A few months ago, I spotted in a charity shop the very unusual artefact depicted above at the beginning of this ShukerNature blog post; and after recognising what it was, I lost no time in purchasing it for the princely sum of just £5. It is a replica of a Greek stone bust dating from c.400 BC, which portrays the head of a satyr.
Today, the popular image of a satyr is that of a semi-human semi-goat entity, with hairy goat-legs and hoofed feet, a pair of short curly horns, and a very inconspicuous goat-tail.
'Satyr Among Roses' (Jade Bengco)
In classical Greek mythology, conversely, the satyr was originally represented with the long, profusely-haired tail of a horse, with pointed donkey-like ears rather than horns, a flattened nose, and the legs and feet of a normal human.
Lovers of wine, nymphs, and playing music with their panpipes, satyrs were disciples of a minor demi-god of fertility called Silenus, and, just like him, they were also enthusiastic followers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. As Silenus was commonly portrayed as an elderly man of typically inebriated aspect, old satyrs were duly referred to as sileni (young ones were known as satyrisci).
'Drunken Silenus', a 2nd-Century-AD Roman marble statue in the Louvre, Paris (public domain)
During Roman times, however, the image of the satyr became conflated and ultimately synonymised with that of a rustic Roman nature deity called Faunus. He was half-human, half-goat, as were his followers, known as fauns (though originally they were described as half-human, half-deer).
Statue of Faunus at the Fountain of Neptune in Florence, Italy, sculpted by Bartolomeo Ammanati (public domain)
Since then, satyrs and fauns have generally been treated as one and the same type of mythical entity. But just how mythical – or otherwise – are satyrs?
Satyr statue by Frank (Guy) Lynch in Sydney Botanic Gardens, Australia, visited by me during autumn 2006 (Dr Karl Shuker)
In my book The Unexplained (1996), I documented a remarkable cryptozoologically-relevant link between these priapic satyrs of classical legend and certain forms of elusive man-beast being reported today – with the emphasis very definitely upon priapic. Here is what I wrote:
"In Greek mythology, satyrs were semi-humans with the hairy legs, hooves, tail, and short horns of goats - but did they have a basis in reality? This unexpected prospect was raised in a stimulating paper published in the scientific journal Human Evolution in 1994 by Dr Helmut Loofs-Wissowa from the Australian National University's Faculty of Asian Studies.
"In ancient classical art, satyrs were frequently portrayed with a prominently erect penis - even when engaging in non-sexual activity. Indeed, it was this characteristic that earned them their reputation for sexual licentiousness. However, Dr Loofs-Wissowa believes that this is all fallacious - that in reality, the satyrs were displaying a physiological condition known as the penis rectus, in which the penis assumes a horizontal position even when flaccid. Among modern humans, this condition is only recorded from the bushmen of South Africa, but it is often portrayed in prehistoric cave art, including some Upper Palaeolithic examples from Europe, in which the figures exhibiting the penis rectus condition are hairy humanoids."
"There are two very intriguing aspects concerning this. One is that anthropologists have argued that these hirsute figures are representations of Neanderthal Man Homo neanderthalensis, which is believed to have died out at least 30,000 years ago. The other is that sightings of hairy troll-like humanoids are often reported in many parts of Asia, and these are believed by some scientists to be relict, modern-day Neanderthals, eluding formal scientific discovery. Of particular note here is that eyewitness descriptions of these mystifying entities have often alluded to the odd fact that they seem to have permanently erect penises, apparent even when spied indulging in non-sexual activity such as eating or walking. This suggests that they are in reality displaying the penis rectus condition.
"Combining all of this information, Loofs-Wissowa suggests that the penis rectus condition is clearly a marker in human palaeontology, i.e. indicating the identity of Neanderthals. And, as a direct consequence, he boldly proposes that satyrs might actually have been latter-day Neanderthals. He notes that many features attributed to satyrs in artistic representations differentiate them from modern humans but ally them to Neanderthals. These include their hairy body, upturned nose, prominent eye ridges, round head, strong neck - and, most noticeable of all, their exhibition of the penis rectus condition, hitherto wrongly identified as an overtly visual indication that satyrs possessed a hyperactive sex drive.
"A very novel idea, but it still leaves unexplained the small matter of the satyrs' hooves and tail, not to mention their horns..."
Statue of a satyr unearthed at Pompeii, Italy (Dr Karl Shuker)
Not all cryptozoologists, however, agree that satyrs may represent relict Neanderthals. In their book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide (Avon Books: New York, 1999), Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe propose an alternative but equally thought-provoking option. They suggest that man-beasts exhibiting this distinctive penile condition represent a category of man-beast entirely separate from Neanderthals. They term it the Erectus Hominid, as they believe this man-beast may constitute a surviving representative of one of our own species' ancestors, Homo erectus:
"The Erectus Hominid is probably the least known of the world's mystery hominids. The reason for this is simple: most of the beings in this class have in the past been misidentified as Neanderthal. The Erectus Hominid is human-sized to about six feet tall. Its body is also within the standard human range with a slight barrelling of the chest. They are partially to fully hairy, with head hair longer than their body hair. The males of the class normally display a semi-erect penis."
Whatever the identity of satyrs in European mythology may be, however, there is an intriguing yet generally overlooked reason for their unbridled libido and debauched passion for seducing nymphs – the same reason why I entitled this ShukerNature blog post 'Sex and the Single Satyr'. Remarkably, there is no reference anywhere in the annals of classical mythology to female satyrs!
'Nymphs and Satyr', painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
By definition, therefore, all satyrs were doomed to remain single, celibate, and sexually frustrated – unless they could achieve some lascivious success with the local dryads (wood nymphs) and oreads (mountain nymphs). Equally, such illicit liaisons offered the only opportunity for satyrs to procreate, producing new generations of satyrs, albeit ones that were increasingly diluted by the nymphs' genetic input.
Statue of an infant faun at Glastonbury, Somerset (Dr Karl Shuker)
Eventually, satyrs simply vanished from folklore and traditions, but, faced with such an uncertain, unpredictable pathway to reproductive success, it is hardly surprising really that they became extinct!
Satyr frolicking with nymphs, painted by Claude Lorrain (public domain)