Maenads And Our Inner Satyr

Most Classical Greek art featured male nudes with small, or even unrealistically tiny, genitals. A great exception was the motif of the satyr, who, at least on Attic red-figure pottery, had a huge long penis to go with his horns and tail and sensual, puggish face. The usual explanation is that the official Greek ideal of man emphasised his higher humanity, while the satyr represented his animal aspect; the athlete had a small, tasteful penis because he was master of his passions, the satyr had a huge, tacky one because he was out of control. If this explanation is correct, the overhungsatyrs mean the opposite to what they would in modern iconography; not a desirable hunk but a revolting barbarian.

And yet it is the satyr, together with his female counterpart the maenad, who seems to be having all the fun on the vases and dishes. To my eyes, both satyr and maenad express simultaneous anxiety about, and fascination with, natural and untrammelled sexuality, a pairing of emotions that is very familiar in psychology. The theory of repression is, of course, given a thorough workout in The Bacchae, which pits the over-controlled man against Dionysus and the maenads, with gruesome results.

But the anxiety does not need to be all about one’s own repressed nature, one’s “inner satyr” so to speak; I would suggest that the figure of the satyr might also express male anxiety about what kind of man was most successful with the women – that is, in the rough-and-tumble heterosexual world portrayed by Aristophanes rather than Socrates’ high-mindedly paederastic circle – not in the crude sense that the guys with the biggest dicks pull the chicks, but in the subtler sense that the man of passionate animality may be more attractive to women than the Apollonian man of the philosophical and artistic ideals.

The satyrs may also, I think, be read as non-Greeks and/or the underclass, neither of whom would subscribe to the Apollonian ideal; in both cases the portrayals thus become not only upper-class mockery of the animalistic “half-men” but also an attempt to discourage the women from finding openly sensual, crude, “penis-proud” or extravagantly horny men attractive. Might not all of civilisation itself boil down to propaganda designed to prevent women from fancying the lower orders?

This class aspect is echoed in medieval courtly literature, in which the Ogre or Giant is quite obviously the burly peasant who lacks due respect for his betters, and whose capture and rape of well-born maidens is at once a source of titillation and an excuse for heroic measures of social maintenance. And then there was the white American male’s terror of his black slaves, whom rightly or wrongly he suspected of being his superiors in virility, a terror that combined sexual anxieties with quite reasonable fears of revolt and social vengeance.

However, there never was a social institution in either medieval France or the Old South whereby gentlewomen would ritually compensate for social repression by disappearing into the forests to get stoned out of their heads and run totally amok. Assuming that the maenad cult really existed, therefore, and that housewives were allowed to take such an intense sabbatical from their domestic confinement, whom else could they possibly be meeting in the deep woods but horny peasants and uncontrolled aliens, in fact “satyrs”? Refined urban husbands therefore had very good reason for an acute anxiety about the sexual appeal of the rural male, an anxiety that manifested in the prurience of the satyr red-figure pottery. In other words, the upper-class men are commissioning the potters to put animal tails on the lower-class men they fear they wives are meeting in secret.

Posted on July 5, 2012 at 10:23 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, The Invention Of The Modest Female

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