He had the legs of a goat, the tail of a horse and a magnificent and outstanding phallus. Silenus the satyr, like Pan, has a very long association with the theatre, particularly comedy. He raised Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre and is best remembered for his love of indulgence and mischief. Comedy is said to have arisen out of the hijinks of satyr-figures like him in villages and at harvest festivals(1). It’s not hard to imagine men dressed as satyrs running through crowds and processions with their horseplay. When St John Chrysostom (349-407 C.E.) wrote his homily on I Corinthians (2) he was aghast at the goings-on at pagan weddings. He disparaged the night-time parade of bride and groom through the city streets with its requisite singing of licentious songs, dancing, music, carousing and laughter. Were his ministrations provoked by a myriad of merry-making Silenus’ bobbing through the streets? Did their glorious masculinity, ribaldly heralding the consummation of the marriage compact, offend him? It was a pagan world.
Silenus and his satyrs were institutionalized very early in theatre history.The first theatres were built on hillsides, where goats grazed freely and Dionysus was worshiped in adjacent sanctuaries. The earliest chorus leaders were said to have worn goat’s heads. Looking like goat-men, their ceremonial origins weren’t lost. Was it during a religious ceremony, revering the goat that both fed and clothed him, that Thespis broke away from the singing supplicants and addressed them? Becoming the first actor, he created the first audience.
When the dramatic festival, the Dionysia, was given in Athens, the competing playwrights had to give three tragedies and a satyr play as entry into three days of dramatic competition. A day of procession preceded. The only surviving, complete, satyr play, The Cyclops, was written by Euripides. It’s a satire poking fun at the mythology that was treated so seriously in the tragic plays. Its chorus is made up of satyrs and its chorus leader is Silenus. Menander’s comedy, O Dyskolos, also features a satyr, Pan. When you consider costuming in ancient comedies – the masks, the micro-mini tunics, the elevated footwear, and the ostentatious phalluses, the link to Silenus with his cloven feet, forthright phallus and sensuousness is obvious.
On Thasos there was a stong cult of Silenus. Up on the hillside there remains ruins of a temple to Pan. In the oldest part of the archaeological site Silenus enters the city through large stone walls, the Silenus Gate. This is the best preserved section of the ancient city. Here successions of inhabitants built over and extended residences of previous ages. Their progress can be traced in the masonry. The brickwork became smaller and more refined as time progressed. The Ecole Francais D’Athens’, Directory of Thasos, pictured above, describes how single story dwellings became double, roads were added and the neighbourhood spread. Missing from the monumental gate is its overhead lintel stone. If it had survived we would walk beneath a massive stone. Would it have carried carvings? In Argos, a citadel of comparable masonry sports a pair of lions over its gateway.
Would the Selanus Gate have been adorned with goats?
Co-incidentally, in another part of the Island about 2 km inland from the Agora, a small Christian chapel can be found amidst tired, olive groves. It too, is built of stone bricks.
It too, features a rather small creature with cloven hooves, horns and a tail. A goat-man. He, too, has been associated with wanton desires and incontinence. He is not a pagan god, however. He is a Christian devil. He is bestial desire and wantonness. He is temptation. He is what St John Chrysostom preached against. Was he once a satyr? Selanus? Was this once his place? How old is it, St Marina’s Chapel? Is it old enough to be pagan? Was it his, before it was hers?
The fixtures inside the chapel are definitely not ancient, but then they aren’t as permanent as the building itself. St Marina’s lintel is a riddle. It looks ancient and out-of-place with the rest of the brickwork. Does being ancient preclude being Christian? Could those goats really be sheep, and so symbolic of Jesus flock? Early Christian archaeological features found on Thasos have included this capital:
Could the chapel have been demolished and rebuilt? Was the lintel part of the original structure? It’s hard to tell for a layperson. Could the lintel be spoila from the archaeological site? If so, it isn’t the only Christian Church that’s taken pagan, architectural features and recycled them.
Another possibility is that the site was pagan. That the shepherd who guarded this flock revered Pan, the goat-man That the chapel was built to subsume the site into the Christian faith. That by dedicating it to St Marina, the satyr would now be re-imagined as a devil. The presence of the icon of St Marina killing the satyr, is a strong symbol of the tenacity of Christianity over the pagan worship of Olympian Gods. Were the early Christians trying to make a point? Did it always belong? Or is it just spoila from the Temple of Pan? Or a vestige of what the chapel was earlier in its history, Christian or pagan?
One thing it definitely isn’t, is the lintel to the Silenus Gate.
References / Further Reading
(1) Hartnoll, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985, The Greek and Roman Theatre.
(2) Clark, Elizabeth A., Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier Inc., 1983, Volume 13:Message of the Father’s of the Church, p.71
Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, “McGilchrist’s Greek Islands”, Genius Locii Publications, London, Volume11: Thasos.
Ecole Francaise D’Athens, “Odigos tis Thasou”, Galliki Scholi Athinon, 2012, Vol 3: Sites et Monuments. There is no English translation of this book. The original is in French. I have referred to the Modern Greek translation.