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Satyrs in Greek Mythology

Updated on March 28, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Satyrs in Greek Mythology

Ancient Greece in Greek mythology was a land inhabited by a countless number of deities and creatures. Nymphs, spirits and daemons would live alongside gods, goddesses and mortals; and one such group of creatures was said to be the Satyrs.

Bust of a satyr

Marie-Lan Nguyen (2005) Released into PD
Marie-Lan Nguyen (2005) Released into PD | Source

Appearance of the Satyrs

Most people will have an idea of the appearance of a Satyr; and this idea will probably comprise of a creature which is half-man and half-goat. This perception is backed up by doing an image search on an internet search engine, as most of the resulting pictures are half-man, half-goat.

This though is an image of a Pan or of a Faun, different creatures of Greek and Roman mythology.

The earliest descriptions of Satyrs in Greek mythology told of creatures that were basically male in appearance, with additional animal features. These animal features were horse tails, asinine ears, and upturned pug noses. Other features of the Satyr also included a receding hairline and pronounced erections.

The Role of the Satyrs in Greek Mythology

The role of the Satyr in Greek mythology was that of guardian of mountains and forests. Their roles as guardians of woods though, often meant they were distrusted by man; man being fearful of what would happen to them if they got lost in the woods.

A secondary role of the Satyrs saw the Greek mythological spirits act as companions to many gods, including Rhea, Gaia, Hephaestus, Hermes and Pan, although they are most closely associated with the god of wine, Dionysus.

As the Satyrs were associated with Dionysus they were often depicted dancing and getting drunk, and as a result, the Satyrs were also thought of as easy going but also work shy.

In Greek mythology, Satyrs were also important features in the Satyr plays. These plays like Cyclops by Euripides, would see mock drunkenness, and would feature Satyrs as choruses in the plays. The association with Satyr plays, as often resulted in the mistaken belief that the word satire has its roots in Satyr

A Satyr

Villa_Romana_del_Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicilia, Italia Mac9 CC-BY-2.0
Villa_Romana_del_Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicilia, Italia Mac9 CC-BY-2.0 | Source

Nymphs and Satyrs

Satyrs were also fertility figures, as can be attested to by their erections. As a result, Nymphs and Satyrs were commonly depicted together, with Satyrs chasing after, catching and mating with the nymphs.

Nymphs and Satyr

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) PD-art-100
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) PD-art-100 | Source

The Changing Appearance of Satyrs

In later Greek mythology the appearance of the Satyrs changed. As they became associated with the god Pan, and were often depicted playing flutes, they became linked with the idea of the Panes or Fauns. Soon, the description of the Satyr changed to one with horns, hooves and goat’s legs.

Satyr Playing a Flute

Young satyr playing the flute. Roman work of the 1st-2nd century CE . From Italy. Jastrow (2007) Released into PD
Young satyr playing the flute. Roman work of the 1st-2nd century CE . From Italy. Jastrow (2007) Released into PD | Source

Stories of the Satyrs

Amongst writers in antiquity, there was no consensus about where the Satyrs came from, although some sources would write of them being the offspring of Hermes and the Nereid Iphthima, although other parents are also written of.

The number of Satyrs is also not attested to, although it could be assumed that there were a large number, based on amount of wooded areas found across the known ancient world.

A few Satyrs though are named in Greek mythological tales. Several Satyrs were lovers of Dionysus, including Ampelos who was transformed into the first grapevine upon his death, and Komos, who would become the god’s cupbearer. Also in the retinue of Dionysus were Lycos, Pronomos and Pherespondos, who would be the god’s messengers.

Arguably the most famous of the Satyrs was Silenos, who was considered to be chief of the Satyr. As well as being chief Satyr, Silenos would also become the god of drunkenness, working hand-in-hand with Dionysus.

The Satyrs as a collective would also appear along Dionysus when the god of wine went to war with the Indians, but they also famous appeared in another war, the Gigantomachy.

When the giants rose up against the gods of Mount Olympus in the Gigantomachy, all of the god would fight against the threat. Eventually, it was only through the aide of Heracles that the war was won, but at some point Dionysus led some Satyrs in a battle with the giants. The Satyrs would ride upon asses onto the battlefield, and the braying of these animals, would cause the giants to flee from that particular battle.

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