What It Means to Be a Satyr

This morning I was playing with my lexicon and discovered that σάτυρος (~saturos: nom. masc. sing “satyr”) is a substantive (the noun-form of a verb), sharing a root with the verbs(1) σατυριαω (~saturiao: 1st per. present active “I suffer from priapism””) and σατυριζω (~saturidzo: 1st per. present active “I satirize”).  A satyr, then, is a creature with a massive erection who makes fun of you.

Last month I read an article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies(2), discussion the possible implications of an archaic image depicting the murder of Medusa by Perseus, in which the Gorgon Medusa is depicted with the hindquarters of a horse.  The author links the image to a tradition of sacrificial images, and posits that at one time the death of Medusa was seen as a tragic sacrifice – the death of something that ought to have been domesticated.  The argument is more detailed than I care to relate here, but it revolves around the imagistic equivalence of the sacrifice of horses and the sacrifice of maidens, and amounts to horse=mare=maiden.  I strongly suggest that anyone with access to the Journal look up the article.

Now, traditional Greek art depicts satyrs as having – not a goat’s horns and hindquarters, as in Roman, Neo-Classical, and modern imagery – but a horse’s ears and tail.  Which gets me to thinking: if equine characteristics on the monstrous Medusa are image-code for the quality of maidenhood, might they also impart analogous characteristics on the satyr?  They serve Dionysos, a youthful, sometimes cross-dressing, and generally understood to be queer god.  Could those equine attributes provide an effeminate/queer quality to a creature that moderns generally understand as hyperphallic?


(1) Where the base-form of verbs in English is the infinitive (“to be”), the base-form of verbs in Greek is the 1st person present active (“I am”).

(2)Topper, Kathryn. “Maidens, Fillies, and the Death of Medusa on a Seventh-Century Pithos.” Journal of Hellenic Studies. 130. (2010): 109-119.

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