“I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite…”
(Henry David Thoreau)
The classical mythological tropes are symbols that in the past few thousand years have been utilised to obscurity. The renaissance and later Neo-Classical movement in art, particularly sculpture, saw the rendition of babes and youths as frolicking or mischievous horned putti depicted, not in any attempt to conceptualise a faun or satyr, but for art’s own sake. At the time in Europe this meant playing with beauty, drawing, painting or sculpting the naked form without fear of recrimination from breaching the social mores of the time of public decency.
Then came the past century’s misguided notion of attempting to compartmentalise classical motifs, an analytical approach of quantifying religion and mythos which can only ever be a shortcoming. It is never possible to pigeonhole the ineffable. To try to explain the reasoning why the symbols of classicism, in this case fauns and satyrs, were created or portrayed and to put a label on it stating, ‘here is an expression of a cult practice’, or, ‘this is an image of man’s naturalistic state’, is by and large to miss the point and all the other addendums attached thereto.
I do not care about what makes a faun a faun or a satyr a satyr. To the writer these symbols offer potentialities. Naturally I have read about fauns and satyrs. The Greek/Roman religious melting pot has given us many images which share similar traits, it is argued that the divide is an important one, and we must never confuse our Dionysian Mysteries with our Bacchanalias. An artist lacks the luxury of historio-logical categorization, we look to the symbol, the image of the symbol, its traits, qualities, the variations and then let it grow and become something else. Time does much the same. Consider temporal Chinese whispers, which starts with someone birthing a foal from a mare many thousands of years ago, this same person acts as the village midwife and births a baby later that day. They observe the child grow and frolic and the foal prance in the pasture, a satyr is born. It becomes a story, a fable amongst the adults or to children at bedtime and in no time we have a belief. Time does the rest.
In my research I came across a fabulous misconception of fauns and satyrs. Many people believe that the distinguishing characteristic between a faun and a satyr is that fauns have the legs of deer, and satyrs the legs of goats. This is amazing as now we have two mythological species of animal-human hybrid that leaves behind any form of historicity.
This is a completely erroneous assumption.
The misconception comes from the linguistic similarity of the word ‘Faun’, coming from the Latin ‘Faunus’ of obscure meaning and unknown origin and the modern English word ‘Fawn’, which is related today to a baby deer, and ultimately derives from the Latin ‘Fetus’ meaning offspring. A fawn has nothing to do with a faun, but the misunderstanding has been taken on face value by many people and I have seen some great artwork because of it.
Further, people see fauns as being babyish or childlike and satyrs as old and very beardy. Another misconception, most likely derived from the numerous romantic sculptures of baby satyr putti and again the linguistic association with baby deer. Fauns are old as well, in fact fauns were considered more wild and dangerous to their Greek counterpart, being associated with the nature deity Pan from which we get the word ‘Panic’.
Satyrs and fauns were anthropomorphised nature deities. They represent the animal in man and man in nature. They are to be feared as one can fear the reflection of one’s own debasement. This is what they were, but not what they are now. In a world where we are largely disassociated with nature we romanticise it to cutesy baby fauns and frolicking goat satyrs.
I do not condemn this. The historian in me does, but I aim to create, not to record. If this is what society has done to these images, what more can be done?
An Ancient way of Loving.
In the ancient world satyrs and fauns were highly sexualised beings. Many are displayed with erections and numerous pottery scenes depict the chase of satyr and nymph or maenad. There are also scenes of homoeroticism between the satyrs, scenes of intercourse and fellatio between male satyrs.
It must be understood that in Greek and, later, Roman society the roles of men and women were very different. We have a great wealth of information from artwork, and written documents and stories that detail men’s and women’s roles, marriage rituals and contracts etc.. Yet there are still grey areas. Marriage may be contractual but what part did romance play? There was a deep rooted homoerotic relationship between men aged approximately twenty five and youths prepubescent to early twenties. These has lead to two contrasting fields of thought on the subject, one that such relationships were what we call ‘Platonic’ in that they were non-sexual, teacher/student relationships much the same as we may have mentorships today. The second school of thought is that they were highly sexual and abusive relationships.
The truth is of course, quite likely in the middle, there was undoubtedly a sexual aspect to these relationships, there are accounts of parents hoping their child would grow to be beautiful to attract an older man, and the many artistic depictions available, such as The Warren Cup, clearly portray the sexualise element. To say they were abusive however is only to reflect on the culture by our relative standards of morality.
There was a public service element to these relationships, the older man (erastes, lover) had to be of suitable financial means and be freeborn. The boy (eromenos, beloved) would likewise be freeborn. Slaves could also be used in any sexual methods but they did not count not being members of society. It was therefore a relationship of equals, as soon as the boy had grown to manhood he would be given gifts by the older man, to signify the end of their relationship and the boys progression to manhood. The sexual aspect would here stop. This being because men in Greek and Roman society could never be passive in a homosexual relationship, only ever dominant. However, the two could long maintain friendship and the eromenos could then choose to marry or take on a boy himself.
I have been trying to place myself in this mind set. It is fascinating that society only a few thousand years ago can have such different views on sexuality and gender roles. I would not say progressive as to do so would be to elevate any morality which I personally am loath to do being something of a ethical nihilist. Things were just very different.
What has this to do with satyrs and fauns? My mind has played with these two themes, love and sex and the symbols of male nature deities, and has used the two in a dialogue. It is an issue close to my heart, when I was younger I cared deeply for a much older man who was a mentor to me, a teacher who opened up new ways of thinking and showed me news ways of viewing the world. As I grew older I had a short but passionate relationship with a guy a couple of years younger than myself, and what followed was a smattering of relationships with both sexes. As an older man now in a long term relationship with a woman, I can empathise with the old Greeks in the needs that these relationships fulfilled.
I think we like to teach and this is one of the attractions of parenthood, the need to nurture and educate others. Children and youths also tend to have a vitality which is contagious, they can make adults, who often spend too much time being adult, feel young and carefree again. For the youths there is the excitement of new experiences and learning new things. For both parties there is the mutual feeling of being desired and everyone on a basic level wants to be wanted.
Following is a short story on these roles titled ‘Silenus Lay Sleeping’, a story of love and the dissatisfaction it brings. Please comment and ask questions and I hope you have enjoyed the post.