The Dance: Satyr and Maenad

Roman terracotta relief with a Satyr and a Maenad, 27 B. .-A.D. 68 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The dancing Satyr has been a recurring motif that I always look back to whenever I think about the body in art. Just formally these sculptures, or fragments of them, sing a most beautiful sound. The dancing Satyr is like Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, with its harmonious contrapposto, but on steroids. Each limb realized in marble, plaster or bronze emanates excitement, loss of control, and madness.

I am going to assume that the Greeks (and Romans, can’t forget about them) were very familiar with the morphology of the human form (aka anatomy) because the attention to detail grew exponentially in a short period of time. In Ancient Greece, within just a few hundred years between the Archaic (roughly 7th century BCE to 480 BCE) and Classical period (480-323 BCE), the kouros sculptures became more and more life-like. Even in literature we see that different words used to describe physiological, physical and metaphysical parts of the body.

One of my favorite examples of this is the word κάρα (kara). Latin eventually took this word, written cara, and is now present in various Romance languages like Spanish to mean “face”. While this was the also meaning of the word in Ancient Greek, there were various words to mean “face” or “head” such as πρόσωπον (prosopon) and κεφαλή (kefali). Κάρα, however, was used synecdochically to mean the individual.

οὔκἀλλὰ Πενθέως ἡ τάλαιν‘ ἔχω κάρα. (In misery I hold Pentheus’ head!)

Line 1284 from The Bacchae by Euripides

Essentially the point is the Greeks were hyperaware of the body visually and linguistically. So when I look at a visual representation of a dancing Satyr or Faunus (Roman version), there are so many things can be extrapolated from them. An initial aspect for me that stands out is that the pose, despite it being a human form, is more or less impossibile to hold, unless you want to fall over or strain yourself.

Porphyry, a Neoplatonic philosopher from the 2nd century CE, wrote that the Greeks depicted the gods in various poses and types—sitting or standing, male or female, old or young, etc. He also wrote that they sculpted the gods in human form because the human form is logical. But mind you, being intoxicated or participating in Dionysian rites isn’t necessarily the most logical thing ever. So how does one represent this illogical and ecstatic state-of-mind with the logical human form?

Well, wine is a creepy little substance that is the nectar of the mortal world. It’s really delicious yet it has its repercussions. The headache may hit you a little hard too but it’s good to dance it off. In some sculptures you can see this sneaky aspect of wine integrate itself into the body, but very subtlety. Though I must mention that since these Satyrs are dancing, the sculpture emanates a joyous and bountiful presence.

One of my favorite sculptures of a Satyr is Il satiro danzante located now in a museum in Mazara del Vallo in Sicily. ‘Tis only a fragment but still this bronze sculpture of a dancing Satyr is so breathtaking! Happy, yes, but there are key elements that go beyond the mere joy and shows how the wine flows in. His neck is cocked back quite far—almost too far—and if one were to mimic just the neck portion of this pose, it would essentially hyperextend the sternocleidomastoid.

ὅτε στροφάδεσσιν ἐρωαῖς ὀρχηστὴρ πολύκυκλος ἑλίσσετο λαίλαπι ταρσῶν, νεύματα μῦθον ἔχων, παλάμην στόμα, δάκτυλα φωνήν. (…when the circling dancer moved in twists and turns with a tumult of footsteps, having only nods for words, hand for mouth, fingers for voice.)

Lines 17-21 of Book 7 of Dionysiaca by Nonnus

When the wine hits, the body goes out of control and the only way it can communicate anything is through the seemingly infinite bodily movements. This is not only evident in the dancing Satyr poses, but even more in representations of Maenads.

Who are Maenads? Also known as Bacchantes, they are the female followers of Dionysos. The word Maenad comes from μαίνομαι (maínomai) meaning “to be furious” or “to rage.” I will say many paintings from the Renaissance and onward don’t necessarily touch on that gradual internal-to-external bodily transformation of an intoxicated Maenad in rage. With this being said, the dance of the Maenad is quite different from the more joyous one of the Satyr since Satyrs are, at the end of the day, fertility gods of the woodlands (which also feeds into the symbol of the phallus). Maenads are a little scary to say the least and touch upon the more violent aspects of the life of Dionysos.

The poses of the dancing Satyr and dancing Maenad carefully distill the many effects of potation. I find it more than amazing that these extremities and neck muscles in hyperextension with an intense contrapposto, according to these dancing Greek sculptures, can simultaneously evoke so many binaries. It is both festive and fearful, triumphant and terrifying.

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