Satyrs and Sileni

Category: Gods > Terrestrial Gods

1 Introduction

Satyrs are curious figures, in appearance not too much unlike people – or rather men, seeing as they are always described and depicted as male –, but with horse tails, the legs of a horse or goat, and kids’ horns. Their ears are also animalistic, being long and pointy, while their other typical features are more human: a snub nose, broad lips, baldness, and an erect penis. Often, some of these attributes are omitted by ancient artists, but it is still usually possible to distinguish them from the goat-legged Pans.

Attic vase painting by one Epictetus, late 6th cent. BCE (Wikimedia Commons)

A source of enduring fame for the Satyrs’ iconography has been that the philosopher “Socrates was said to resemble Silenus”, an elder Satyr, “in his appearance, since he was snub-nosed and bald” (Scholia on Aristophanes’ Clouds 223). In the Symposium, Plato has Alcibiades say that Socrates is “very like those Sileni which are displayed in sculptors’ shops, which the craftsmen make holding pan flutes or double flutes, and which can be opened in half to show that they hold statues of gods inside them. And I say, moreover, that he is like the Satyr Marsyas” (Symposium 215b), famed for his flute-playing.

A herm of Socrates (Wikimedia Commons)

Alcibiades prefaces this by saying that it is meant seriously, although it will sound like mockery (ibid. 215a). But why mockery? Despite the fact that “Bacchic dancing”, which was done “for certain purifications and mystery rites”, consisted in “drunkenly imitating those who are called Nymphs, Pans, Sileni and Saytrs” (Plato, Laws 815c), the riotous drunkenness of the Satyrs in particular (often accompanied by sexual aggression against the Nymphs) was not viewed in very positive terms. Like their appearance, their loutish behavior was seen as ridiculous and ignoble. Indeed, an entire genre of drama, the Satyr plays – of which one example, Euripides’ Cyclops, survives in full – revolved around their ineffectual bumbling.

So, we might well ask, what are these figures? Are they part of “religion”? Not in a Christian sense, at least, where religion entails doctrines of clear moral valence. Although of course ancient polytheists did have ethical and metaphysical teachings, it cannot be said that the morally ambiguous, even amoral Satyrs were closely tied to these traditions.

Then perhaps they were purely “mythological”? Not something to have faith and trust in, but only figures of art and literature? But if that is the case, why do the myths connect them so closely to deities like the Nymphs and Bacchus himself, to whom people certainly did entrust themselves in pious faith?

We cannot properly answer such questions, which arise from a contemporary perspective, by staying entirely within that perspective. Rather, we must consider at how the ancients – or, more precisely, different ancient writers, from their various respective positions – approached the Satyrs, transforming our inquiry in response to the way they framed their attitudes and opinions.

2 Did the ancients believe in Satyrs?

Satyrs were, without a doubt, important to Greco-Roman culture. They are often depicted in visual art, frequently mentioned in poetry, and not a few men carried the name Satyros. But there are – as far as I could find, at least – no surviving inscriptions in Greek or Latin that show dedications to the Satyrs or a Satyr (including Silenus, the most prominent Satyr). Nor does Pausanias mention any altars or temples for them in his monumental Description of Greece.

That is not to say there is no evidence for their worship. There is, for instance, a dedicatory epigram that describes an offering of three vessels of wine to “the Satyrs who drink new wine and Bacchus the vine-planter” as first-fruits of the vintage: “after we have made libation to wine-dark Bacchus and the Satyrs, let us drink more than the Satyrs!” (Greek Anthology 6.44). In another poem, the spoils of a hunt are hung from a tree as an offering to “Pan who loves grottoes, the Nymphs who inhabit the mountains, the Satyrs, and the sacred Hamadryads inside (the tree)” (Greek Anthology 11.194). But even in these isolated cases, they appear to function merely as companions of a more important deity (Dionysus and Pan, respectively), whereas offerings to the Nymphs alone (including Dryads) are very clearly attested.

In short, the Satyrs played at best a tertiary role in worship, so that we cannot say the practices of the ancients generally presupposed the reality of these deities. So, can we find direct evidence in Greco-Roman literature of what people supposed?

presupposition – incidental mentions (physicians, etc.) – direct supposition
as well as myth and art in more detail

definitions etc. in grammarians and so on!
(not objects of worship so much as worshippers)

Scholia in Platonem
Plutarch on Sulla
Plutarch more, Diodorus?
Lucian, Eusebius
OH 54
Satyr play (Athenaeus satyrike: dance?), satyra, Athenaeus on the great Dionysiac festival
Strabo 10.3?
Plutarch on Phaunos
Aelian, Philoponus, Theodoretus
Aelius Dionysius s.v. Seilênos
Pseudo-Nonnus 5.19
Etymologicum Gudianum; Magnum
Philoponus : Satyros
Silenus, Marsyas
Scholia on Theocritus
Ovid, Nonnus
Caelius Aurelianus, Galen



depicted in the shape of “a man who has the legs and tail of a horse” (Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 1.28), or according to others, of a goat (like Pan; Horace, Odes 2.19.4). In any case, they have two legs, not four, which distinguishes them clearly from Centaurs.

They are also said to “have the ears of goats” (Hesychius, Lexicon s.v. τράγους), or at any rate “pointy ears, and (to be) bald, but horned, with horns like those of newly born kids” (Lucian, Council of the Gods 4), plus snub noses and broad lips (Galen, On the Causes of Diseases, in Kühn, Opera omnia, vol. 7, p. 29). Typically, “Satyrs are drunk and have erect members” (Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 4.61.1).

Often, not all of these features are present. For instance, the figure below is not bald, and has human legs.


As for their character and behavior, they are rambunctious and loutish, typically drunk, and comically ineffectual. But they are also frequently depicted as threatening sexual violence against Nymphs, who revel with them in Bacchic celebrations. They are often part of a larger gathering of rural gods and/or the train of Dionysus, … under the leadership of their elder, Silenus (who is sometimes a single deity, sometimes any elder Satyr).

Status: work in progress.