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Satyr plays were an ancient Greek form of tragicomedy, similar to the modern-day burlesque style. They always featured a chorus of satyrs and were based in Greek mythology and contained themes of, among other things, drinking, overt sexuality (often including large phallic props), pranks and general merriment. At the Athenianmarker Dionysia, playwrights usually submitted four plays to the competition: three tragedies and one satyr play. The satyr plays were performed at the end of the festival as spirited entertainment to lighten the atmosphere after many hours of Tragedy, or between the 2nd and 3rd Tragedy of a trilogy as comic relief. They were also generally much shorter, around half the length of an average Tragedy.

Satyric drama was one of the three varieties of Athenian drama (the other two being tragedy and comedy). Its origin can be traced back to Pratinas of Phlius (about 500 BC). It is probable that, after settling in Athens, he adapted the old dithyramb with its chorus of satyrs, which was customary in his native place, to the form of tragedy which had been recently invented in Athens. This new kind of drama met with so much approval, and was so much developed by Pratinas himself, as well as by his son Aristeas, by Choerilus, by Aeschylus, and the dramatists who succeeded him, that it became the custom to act a satyric drama after a set of three tragedies. The seriousness of the preceding plays was thus relieved, while the chorus of satyrs and Sileni, the companions of Dionysus, served to indicate the original connexion between that divinity and the drama.


The origins of performance culture and the emergence of the satyr play can be traced back to ancient rural celebration in honour of the god Dionysus. Rush Rehm argues that these celebrations inaugurated the "agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting," closely associated with Dionysus who represented the embodiment of "a fundamental paradox inherent to the world, life-giving but potentially destructive." The dramatic festivities at the City Dionysia in Athensmarker, also dedicated to Dionysus, required each playwright to submit three tragedies and a satyr play, which functioned as the last piece performed at the festival. The accurate emergence of the satyr play is debatable; however, Brockett argues that most evidence “credits Pratinas with having invented this form sometime before 501 BC”, which is supported by P.E.Easterling’s argument that by the 5th century the satyr play was considered an integral component of the tragike didaskalia. Brockett also suggests the possibility that the satyr play was the first form of drama from which both tragedy and comedy gradually emerged.

A.E.Haigh however maintains the fact that the satyr play is a survivial from “the primitive period of Bacchic worship”. Haigh lists several examples of recoded entries to the City Dionysia: thus, in 472 BC Aeschylus won the first prize with Phineaus, Persae, Glaucus and the satyr play Prometheus. Among Euripides’ entries, Haigh underlines Theristae (431 BC), Sisyphus (415 BC) and Alcestis which Euripides was allowed to present as a replacement of the traditional satyr play.

The mythological origins of the satyrs are closely linked to the advent of Dionysus into Hellenic culture. The satyrs and their female counterpart, the maenads, were followers of Dionysus, a “late-comer to Olympus and probably of Asiatic origin”. According to Roger Lancelyn Green, the satyrs probably began as minor nature deities, while their designated leader Silenus originated as a water spirit, a maker of springs and fountains. Silenus was already an attendant to Dionysus when the satyrs joined the god’s following, and was subsequently proclaimed their father. The satyrs characterised themselves by amorality, excessive drinking and the breaking down of traditional values and barriers. Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller further argue that satyrs have a strong connection with music and dance and consider them to be “archetypal musicians and dancers”, thus linking them to Dionysiac processions and the origins of performance culture.

Structure and content

The material for a satyric drama, like that for a tragedy, was taken from an epic or mythology, and the action, which took place under an open sky, in a lonely wood, the haunt of the satyrs, had generally an element of tragedy; but the characteristic solemnity and stateliness of tragedy was somewhat diminished, without in any way impairing the splendour of the tragic costume and the dignity of the heroes introduced. The amusing effect of the play did not depend so much on the action itself, as was the case in comedy, but rather on the relation of the chorus to that action. That relation was in keeping with the wanton, saucy, and insolent, and at the same time cowardly, nature of the satyrs. The number of persons in the chorus is not known, although there were probably either twelve or fifteen, as in tragedy. In accordance with the popular notions about the satyrs, their costume consisted of the skin of a goat, deer, or panther, thrown over the naked body, and besides this a hideous mask and bristling hair. The dance of the chorus in the satyric drama was called sicinnis, and consisted of a fantastic kind of skipping and jumping.

