of the devil.
In the renaissance, the Satyrs reappeared in all Europe in several artwork. It’s perhaps in the renaissance where the idea of Satyrs as goat-legged creatures became stronger since most of their depictions relate them to this animal, and not to a horse. Michelangelo’s 1497 sculpture Bacchus shows a satyr at its base. In most artwork, they appear drunk, but they also began to appear as relatively civilized creatures.
In the nineteenth century, several artists painted Satyrs and nymphs in sexual contexts. Due to their historical background, the artists used these creatures from Greek mythology to depict sexuality without offending the moral values of the time. Besides the paintings, a variety of authors wrote poems, plays, and novels featuring Satyrs or basing the stories on their myths.
In modern times, the depictions of the Satyrs differ vastly from their actual character and features in Greek mythology. They appear as civil creatures without their lust for sex and their drunken personality. The Satyrs appear in C.S Lewis’ Narnia as well as in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians with central roles.
The Satyrs were fascinating creatures who became part of the western world. In Greek mythology, the Satyrs delivered a supporting role in several myths. Their character might have been the reason why they remained an important theme in art depictions. They had to do with mythology, but also with arts, religion, and superstition; for that, they are amazing creatures.