Worldbuilding Wednesday 8/17/22: Nymphs and Satyrs II (Narnia XLI)

Pan, J. Allen St. John

In this post I’ll talk about how Lewis wrote his  fauns and satyrs, which are not the most child-friendly of mythological beasts. Are you ready? Because everything you think you know about them is wrong.

First of all, the original satyrs of Greek myth did not have goat legs, horns, and tails. Those were attributes of the god Pan, who later became conflated with the  satyr. Ancient satyrs had horse’s tails and ears, and sometimes legs. Their hair was like a long like horses’ mane and so were their beards, and they had bestial faces with rounded, snubbed noses. In Greek art they were depicted naked, with huge erections. “Party hearty” was their anthem. They enjoyed music, dancing, and copious amounts of wine and were always on the prowl for pretty nymphs or human women. Today, this characteristic persists in the term satyriasis, used to describe a man who is oversexed. In spite of this, satyrs were also the keepers of hidden wisdom. Like the nymphs, they were nature spirits, but comical, bawdy ones.  Their archetype was the Trickster.

Over time, as the Greek civilization reached the Hellenistic era, satyrs began to change, some depictions taking on Pan’s goat horns, ears, tail, and legs, while others portrayed satyrs as more humanlike, with only their pointed ears, wild hair, and upturned noses marking them as satyrs. The original horse-tailed, horse-legged being was preserved in Silenus, a minor nature deity who was the tutor of Dionysus, and, like the satyrs, had an appetite for partying, drinking, and general lechery. Silenus makes an appearance in Prince Caspian, minus the lechery of course.

[…] the man on the donkey, who was old and enormously fat, began calling out at once, “Refreshments! Time for refreshments,” and falling off his donkey and being bundled on to it again by the others, while the donkey was under the impression that the whole thing was a circus, and tried to give a display of walking on its hind legs.

Lewis doesn’t mention Silenus has a horse’s tail, but he is adhering to later depictions of the god, in which he is bald and fat and has to be carried around on a donkey because he is too drunk to walk.

Fauns, on the other hand, came out of Roman mythology, which was influenced by the Greek, and both, in turn, by some elder Indo-European prototype lost to time. Unlike satyrs fauns were always goat-legged, horned, pointy-eared beings cavorting in remote places, dancing and playing their pipes. They were shyer than satyrs and didn’t have their ribald reputation. Often they were quite helpful to humans. The meeting of Lucy and Mr. Tumness at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe recalls, in fact, the Greek fable “The Faun and the Traveler,” though Tumnus doesn’t turn on Lucy for blowing hot then cold with the same breath.

In the 20th century, the two were more or less interchangeable; yet Lewis makes it very clear, in the Chronicles, that there are both satyrs and fauns. Fauns are described in detail, while the only clue we have about satyrs is that they are “red as foxes” and, by the only one ever mentioned by name (Wraggle, in The Last Battle) they follow different naming conventions than fauns, who all have Greek-sounding names.  Still, did Lewis mean the original horse-tailed, horse-legged reveler, or the post-Renaissance one which was more innocent, pastoral, and goatlike?

One possible clue may be found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which Mr. Tumnus expresses his fear of Jadis: “She’ll have my tail cut off, and my horns sawn off, and my beard plucked out, and she’ll wave her wand over my beautiful cloven hoofs and turn them into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s.”

Solid hooves like those of a horsey satyr, perhaps?

However Lewis meant things, I still get the feeling that the two names really mean the same goat-footed, goat-horned diminutive elfin being, and that Lewis was just varying the names to avoid repetition and keep the reader on their toes.

My headcanon?

Satyrs and fauns are variations of the same creature, like chimpanzees and bonobos. Satyrs are larger, man-sized, with reddish hair, and large curved horns like those of a wild goat or ibex. They have the short, stubby tail of a goat.

Fauns are smaller, under five foot, with curly black hair on their legs, a more delicate build, light but ruddy-toned skin, and the short horns of a domestic goat. Their tails are long with a tuft on the end, as in Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Tumnus. This is NOT zoologically correct, by the way; goats have short, stubby tails, not the whiplike lion-like ones that Baynes depicts on Mr. Tumnus, which made for memorable visuals but is more in line with popular culture depictions of Satan.  In their leisure time Fauns were more likely to play music and dance with the dryads, as Lewis often depicts.

Lewis didn’t say what satyrs did for fun, but in myth, they were followers of Dionysus/Bacchus.  Five of them were found petrified together at the White Witch’s castle, so we can guess they were a raiding party who tried to attack her and were stoned. I’d say they had a more warlike component than Fauns.

Lewis does not mention female fauns or female satyrs in the Chronicles, unlike his “living trees” (dryads) and his river nymphs who had their river-gods. Then again, he doesn’t mention they’re male, either, though all the named fauns are male. Still, there must be female members of the species, as young satyrs are mentioned in the closing paragraphs of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Mr. Tumnus has a father and so, presumably, a mother.

Classical artists began to depict female fauns and satyrs in the 16th century.

Female Faun by the Water by Alexander Rothaug

Female Satyr, Annibale Carraci

One thing satyrs were NOT was the odd-looking goat hybrid thing in the Disney Prince Caspian movie, which looks like a servant of the devil. It has a conventional satyr body, but a goat head. No creature like this existed in Greek or Roman mythology, which Lewis, though he nipped and tucked it a bit, was careful about sticking to.

And of course, there was no whiff of sexual improprieties from any of his goat-footed creations.

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  1. […] centaurs, those of Greek myth, were not as wise. They were coarse, bestial beings, like the original conception of satyrs/fauns, though more given to fighting than recreational sex. In psychological terms, they could be said to […]

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