The ancient Greeks during the Classical Period believed that satyrs were men with the legs and horns of goats and portrayed them this way in their art and drama.
Satyrs are universally represented in modern media as men with the legs and horns of goats, so many people assume that this is how satyrs have always been represented. In reality, during the Archaic and Classical Periods of Greek history, satyrs were most commonly represented as naked men with the tails and ears of horses. Satyrs in artistic depictions from these periods also have perpetually erect penises (which are often also unusually large), snub noses, and bestial features. They are typically middle-aged and bearded and are often balding.
In some Archaic and Classical Greek representations of satyrs, their legs resemble the hind legs of horses, such as in a statuette made in a Corinthian workshop between ca. 540 and ca. 530 BCE, discovered at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona and now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. In Attic vase paintings, however, satyrs nearly always have human legs.
We know that Archaic and Classical satyrs have horse features, not goat features, because horses have long, flowing tails that are covered in long hair, while goats have short, perky tails. Satyrs in Archaic and Classical depictions nearly always have long, flowing tails like horses. There is even an Attic black-figure kyathos dated to ca. 520 BCE that is currently held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that depicts a satyr and a goat right next to each other, making it easy to compare their tails and see that they are different.
During the Hellenistic Period (conventionally dated ca. 323-30 BCE), some Greek artists began to portray satyrs with goat features instead of horse features. This trend most likely emerged as a result of people conflating satyrs with the god Pan, who was always depicted in Greek art with the legs and horns of a goat and who was sometimes believed to appear in plural forms, known as Panes.
Hellenistic depictions of satyrs tend to look very human. In the mid-to-late fourth century BCE, the Greek sculptor Praxiteles made two famous statues of satyrs, which are known today as the Resting Satyr and the Pouring Satyr. Neither of these statues have survived in their originals, but later statues based on them have survived, so we have some idea of what they looked like.
Both statues represented satyrs as idealized young men with none of the bestial features that so characterized earlier Greek depictions. The Pouring Satyr looked completely human except for his pointed ears and small goat-like tail, while the Resting Satyr’s tail was covered, making his pointed ears the only clue that he was even supposed to be a satyr at all.
Similarly, the so-called Barberini Faun, a statue of a drunken satyr lying on his back, originally carved either by a Hellenistic sculptor sometime around 200 BCE or by a highly skilled Roman imitator, looks completely human apart from his small goat horns and tail, which are barely visible.
Hellenistic satyrs are occasionally portrayed with the legs of goats, but only rarely. The Romans, however, equated satyrs with Fauni, plural forms of the god Faunus, whom they equated with the Greek god Pan. The Romans most commonly portrayed Fauni with the horns and legs of goats. Thus, during the time of the Roman Empire, this became the standard image for satyrs as well. Even then, however, there were still artists who imitated older Hellenistic sculptures of satyrs that portrayed them with mostly human features, such as those of Praxiteles.
Satyrs were indeed sometimes portrayed with the legs and horns of goats during the Hellenistic Era and were most commonly portrayed in this manner during the time of the Roman Empire, but they were not commonly portrayed this way during the Classical Period. It is for this reason that we have rated this claim mostly false.
- Josho Brouwers, “Satyrs, sileni, and fauns: Lustful Graeco-Roman spirits of nature”, Ancient World Magazine (26 March 2018).
- William Hansen, “Satyrs (Greek Satyroi) and Silens (Greek Silenoi)”, in: Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans (2004), pp. 279-281.
- Robin Hard, “The Satyrs and Seilenoi,” in: The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (2004), pp. 212-214.