In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, satyrs were half men, half beasts who lived in the wooded areas and hills. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, they were descended from five daughters of a princess of Argos and were brothers of the nymphs*. Satyrs were considered mischievous, and they spent most of their time chasing the nymphs or accompanying the god Dionysus at drinking parties. Although they were wild and untamed, satyrs were also believed to be wise. Early satyrs, usually called sileni, were depicted as having horses’ tails, pointed ears, and hooves. Later, from the Hellenistic* period on, they became more goatlike, with goats’ legs and horns, and were associated with the god Pan.
Satyrs were comic characters in Greek literature. Tragic poets often concluded their presentations at dramatic festivals with a light comedy based on the antics of the satyrs. The chorus of these plays consisted of actors portraying a band of satyrs that was led by Silenus, an elderly satyr who wore a horse’s tail and ears. The actors in satyr plays used coarse language and gestures. The Cyclops by Euripides is the only complete satyr play to survive. The Romans continued to write satyr plays, and the Roman poet Horace included rules for their composition in his poem Ars poetica.
Satyrs were also associated with initiation* into mystery cults*. Because mystery cults are connected with the afterlife, satyrs were often depicted on funeral objects. During certain Greek festivals, people dressed as satyrs and imitated their antics. (See also Centaurs; Cults; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Myths, Greek; Myths, Roman.)
* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* initiation formal ceremony by which one is admitted to a select group
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god