Satyrs: Blithe Spirits of the Wilde

In Greek mythology, Satyrs are part of the troop of ithyphallic male companions of the gods Dionysus and Pan, who roamed the woods and mountains as part of the thiasos (the ecstatic retinue of Dionysus, often pictured as inebriated revelers).


The satyrs’ chief was Silenus, a minor deity associated (like Pan, Dionysus, Hermes and Priapus) with fertility, who was also the tutor of the young Dionysus. They sport goat-like (caprine) or horse-like (equine) features, including a tail, elongated ears, and sometimes a permanently erect phallus, and are depicted as being strongly built with long curly hair and full beards, with wreaths of vine or ivy circling their heads. Satyrs often carry the thyrsus: the rod symbolic of Dionysus, which is wrapped with ivy and tipped with a pine cone.

Similar beings, called Fauns, exist in Roman Mythology; where they are portrayed with human head and torsos and goat-like from the haunches to the hooves. Greek satyrs acquired their goat-like aspect through later Roman conflation with the Faun, as Greek-speaking Romans often used the Greek term saturos when referring to the Latin faunus, eventually resulting in the syncretization of the two types of beings. Mature satyrs are often depicted in Roman art with goat’s horns (and sometimes even ram’s horns), while juveniles are shown with bony nubs on their foreheads.

Carefree Italic nature-spirits Fauns were conflated in the popular and poetic imagination with Latin spirits of woodland and with the rustic Greek god Pan. They are alternately bawdy and innocent, gentle and fearsome, and represent a deep connection with nature in all its untrammeled aspects: with the brutal instincts necessary to defend against threats, and fully capable of surviving without the benefits of civilization.

As Dionysian creatures they are lovers of wine and inebriation and are eager for every hedonistic pleasure. Because of their love of wine, they are often represented holding wine cups, and appear in the decorations on wine cups & vessels. In myths they are associated with music and are said to roam field and hill to the accompaniment of aulos reedpipes (auloi [Ancient Greek] or tibia [Latin]), the syrinx, cymbals, castanets, tympanum (a type of frame drum or tambourine), and askaulos (a type of bagpipe).

These beings can be found in the only complete remaining satyr play, Cyclops, by Euripides, and the fragments of Sophocles’ Ichneutae (Tracking Satyrs). The satyr play was a short, lighthearted tailpiece performed after each trilogy of tragedies in Athenian festivals honoring Dionysus, which burlesqued the serious events of the mythic past with lewd pantomime and subversive mockery.