Satyr Playing the Pipe (Jupiter's Childhood) (fragment) Jacob Jordaens 1639

War, Death and the Wrath of Gods: How Satyr Plays Helped Ancient Greeks Cope With Life

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Before Shakespeare, there were the Greeks. The infamous "all the world's a stage" quote attributed to the Elizabethan writer in the 16th century far more accurately describes the world of ancient Greek drama. The theatre was used by the ancients as a way in which they could investigate the world around them—both the world of humans and gods. It was through the instrument of drama that Greeks could question the motives of their leaders, debate the condition of the gods, and—of course—deal with day by day struggles. Wars, such as the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, were often "discussed" metaphorically on the stage, providing viewers with comparisons by which they could understand their own circumstances as a city-state as well as individually. To give a brief reprise from dramas discussion of these morose issues, satyr was used as a little light relief.

Satyr with pipe and a pipe case

Satyr with pipe and a pipe case ( Public Domain )

The Horny Origins of Satyr

Satyr plays are named so after the mythological satyrs, sexual half-goat, half-man creatures who were often part of Dionysus' entourage. Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy (among other things), was considered by the Greeks to have been the patron of theatre. Thus, during the Grand Dionysia, there was a competition between playwrights in which new tragedies—and thus satyr plays—were performed. These satyr plays took on the name of Dionysus' licentious friends because the ways in which the plays relaxed the audience was through tales as obscene and raunchy as the satyrs themselves. Dionysus is often depicted as a god who lowers inhibitions, his wine turning even the most noble of men into crazed lunatics. While this is a great exaggeration and over-simplification of who Dionysus was religiously, the satyrs were almost always depicted as drunkards attempting to rape nymphs and mortal women.

Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bougeureau 1873

Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bougeureau 1873 ( Public Domain )

The Performance of Satyr Plays

The plays themselves were mythological in content, drawing from the same epic tales or divine stories that made up the tragedies. These plays were performed in the same space as the dramas: in an open theatre with seating (stone, wood or unadorned grass) rising up around the stage. Such a structure allowed voices to be amplified throughout the space, and the rising height of the seating allowed all members of the audience a visual—even if it was at a distance. Each participant wore a grotesque mask (masks were pertinent to the ancient theatre), was costumed in attire akin to what a satyr would wear, and raucously acted out whatever myth was chosen for the performance.

Ancient Greek theatre, Segesta

Ancient Greek theatre, Segesta ( CC By 3.0 )

Unfortunately, like most ancient literature, few satyr plays survive. Not only due to the terrible curse that is time, but also because satyr plays were far less valued than the comedies and tragedies. Writers did not attempt to preserve them with as much vigor as the dramas that spoke to personal and cultural themes of the ancient Greeks. Fragments remain, and those fragments—combined with documentation of the ancient theatre culture—have allowed an understanding of the plays to a certain extent. One satyr play did survive in its entirety, however; and it is from this work, Euripides' Cyclops, that much inference as to the nature of the lost plays and piecemeal plays was drawn from by early scholars.

Satyr’s Place in Greek Drama

Athenian drama consisted of three different genres in ancient Greece: tragedy, comedy and the titular satyr plays. These plays likely predated comedy, considered by scholars such as Rush Rehm to have initially been part of rituals associated with crops and harvest. As Dionysus was the god of the cultivation of grapes, this theory follows the traditional belief that theatre could be as much religious ritual as entertainment. From these satyr plays/rituals, comedy arose, inspired by the satirical raunchiness of the plays. For example, Aristophanes' infamous Lysistrata comically discussed the Peloponnesian War: the women of Sparta refuse their men all forms of sex until they bring the war against Athens to an end. In this way, Aristophanes presents the men as easily manipulated if there is the promise of sex, insulting the manhood of warriors whose city-state's primarily emphasis is warfare and masculine prowess. Few things are more insulting to a man's virtue (in ancient Greece) than the implication that his woman controls him.

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