Satyrs along the centuries have evolved into a symbol where they represent an ancestral anarchic culture against the rationalism of modern society
Satyr is a word of uncertain meaning which derives from the Greek satyroi. It stands for a mythological figure, half man half goat (with the tail, ears, hooves and sometimes even phallus) which inhabited the woods, mountains and wilderness even before the time of the Greeks. He came to fame through his association with Dionysius and Pan (of which more later), and is a figurative representation of fertility and the vital force of Nature which regenerates season after season, year after year in an unending cycle.
Figures of compulsive behaviours…
Satyrs were expert musicians and loved to play the flute day in day out. The great thinkers of the time such as politicians, philosophers and military commanders saw in them was a glimpse of an ancestral pre-Hellenistic culture that was still alive in the lower orders in society and in total contrast with the civilised rational thinking represented by the figure of Apollo. The Satyr is ruled by his baser instincts indeed (drinking, dancing, playing music, mating, pleasure, and so on) which lead him to uncontrolled compulsive behaviour. However the new Hellenic Man tended towards the exact opposite, taking a philosophical/speculative approach which often verged on the obsessive in so far as it was utterly lacking in those instincts to be found in the Satyr. A real, irreconcilable contrast.
The myth of Pan
One of the most widely venerated Satyrs was in fact Pan (or Faunus for the ancients) who – being the sun of Hermes or Dionysius – was actually the god of shepherds (who learned from him the art of masturbation…) as well as being god of the wilderness, hunting and folk music. His name came from the ancient Greek paein which derived from the verb “to pasture”. He ruled over Arcadia and was seen as a symbol of fertility, rebirth and the arrival of spring.
Satyrs in Rome
In the Roman world, Satyrs were often confused with Genies, minor divinities who protected woods and pastures. In ancient Italy they were seen as hairy creatures, with little horns on their heads and goat’s hooves instead of feet. It is told that the pre-Roman peoples venerated them for their joyous, hedonistic and lustful ways. Satyrs were also the favourite companions of the god Bacchus and, together with the Bacchantes, wandered merrily over hill and dale indulging in orgies and nocturnal feasts. They lived a charmed carefree life, hated by those uptight individuals who understood neither their lifestyle nor the so called “unknown” in general.
Satyrs in modern days
Despite the ostracism of many organised religions, the myth of Pan managed to survive throughout history until it experienced a sort of second youth at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The scholar Patricia Merivale noted that between 1890 and 1926, there was an incredible and unexpected renewed interest in this figure. Pan appeared in poems, novels and children’s books and in fact many critics believe him to have been the inspiration for the famous figure Peter Pan. He is described as the “piper at the gates of dawn” which in 1967 was also the title of the debut album of Pink Floyd whose own minstrel Syd Barrett brought the legend into the psychedelic era. In his novella ‘The Great God Pan’, published in 1894, Arthur Machen shows us how our world might look if we could see it as it is, through the eyes of the Great God Pan. And for many critics, including the popular author Stephen King, Machen’s tale is lone of the greatest horror stories of all time…