In Greek mythology, a satyr is a woodland demigod that looks like a monstrous half-man, half-goat. It has horns on its head, a hairy body, with the tail, and feet of a goat. The Romans identified satyrs with their native nature spirits, fauns. The Middle Ages absorbed images of Pan and lustful satyrs into the classic image of the devil.
Of course, the devil is in the Bible, usually described in terms of snakes, coiled serpents, and sea dragons. This seems a world away from lustful, drunken nature spirits. Satyrs are portrayed more as mischievous, wild and lewd than downright evil.
So, what does the Bible have to say about satyrs, if anything? In order to answer this question, we have to ask another first. What scares a satyr?
Who Frightens the Frighteners?
We know the old question from the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Well, my question is this: Who scares the scarers? Who haunts the haunters? Who terrifies the terrorisers? For me, this is one of the most interesting yet neglected questions in all of horror.
Let me quote a verse from the New Testament that helps us answer it I’ll use my own translation so you can get a better grasp of the sarcasm and imagery the in the original Greek.
“So, you believe that there is one God? Well done! Good for you! Even the demons believe that – and it makes their hair stand on end!”James 2:19
Most translations say something like, even the demons believe and tremble, or, even the demons believe and shudder. The Greek word for tremble here is only used once in the New Testament. In other Greek literature, it means ‘to be struck with extreme fear, to be horrified’. But the root verb as used by Homer and Hesiod has the idea of rough, jaggy hair bristling with fear or cold.
Only here in New Testament. It means, originally, to be rough on the surface; to bristle. Hence, used of the fields with ears of corn; of a line of battle bristling with shields and spears; of a silver or golden vessel rough with embossed gold. Aeschylus, describing a crowd holding up their hands to vote, says, the air bristled with right hands. Hence, of a horror which makes the hair stand on end and contracts the surface of the skin, making “gooseflesh.” Rev., much better, shudder.Vincent’s Word Studies
This is where things get interesting. Because it begs further question. Yes, this verse makes it clear that the demons who terrify us are in turn terrified by God. But do they have literal hair that stands up? Do demons actually shudder and quiver at the thought of divine wrath and punishment? Here is what one of the New Testament commentaries says about this. The context is a discussion of Jewish demonology.
One of the classes of demons comprised the שׂעירים (“hairy ones”), in reference to these the word φρίσσουσιν would be extremely appropriate.Expositor’s Greek Testament
Who are the Hairy Ones?
There are verses in the Old Testament that seem to refer to these hairy demons. And they do so under a name you’ll already know – satyrs.
But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.Isaiah 13:21
This is the King James Version. The English Revised Version, the New American Bible, and Websters Bible Translation all refer to satyrs dancing there as well. Other versions speak of wild goats leaping about (NIV, New Living Translation, and New King James Version). Yet others say shaggy goats frolic there (New American Standard Version, and the Legacy Standard Bible).
There are versions that give the verse a more sinister touch. The Aramaic Bible in Plain English says evil spirits shall dance there. And the Brenton Septuagint Translation translates it as devils shall dance there. The International Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version try to combine these ideas by translating it as goat-demons will dance there.
How can they all get it so different? Because the literal translation is fairly ambiguous. The original Hebrew word literally translates as ‘the hairy ones’ or ‘the shaggy ones’. The meaning of this word has a broad range, including:
- Regular he-goats (Leviticus 4:24; 16:9)
- Goat demons or ‘field spirits’ (Leviticus 17:7)
- Goat idols or images (2 Chronicles 11:15)
Are These Satyrs Real?
The biblical view of nature gods is complex. They are both nothing and something. On the one hand, there is only one, true and living God. Other gods are only dumb idols, the work of men’s hands and imaginations (Psalm 115:5). That’s why they’re called ‘vanities’ – empty nothings. They did not create; they cannot deliver. On the other hand, pagan religions that sacrifice to these idols are ultimately making offerings to demons and new gods (Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37; 1 Corinthians 10:20).
Another perspective is that these gods are both spirit and animal, both more than human and less that human. That’s why in some places they’re described in both terms at once. For example, this is what we’re told about the haunted city of Babylon.
With a mighty voice he shouted: “’Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.”Revelation 18:2
Is this verse describing vulture-like birds captured in a cage or bird-like demons imprisoned in a dungeon? Yes, it’s a picture. But what exactly is the reality it is poetically pointing towards? The Old Testament verse this is based on references idols rather than demonic creatures (Isaiah 21:9) . But there are other verses in Revelation where demons are compared to animals such as locusts and frogs (9:3-11;16:13).
The best explanation seems to be that the character and works of demons are described by comparing them to certain animals. In the parables of Christ, goats illustrate a nature that is impulsive, devious, stubborn, treacherous, capricious, proud – this is why they are ultimately sepated from the sheep (Matthew 25:32-33). And the image of a demon so terrified that it’s hairy skin stands on end is a colourful extension of this comparison.