August 20th, 2005

Dionysus

Satyrs

Just the other day, I mentioned the satyr pants that kukla_tko42 gave me, that I wore as part of my Trump XV costume in her living tarot performance at the last Pagan Picnic. They're fantastic. Instead of the usual faux fur, they're made out of eyelash fabric, this strange sort of soft but bristly-looking fake fur like material. Anyway, it occurs to me that this gives me an excuse to talk about something I left out of my series on my Hellenic Reconstructionist Pagan faith. (I'd say I left it out in the interest of brevity, but that's absurd. More precisely, I sensed that the audience was getting as tired of hearing about it as I was getting of talking about only one subject.) Given that I mentioned that I believe that the gods of ancient Greece are an oral tradition, a distorted memory, of what seems to be an actual series of unexplained events during the Archaic Dark Age (circa 1200 BCE to 800 BCE, with the events in question late in that period), I'm surprised y'all let me off the hook about the fact that the ancient Greeks took it for granted that they shared the planet with several other mortal, sentient, non-human species, such as the centaurs, and the cyclopes, and very much specifically the satyrs. What conceivable historical reality could that be talking about?

First, let me get rid of an omnipresent confusion, because most people have a very distorted idea of what a satyr even looks like. That's because they're confusing satyrs with pans. In this one case only, I prefer to use the Roman/Latin nomenclature, and refer to the latter as fauns, because it's less confusing. If you imagine a creature with the legs, horns, and tail of a goat, and the torso, arms, and face of a human being, that's not a satyr. That's a faun. They're a form of nature spirit, attendant on Pan/Faunus. They can be either gender, and if there are any examples of them that aren't cherubic little children, I can't remember seeing one in the primary source material.

In appearance, a satyr does, like the faun, have the legs of a goat and the torso and arms of a human. However, they have the ears, tail, and phallus of a horse. They usually do not have horns until you see later imaginings of them in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The face, though, is not particularly human, and usually is portrayed with the upturned snout like that of a pig. Satyrs dance attendance on Dionysus and occasionally on Pan, but they are not spirits, they are mortal beings like us. They are born, they age normally, they die when wounded with normal weapons or of old age at around the same age that we do. Only male satyrs are known; it is assumed that either the females are very thoroughly hidden or that they only procreate with human women. And interestingly enough, there are written primary sources from the beginning of the historical period, after 800 BCE, of sailors finding satyrs still living on at least one island in the Mediterranean, at least a century after anyone had seen a god or a nature spirit in person in the flesh. In that account, a storm-wracked passenger ship had to put in for temporary repairs at an unmarked island. They had barely begun the repairs when the ship was attacked by a large band of satyrs, who beat the passengers and crew in combat and carried off the women as captives. The survivors were so badly beaten that they gave no thought to attempting a rescue, and sailed off in a still leaking boat for fear the satyrs would return.

The Greeks associated the satyrs with certain characteristics. They are uniformly portrayed as at least a little pudgy, but muscular. As of the early iron age, at least, the satyrs did not have metalworking skill. One of their number, named Marsaius, was credited with the invention of the double-reed flute, the aulos, that became a staple of Greek music. But the most important trait associated with them, by the Greeks, is that their species has very little self control when sober, and no ability to handle intoxicants at all. When exposed to the various herbal tinctures that the Greeks used to "spice up" (read "drug up") their wines, any group of satyrs would turn into raging addicts, continue drinking without stopping until the drugs were gone, and then the ones that didn't collapse into uselessness would dive into non-stop sex with anything or anyone they could coerce. As such, the satyr became the symbol in Greek religion and theater, all the way up until the Christianization of Greece, of someone who (unlike the Greeks' self-identity) had no self-control.

Theater, which was originally a public religious rite, originated among the Greeks as a union of two pre-existing dramatic forms: poetic recitation and the "satyr dance." We hypothesize from what little we know of it that the original satyr dance was a series of men's tribal dances. To turn this into theater, a masked poet read out parts of the various epics, and at breaks in the epic, the "satyrs" would dance and sing in the circular pit just below the poet's platform, between the poet and the audience. Then another poet was added so that dialog could occur, then another, and finally the "satyrs" were incorporated into the story in some kind of costumed crowd role. However, all the way up to Hellenistic times, whether performing Tragedy, Old Comedy, or New Comedy the chorus/dancers' costumes were worn over a satyr costume. Because the traditional satyr costume remained a staple of the actor's life, we have several consistent illustrations of that costume, including one rather famous vase painting of the backstage area that includes the members of the chorus putting on their satyr suits. Start with a knit wool unitard, presumably flesh colored, with obvious padding at the calves, biceps, chest, and especially belly. Over the unitard is pulled on a pair of fur shorts, sometimes not much more than a fur loincloth. The horse's tail is attached to the back of the fur shorts. The phallus, a roughly two-foot-long leather tube padded and sewn shut at each end, is attached to the front of the shorts. Judging by some of the dancing satyr vase images we have, a string meant to be invisible to the audience connects the other tip of the fake phallus to one of the actor's hands, so that is is usually rampant and waggles and dances in front of him like a puppet. Finally, the costume is completed with a grotesque mask, presumably of stiffened fabric, with an attached wig so that it can be pulled on like a hood.

Now, knowing all of that, here's my supposition. Why do we have to assume that the original satyrs weren't human? How do we know that the satyr costume wasn't just that even originally, a costume (presumably not including the unitard?) worn for cermonies and/or into combat by a tribe that the Greeks considered barbaric? No such masks or artifacts have been found. However, consider that the time period in question is archaic to very early Hellenic, and satyrs are described as having only wooden tools and weapons, with only fur and maybe some cloth or wood for clothing technology. If we assume that their houses were similarly wooden, or wood-braced tents of fur or leather, if the masks and the shorts didn't survive, would we know satyr remains if we saw them? Would we even be guaranteed that anything from such a tribe other than bones and stones would have survived for archaeologists to find?

We know that at some point prior to 800 BCE, at least some Greek vintners and priesthoods perfected the art of using purified water, wine, and probably other selective solvents to extract specific plant compounds, and used various of them religiously, medically, and socially. We know that by the Hellenic period, at least, these "wines" were bound up in a net of social and religious customs. We know that by that time, being seen as someone who could not control their appetites, any appetites including the appetite for drugged wines, carried such a social stigma that hardly anybody would befriend you or do business with you. Now, assume that early in this process, the Greeks made contact with some pre-Bronze Age tribe, whether original or devolved because of the crisis of 1200 BCE, a tribe that wore these grotesque masks and these virility-symbol shorts in any contact with outsiders. Presumably they, like the cyclopes and the centaurs, would not have the Greek's social and religious customs and laws, the ones they used to control the impact of drugs on their society. If you find the result of this difficult to imagine, let me remind you of two words: "fire water." My supposition is that this happened, and the results were apparently so horrific and so disgusting that for the next several hundred years, the Greeks kept the memory of their contact with that tribe alive, and taught it to every person growing up Greek, as a bad example of what someone with no self control looks like. Even if they have their talents, they're disgusting and ugly; the implied message is, "don't be like that."

(To find the earlier articles about my interpretation of Hellenic Reconstructionist faith, click the "hellenic reconstructionism" tag link. I think I have them all tagged.)