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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.

Aubrey Beardsley: Aristophanes Lysistrata, 1896

Aubrey Beardsley: Aristophanes Lysistrata, 1896 (Public Domain)

What also differentiates satyr plays from comedies is the length of the plays and the times when they are performed. While satyr plays share many characteristics with comedy, these plays were much shorter and not individually performed. Rather, satyr plays were inserted in between the acts of tragedies, providing a bit of humor in an otherwise serious and morbid performance. Satyr plays also dealt with tragic ideas in comic scenarios, and it was through this tactic that audiences of tragic plays were given a bit of reprieve.

Contrast with Tragedy

One of the most famous tragedies (which also serves as a perfect example of the ways in which tragic plays related to the contemporary world of the Greeks) is that of the Oresteia. The Oresteia is a three-part tragedy which investigates familial relations, vengeance and retribution, and provides a mythological beginning to the new justice system: democracy. Such a play as the Oresteia is evidently very bleak. Filled with the dehumanized bathtub slaughter of the naked Greek leader Agamemnon and the wrongful execution of his war-prize Princess Cassandra of Troy at the hands of his strong-willed wife and her lover, the Oresteia begins with bloodshed. A satyr play performed after the three acts would have helped to lighten an incredibly dark mood, providing relief from the dismal. Based on evidence from Athenaeus, the play associated with the Oresteia was called Proteus, and discusses the sojourn of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother and Helen's husband, to Egypt—an accidental side-trip on the journey home from Troy. While this play does not survive, it provides evidence of the comically tragic purpose of the satyr plays, and their intentional consistency with the subject matter of the overall performance.

The Murder Of Agamemnon from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church

The Murder Of Agamemnon from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church (Public Domain)

The fascination with ancient Greek theatre only continues to grow as more evidence comes to light. Archaeology still reveals various forms of props, previously undiscovered theatres, and even fragments of lost plays hidden in ancient homes or sacred spaces. While tragedy and comedy are what first comes to mind when Greek theatre is mentioned, the role of satyr plays was highly valued in ancient drama, as they provided an emotional balance following the darkest works.

Top image: Satyr Playing the Pipe (Jupiter's Childhood) (fragment) Jacob Jordaens 1639. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters


Aeschlyus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon the Libation Bearers; Eumenides. (trans. Robert Fagles, 1984.) Penguin Classics. 

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Trousdell, Richard. (2008). "Tragedy and Transformation: the Oresteia of Aeschylus." Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche. 2.3. pp. 5-38. Accessed July 5, 2017.

Xayier, Riu. (1999.) Dionysism and Comedy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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