Aeschylus is known to have written a satyr play, Dictyulci, in which the baby Perseus is allowed to masturbate a satyr's penis, as that fragment survives. Another play discusses the need to gang rape Helen. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides' Cyclops. We also have large fragments of a Sophocles comedy called Ichneutae (Tracking Satyrs), and still smaller pieces of other satyr plays exist. The Romans did not imitate this kind of drama in their literature, although, like the Greeks, they used to have merry after-pieces following their serious plays.


A.E. Haigh writes extensively on costumes for the satyric drama. The chorus members all wore masks in accordance with Bacchic tradition. The earliest reliable testimony is supplied by the Pandora Vase dating from the middle of the 5th century. On that vase, the satyrs are portrayed as half men and half goats, wearing goat’s horns on their heads, thus referring to the goat deities of the Doric type.

A later representation can be seen on the Pronomos Vase, found in Naples. The goatish element has disappeared and the satyrs resemble the old Ionic Sileni who were horse deities. The performers are wearing horse tails and short pants with attached phallus, a symbol of Dionysiac worship. Haigh claims that the Doric satyrs were the original performers in Attic tragedy and satiric drama, whereas the Ionic element was introduced at a later stage.


  1. Rehm (1992, 12-13)
  2. Rehm (1992, 39) and Lancelyn Green (1957, 11)
  3. Brockett (1999, 17)
  4. Easterling(1997, 40)
  5. Brockett (1999, 17)
  6. Haigh (1907, 16)
  7. Haigh (1907, 17)
  8. Lancelyn Green (1957, 9)
  9. Lancelyn Green (1957, 10)
  10. Lancelyn Green. (1957, 10)
  11. Lancelyn Green (1957, 10)
  12. Csapo and Miller (2007, 21)
  13. Csapo and Miller (2007, 22)
  14. Lee Papa. Director's notes for Lysistrata. The College of Staten Island, 2006.
  15. Haigh (1907, 290)
  16. Haigh (1907, 293-294)
  17. Haigh (1907, 294)
  18. Haigh (1907, 294)


  • Brockett, Oskar (1999) The History of Theatre Texas: University of Texas at Austin Press.
  • Csapo, Eric and Miller, Margaret C. [eds.] The Origins of Theatre in Ancient Greece and Beyond. From Ritual to Drama Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Easterling, P. E. (Editor), Bernard M. W. Knox (Editor); The Cambridge History of Classical Literature; Volume I Part 2: Greek Drama Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (1993). ISBN 0521359821.
  • Flickinger, Roy Caston, The Greek theater and its drama, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1918.
  • Haigh, A.E. (1907) The Attic Theatre Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hedreen, Guy (2007) ‘Myths and Rituals in Athenian Vase Paintings of Silens’ in Csapo, Eric and Miller, Margaret C. [eds.] The Origins of Theatre in Ancient Greece and Beyond. From Ritual to Drama Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.150-195.
  • Lancelyn Green, Roger (1957) Two Satyr Plays. Euripides, Cyclops, Sophocles, Ichneutai Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Murray, Gilbert (1946) Euripides and his Age Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Padilla, Mark W. (1998). "Herakles and Animals in the Origins of Comedy and Satyr Drama". In Le Bestiaire d'Héraclès: IIIe Rencontre héracléenne, edited by Corinne Bonnet, Colette Jourdain-Annequin, and Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, 217-30. Kernos Suppl. 7. Liège: Centre International d'Etude de la Religion Grecque Antique.
  • Rehm, Rush. 1992. Greek Tragic Theatre. Theatre Production Studies ser. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415118948.

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