From Kakos to Kalos: The Domesticated Satyr and His Position in Athenian Society


The satyr is a perplexing figure in Greek art, defined by characteristics that seem to be entirely against the Greek ideal: he is ugly, hypersexual, animalistic, and a debauchee. He is frequently found in the erotic pursuit of a nymph, where the beast weaponizes his sexual aggression against his passive counterpart. Scholars have shown that sexually excessive nature of the satyr serves as an expression of the antithesis of Athenian sexual ethics. But beginning in the late sixth-century the satyr abandons his bestial nature and sexually aggressive state in exchange for domesticity and physical beauty.  However, if the aggressive and animalistic sexuality of the satyr is so fundamental to his understanding, what does this mean for this newly domesticated satyr?

This thesis seeks to understand this domesticated satyr and his function on Late Archaic and Early Classical painted pottery. In my investigation of the domesticated satyr, I have analyzed a series of vase paintings that show such satyrs alongside contemporaneous depictions of women and boys in contexts which there are great similarities, as well as texts that characterize a particular group of sexual deviants in ways that are parallel to the satyr, namely adult passive homosexual men. This paper illustrates that the satyr who has now abandoned his animalistic characteristics and has been recontextualized into a domestic setting enters a dialogue with vase paintings of women, boys, and the Athenian conceptualization of femininity and sexual passivity. So, when the satyr appears to be domesticated and is shown within a domestic context, he serves as the expression of unwonted and debased sexual passivity.

Anthony Ortega

Anthony is a senior at Rutgers University, double majoring in Art History and Classics. His research interests are in Greek painted pottery, gender, sexuality, and identity in ancient Greece. After graduating, Anthony intends to apply to graduate school to study Greek art.

6 Replies to “From Kakos to Kalos: The Domesticated Satyr and His Position in Athenian Society”

  1. Very informative and scholarly presented. I enjoyed the insight into this early greek art form and found the cultural insights to be interestingly relevant to the present day societal norms. Clearly current culture has deep roots as we see it displayed in ancient art.

    Thank you for a very entertaining and informative presentation; you have created much food for thought. Best of luck in your future studies.
    Well done and kudos for thriving in a time of a world pandemic.

  2. Fascinating contribution at the intersection of sexuality studies and art history. You really make these images come to life!

  3. Beautiful and interesting images – I love the way you are reinterpreting the domesticated satyr as a parallel to the idea of passive homosexuality. I am completely unfamiliar with it but very compelled! Congrats!

  4. Very intriguing presentation, strong visual analysis and great engagement of material across genre — pottery, plays, etc. I’m still left wondering why the shift in the depiction of the satyr, though I realize with many lost written works it is hard to pinpoint. The arguments put forward were convincing, and I learned a great deal. Strong work!

  5. Impressive presentation interpreting this striking body of visual evidence in the context of contemporary literary sources, and recapturing ancient Greek attitudes towards sexuality. Did certain vase painters specialize in this repertory? Is this iconography widespread in vase painting or does it represent a minor subcategory?

  6. Hi Anthony. I’m sorry it has taken so long to congratulate you on your thesis, in itself an accomplishment, and your oral presentation was clear and professional, another accomplishment. I’m impressed. I though Prof. Wiley’s comment incisive. There were great social and political changes taking place in Late Archaic and Early Classical Athens occasioned by the rise of democracy in Athens. Vase painting, at this time in particular, provides visual evidence of these changes. Surely the changes that you so ably present in depicting satyrs are representations of the same social and political changes. Anyway, congratulations, once again. I should add that a number of Art History faculty members who don’t appear among the replies above, commented to me on how successful your oral presentation is.

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