Satyrs and Nymphs
By Gary T. Anderson
One of the most interesting themes on ancient Greek coins is that of an “ithyphallic” (sexually aroused) Satyr running off with a Nymph in his arms. These coins were made famous by the island of Thasos, who copied them from the issuances of several Macedonian clans. The Orreskioi, Zaielioi, Pernaioi, Dionysioi and Laiai were all tribes that occupied the area of northern Greece called Macedonia. From around 550 – 480 BC they issued a series of coins that depicted Centaurs and Satyrs carrying off Nymphs. The depiction of the Satyrs and Centaurs often varies, but the pose of the Nymph is nearly identical from coin to coin: a Nymph in a long chiton is held by a Satyr with one arm around her knees and the other around her back, just above the waist. The Nymph has her left arm hanging down and her right arm raised up, with the hand in an open position. Often there is a pellet on the coin just above the open hand. On some of these coins the Nymph is smiling or has a neutral expression, while on others her face shows clear signs of distress. The latter gives rise to the common description of the Satyr abducting the Nymph, who holds hand up in protest.
It was Thasos, an island off the coast of Thrace in present-day northern Greece that made these coins famous. Thasos was important in wine trade and also controlled rich silver mines on the mainland. Thasos struck coins of unusually high denomination, indicating that they were meant primarily for export. Hoards of these coins are common in areas once controlled by the Persian Empire, and they have also been found in present-day Bulgaria, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran.
Thasos started issuing didrachms and drachms of the satyr and nymph in the mid to late sixth century BC. These were close copies of the Macedonian coins mentioned above, and featured a naked ithyphallic satyr kneeling or running and holding a nymph clad in a long chiton. The reverse of the coins had an incuse square that was quartered. A subtle change in the depiction of the Satyr occurred over time. The original coins showed a horned Satyr with horse or goat legs. Eventually, the Satyrs were shown with human legs.
Thasos began to issue the Nymph and Satyr series as an independent state, and continued to strike these coins after being conquered by Persia. After the defeat of the Persians at Marathon by the Athenians, Thasos became an ally of Athens. Coins issued from 455 BC onward begin to show the influence of Attic art. In 450 BC, Athens forbade its allies from issuing coins, and Thasos did not begin reissuing the Satyr and Nymph series until it revolted from Athens in about 411B.C. The new coins reflected the full classical style, with much finer artwork. The Nymph no longer raised her hand, but now placed it around the back of the Satyr. In the 4th century BC, Thasos adopted the Rhodian standard and began issuing coins with different themes.
As with many Greek myths, stories of the origin of the Satyroi are jumbled and sometimes contradictory. The earliest accounts trace their origin through Phoroneus, who according to some accounts was the first man on earth. Phoroneus had five granddaughters who generated the Satyroi with an unknown father, possibly Hermes. According to some accounts, the mountain Nymphai come from these same five women, making them siblings of the Satyroi. On one point the myths are unanimous: the Satyroi are worthless creatures not suited to doing useful work of any kind.
A second group that is often confused with the Satyroi is the Silenoi, a band of creatures originally depicted as having equine ears, tail and hind legs. The origins of the Silenoi are lost to history, but over time they’ve become merged with the Satyroi. As such, later depictions of these creatures show beings with human legs and a horsetail. By 450 BC, legends indicate that the Satyroi are led by a creature called ‘Silenos’, who is their father. Typically, they are shown either pursuing women or accompanying Dionysus, the god of vegetation. Their activities include flute playing, drinking, dancing, and erotic efforts directed toward young women or, in some cases, a donkey.
There are several types of Nymphs in Greek mythology. In common language, the word is used to mean a young bride or girl of marriageable age. Elsewhere, the word refers to nature spirits such as the river and mountain Nymphs. These are typically the daughters of Zeus or other gods with human mothers. The Nymphai are long-lived creatures, but, unlike the Satyroi, are not immortal. Legend has it that when a Nymph is born, an oak or fir tree sprouts in the forest. When that tree dies, so does the Nymph associated with it. The Nymphai are said to have nursed Dionysus when he was a child and to have followed him when he grew older. The Nymphs depicted on the Thasos series are the ones that consort with Dionysus and his other companions, the Satyroi.
To understand the Nymphai and Satyroi, one must look to Dionysus. Although he is often referred to as the god of wine, in reality he is much more than this. Homer described Dionysus as a god who is mad, while Zeus is said to have given Dionysus to mankind as a gift so that we could forget our troubles. The Greeks considered the natural, primordial state of the universe to be chaotic, and Dionysus was the god who represented this primordial state. Civilization, in the form of cities, built order out of chaos. The great Greek city-states were just being built when these legends arose, and the people of these cities were well aware of the destruction that befell their predecessors, the Myceneans. Chaos was something to be respected, feared and guarded against. Women especially were thought to be susceptible to falling into an animalistic state of madness. It was up to men to protect them from their natural instincts.
The Satyroi represent the ideal of the animal-like worthless man who performs no useful tasks and is only interested in following his baser instincts. The Satyr and Nymph coins can be thought of as both a model to be guarded against and an erotic celebration of the natural state of the universe.
Silver drachm, SNG Cop 1014, gVF, 4.14g, 14.9mm, c. 525-463 B.C.; obverse naked ithyphallic satyr in kneeling running attitude right carrying in his arms a struggling nymph who raises her right hand in protest; reverse quadripartite incuse square
Silver stater, SNG Cop 1012, VF, 8.30g, 22.4mm, c. 525-463 B.C.; obverse naked ithyphallic satyr in kneeling running attitude right carrying in his arms a struggling nymph who raises her right hand in protest; reverse quadripartite incuse square
Silver drachm, SNG Cop 1016, S 1361, gF, 3.83g, 15.9mm, c. 525-463 B.C.; naked ithyphallic satyr in kneeling running attitude right carrying in his arms a struggling nymph who raises her right hand in protest; reverse quadripartite incuse square
Silver stater, SNG Cop 1008, Dewing 1316, S 1357, gF, 6.75g, 20.3mm; c. 525-463 B.C.; obverse naked ithyphallic satyr in kneeling running attitude right carrying in his arms a struggling nymph who raises her right hand in protest; reverse quadripartite incuse square