LAWRENCE – The vulgar woodland spirits known as satyrs remain popular in modern works such as Disney’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and “Hercules”. But the representation and purpose of these ancient Greek creations have evolved considerably over the centuries.
“People used the figure of satyrs to try to cement the origins of the drama in Greek religion and to associate the drama with an idea of a primitive ritual performed by sturdy humans close to nature,” said Paul Touyz, professor. assistant of classics at the University of Kansas.
“They provide a stimulating insight into how historical origins are reinvented over time and how they are reinvented to meet contemporary interests and concerns,” he said.
Touyz’s new chapter titled “Putting the ‘Goat’ In ‘Goat-song’: The Conceptualization of Satys on Stage and in Scholarship” appears in the edited volume “Reconstructing Satyr Drama” (De Gruyter, 2021).
As Touyz (pronounced Tao-ez) noted, satyrs occupy a privileged position in ancient and modern accounts of the foundation of tragedy. In classical Athens, they encompassed the choir in a genre known as a “satyr play,” which parodied tragedy and was distinguished by its bawdy humor.
The professor said he believed his article would help readers appreciate the origin of the tragedy, which is the dramatic basis of Western theater, television and cinema more broadly.
He said: “If you look at the question of the origins of the drama more as a story told over and over by different generations who have tried to understand the strange practice of pretending to be someone else in front of a large group of people. , you can see how it evolves over time and how it fits into different religious and political contexts.
The satyrs themselves have also evolved. In ancient Greece, they were depicted as humans with ears and a ponytail. In Rome, they developed goat ears, legs, horns and tail.
“If you search Wikipedia for satyrs, you will be told that they are half-goat, half-man creatures. In reality, their shapes and nature change depending on the artistic image you are looking at or the different literary works you might read, ”he said. “They are more like a general spirit of nature that combines elements of the animal and the human.”
Yet it is the relationship of satyrs to tragedy that interests Touyz.
“The subject of tragedy is never just about the history of the drama, the books we read or the movies we watch. The words tragedy and comedy have much more value. Satyrs, for example, have been used to explain the nature and origins of comedy and especially satire, ”he said.
The titular “goat song” is one way of understanding what Greek tragedy represents.
“It was once thought that the song of the goats was sung by a group of people disguised as goats, aka satyrs,” he said. “It probably isn’t. Scholars of the Greek language have convinced most people that “goat song” really means the song you sing to win a goat or find a goat to sacrifice to the gods.
Historically, people have viewed the satyr play as a very specific art form linked to the origins of theater in the Golden Age that eventually ceased to be relevant when tragedy became the dominant genre. But there are concrete references from the Byzantine Empire to individuals who still wear satyr masks on the streets.
“You can imagine people in Asia Minor remembering ‘old ways’ and clinging to such customs,” he said. “They still have those sayings and folk tales in modern Greece – and even in Turkey – that capture the satyr’s continued condition and memory.”
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Touyz has been at KU since 2017. His area of expertise is Greek literature, language and history. (“If there is a Greek author that I can sit with my feet in front of the fire reading, it would be Plato,” he said.)
Touyz plans to spend the next few years completing a book that will trace the institutional history of Satirical Play as a genre and its place in the larger cultural sphere.
“I would like to get people to think about how all the scholarship and enormous cultural energy devoted to the origins of tragedy can be read as different interpretations that speak to perspectives and concerns from different eras,” he said. -he declares.
“What we can do with these materials is tell an interesting story about how our relationship with this genre – and this general question of what it is like to be tragic – has changed and evolved over time. over time. “
Top photo: The satyrs are depicted in a red-figure chalice crater (known as the “Pandora’s Crater”), attributed to the painter Niobid (c. 460-450 BC).