This Week’s Prompt: 129. Marble Faun p. 346—strange and prehistorick Italian city of stone.
The Resulting Story: FORTH COMING
This is another prompt that lead a few odd places. To begin with, I was unaware at the time that Marble Faun was in fact a Nathaniel Hawthorne story–and so a good deal of the research I share with you has the Marblehead character of being related but not necessarily directly intended. Nonetheless, it is interesting material. And the Faun or Satyr’s character does play an important role in the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, and we will come back to that concern in a moment.
When discussing fauns or satyrs, we must acknowledge that they occupy an unusual place. They are creatures that are both men and beast, partaking in parts of civilization but not the whole of it. In Roman Legend, there is the story of the prince who becomes a satyr–we discussed that here. The attachment of monstrous half-beast men and women is not uncommon in the world of folklore, particularly folklore written outside of rural settings. At least one of my sources made this distinction between the folklore wild man and the wild man recorded by artists.
The Satyr or wild man recorded by people outside artistic circles are variable in shape–sometimes very large, sometimes oddly small. They are not universally men either. Wild women are also found, often shapeshifters who’s breasts hang low enough to be thrown over their shoulders. They live in places far from human habitation, on mountaintops–often specifically the highest part of the Alps in Europe, for instance. The appearance varies–hair is a common attribute, but how long and if it is even is unclear. European wild men are known to eat people frequently, a trait that is less universal elsewhere.
And when discussing the medieval wild man, things are different. The wild man in medieval art is not just an inhabitant of places beyond human habitation, they dwell on the border between men and beast. The folklore wildman lives on a mountain, unreachable by most–the medieval art wildman lives in the forests nearby. The wildman is also strongly associated not only as wild but as feral, an exemplar of man in a state separated from the Church. The wildman is also in these cases always larger, and usually ‘dark’–the implications of this to me seeming obvious. That the sexual angle of the wildman is repeatedly stated with wildmen in these contexts is notable as well, and it does seem likely the story of “fallen man who is more like a beast but can be redeemed through civilzing light of Christianity” played a roll in depictions and colonization of Native Americans.
Most wild men have a few notable supernatural traits–ones the Satyr does not share, I’ll note. For instance, it is typical for a satyr to speak. And while strong, the supernatural and ogrish strength of the other wild men isn’t present among satyrs. They do share a wild man’s tendency towards alcohol and sexuality and even kidnapping. Satyrs and Fauns are often blended together, although some differences remain–the image of a satyr as a goat-man instead of a hairy man with donkey tails is do to this bleed together, and the Satyr is largely a wise if dangerous presence, while a Faun is foolish while frightening.
This sort of foolish wisdom comes up in the parable of the Satyr and the Traveler. A satyr comes across a traveler, and seeing him lost, invites him back to his home. The satyr is perplexed when the man blows on his fingers, and learns that this is how a man can stay warm. This causes trouble when, at home and with a hot meal, the man blows on his soup to make it cold. This enrages the satyr, for how can the same action make one cold and another warm? And so he drives the man from his house.
There is also the story of Pan and Apollo, a pair of competing deities of music. Pan played a tone that was full of joy and laughter and wildness that drove one to dancing–and in fact all the wild things and fauns danced. Apollo, the joyless daystar, played a tone that hushed the air and was somber. It was full of sadness, like saying farewell to one’s own mother and father. And all those listening proclaimed Apollo the winner–except, sadly, King Midas. Midas had been asked to judge, and thus judged in favor of Pan. Apollo in turn, to reward Midas’s bad taste, gave him the ears of a donkey to match his decision.
Satyrs and Apollo crossed paths again, symbolically, when Orpheus was wed. For at the wedding of Orpheus and Eurdicye, a drunken satyr attempted to assualt Orpheus’s wife. When she attempted to flee him, she fell into a literal nest of vipers and perished–and thus Orpheus’s despair set in. The satyr’s monstrous nature is here apparent–he is drunken, sexual, and violent. A wild man, devoid of his comic talents.
Yet, there are times when Satyr’s approach something more divine. In some Midas stories, Midas has a spring that satyrs enjoy coming to. There he lays a trap for them, and in some stories succeeds in trapping them. According to Aristotle, he even learned dark secrets about human life from the satyrs–namely, the opinion of the satyr, sometimes the immortal Silenus, that human life was best unlived. The forest god was thought to be a prophet and wise in many ways, and such foreboding declarations from him are…disconcerting.
Let us briefly leave these behind, and discuss the actual Marble Faun. I sadly don’t have a copy of the text to which Mr. Lovecraft refers. I worked off the Internet Archive in this case–which lead me to a summary of the story. There are references in the summary to sections that fit “strange and prehistorik”–I admit, freely, that I did not have the time to read the entire story, but the suggestion that one of the main characters, Donatello, is actually a satyr or a faun is important. So I think is the history that Italy suggests–the author calls attention to the layers of ruin in the countryside; Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance structures. The antiquity of Roman sculpture is repeated suggested through observations, and the specters of the past haunt them–whether in image or in form of stalkers lurking in the catacombs, promising dark secrets. There is a sense of mystery about origins, both in the main cast and the stranger parts.
The Satyr and faun are very, in a way, Lovecraftian characters. They are the sort of thing that Lovecraft, from all we know about him. The satyr moves between social spaces, between animals and men, between past and present. They are associated further with the oldest (sometimes) of Greek Gods, Pan–and of course, the horror story The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen. This story, which follows the results of a terrible medical experiment to open the third eye of his patient, to her ultimate death and the revelation she is a supernatural being. Their association with drunkenness and wine connects them to Dionysius, even when other stories do not (and several stories do! The Midas one for instance!). And as we have discussed elsewhere, Dionysius is himself a Lovecraftian nightmare as the breakdown of reality itself.
Now, this gives us a good ground for a horror story–the collapse of boundaries between ‘wild’ and ‘civilized’ is ripe for horror. The Satyr or Faun has the additional aspect as a bearer of madness and panic. The satyr cannot be contained–to be captured, he must be drunk and his wisdom is terrible. The command of the wild animals falls into this almost ‘pre-Adamic’ nature of the Satyr.
A story here then might be about, yes, a Satyr haunted ruin of in Italy–or the city of the Satyrs, before they became Satyrs as we know them. Such a place would be of interest to many people from artists to archaeologists to bored college students to local farmers. What might be found in the haunt of the Satyrs, who can say?
Forth, Gregory. “Images of the Wildman Inside and Outside Europe.” Folklore, vol. 118, no. 3, 2007, pp. 261–281. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30035439. Accessed 4 June 2021.
Scott Horton, on October 16, et al. “Aristotle – The Wisdom of Silenus.” Harper’s Magazine, 15 Oct. 2012, harpers.org/2010/10/aristotle-the-wisdom-of-silenus/.
Sorabella, Jean. “A Satyr for Midas: The Barberini Faun and Hellenistic Royal Patronage.” Classical Antiquity, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 219–248. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ca.2007.26.2.219. Accessed 4 June 2021.