Monday, April 6, 2020

Satyrs: The Mischief-Makers of Antiquity

In Greek mythology, a satyr, also known as a silenos is a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse. Early artistic representations sometimes include horse-like legs, but, by the sixth century BCE, they were more often represented with human legs. Satyrs were characterized by their ribaldry and were known as lovers of wine, music, dancing, and women. They were companions of the god Dionysus and were believed to inhabit remote locales, such as woodlands, mountains, and pastures.
Satyrs and silenoi in Greek mythology are thought to be derived from earlier human-equine hybrids in other Indo-European mythologies including Kimpurusas described in the Indian epic Rāmāyaṇa and the Celtic dusii, hairy demons believed to occasionally take human form and seduce mortal women. The Illyrians believed in satyr-like creatures called Deuadai. The Slavic lešiy is described as being covered in hair and having a goat's horns, ears, feet, and long clawlike fingernails. Like Greek satyrs, these creatures were portrayed as tricksters, mischief-makers, and dancers who played pranks, stole horses, tied knots in people's hair and stole children who were replaced with changelings.
One of the earliest Greek sources for satyrs is Hesiod's "Catalogue of Women." In it, Hesiod says satyrs are born alongside the nymphs and Kouretes, offspring of the god Apollo (or sometimes Zeus) and a muse (Thalia, Thytia, or Calliope) and are described as "good-for-nothing, pranksters with insatiable sexual appetities. Though superficially ridiculous, satyrs were also thought to possess useful knowledge, if they could be coaxed into revealing it. The satyr Silenus was the tutor of the young god Dionysus.
Over the course of Greek history, satyrs gradually became portrayed as more human and less bestial. They also began to acquire goat-like instead of equine characteristics in some depictions as a result of conflation with the god Pan who was portrayed with the legs and horns of a goat. The Romans identified satyrs with their native nature spirits, fauns, and eventually the distinction between the two was lost entirely.
Image: Pan, protector of flocks and shepherds, removing a thorn from the foot of a satyr, Roman, 2nd century CE sculpture after a 50 BCE original at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ladislav Luppa (cropped and digitally enhanced).
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