“Showing humanity against this beast of the forest”

The collection of King Zygmunt’s tapestries, since its first presentation in the chambers of Wawel castle, has aroused admiration. The ideological and artistic wealth of the tapestry has provided intellectual stimulus for its contemporary audience. It has also had an impact literary works such as Panegyric by Stanisław Orzechowski.  Jan Kochanowski, who had been inspired by the sight of a satyr on one of the royal fabrics (see: Tapestry with the monogram of Zygmunt August on a cartouche held by satyrs), made the forest god the main hero of his political satire: Satyr or Wild man (1563, published in 1564). The subject of the poem includes a visit to the court of the satyr, who — in the presence of the king and the Polish nobility — criticizes the contemporaneous social and political situation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the resolutions of the Polish Sejm during the years 1562–1564). This old literary concept with its origin traceable to antiquity — so significant in the Renaissance — was somehow rediscovered by Kochanowski, who also included domestic references within it.
Silenus, Satyr, and Pan  can be described as forest creatures with a hybrid semi-animal and semi-human structure. They were amused participants of Bacchus’s retinue, famous for their lewd tendencies and drunkenness. Despite the disparities resulting from their mythological origins (Silenus was the son of Hermes and the satyrs were the sons of Silenus), in literature, these characters were often regarded as related and sometimes even identified with one another.
Forest gods played the role of cheerful, horned mentors in the satirical drama chorus, which is a variation of the Greek comedy, already viewed as the origin of satire (literary genre) in the Renaissance. They appeared in the role of  moralists in ancient works — which is surprising in the context of their moral attitude — such as Eclogue VI by Virgil, Menedemus by Lycophron, and Cyclops by Euripides, as well as in one of Aesop’s fables, Satyr and man, translated by Biernat of Lublin in 1522 under the title, Lściwy nieprzyjaźliwy).[1]
The explanation of this convention is provided by Plato’s Symposium, as it contains a puzzling passage, in which Alcibiades compares the figure of the great philosopher, Socrates, with the forest god, Silenus. This unusual episode refers to the ancient tradition, which teaches that “external ugliness, truant disposition, often mask the hidden great wisdom and prudence”.[2] Paradoxically, Silenus, with an ugly yet amusing appearance (an obese drunkard with horse-like ears and tail), repeatedly occupied the position of a serious moralist, who — as a centuries-old (external) observer of history — lectured humanity about its mistakes. This ambiguous nature was very well visualized in the old statues of the unattractive god, Silenus, containing a door in its body, behind which a figure of the ideal god was hidden.
In a sense, the “Polonised” version of the Satyr was the wild man, the second figure to whom Kochanowski refers in the title of his poem. This creation — characteristic for the folklore of many cultures — often took a similar form, for example: the Italian uomo selvaggio, the German Wildemann, and Homo Silvestris. A wild man is none other than a “good savage” — a recluse unspoilt by civilisation — who has gained his half-animal appearance thanks to his body hair. He performed the cultural function of a truant-moralist — analogous to a satyr — because he was genetically related to the Greek god.
In Adagia, In Praise of Folly, Erasmus of Rotterdam used Plato’s concept in his writingay. He compared the figure of Silenus to the whole group of ancient philosophers. He also construed Christian connotations, by finding analogies between forest gods and John the Baptist, the prophets, and Christ himself.
This literary pattern derived from Plato and Erasmus and known since the 16th century — which also makes reference to the folklore tradition — was applied by Kochanowski. His work gained considerable popularity among his contemporaries and gave rise to a new genre: the old Polish satirical poem. On this basis — and even in direct reference to it — poems were created, mainly in the 16th and 17th century, in which, through the mouth of a Satyr or another forest creature, the author expressed environmental criticism, as well as commentary on current events, often giving the satire a mocking-didactic form (for example, Protheus albo Odmieniec [author unknown], Satyr na twarz Rzeczypospolitej w roku 1640 by Samuel Twardowski, and Satyr stęskniony w pustyni w jasne wychodzi pole [author unknown]).


Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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[1] Satyr and man is a moralising tale about a man who was aided by a satyr in returning home from the forest. The forest god noticed that a travelling man blew on his hands to warm them, while after his return home he blew on a spoon with soup to cool it. Outraged by this contradiction, he said that he did not want to have anything to do with a man whose mouth comes out with both a warm and a cold breath – through which he stigmatised man for his hypocrisy and duplicity of human nature.
[2] J. Pelc, Jan Kochanowski: szczyt renesansu w literaturze polskiej, Warszawa 1987, p. 187. In ancient Greece, the concept of kalos kaghatos [from Greek: beautiful and good] functioned, defining the classic ideal of beauty, understood as a reflection of a good soul (bravery and courage in a military context) in external, physical beauty; also in the sense of harmony between mind and body. According to Platonic thought, its derivative term is sophos kagathos, literally meaning wise and good. Plato turned away from the relationship between internal beauty and external beauty, because, as it was written above, even a hideous appearance can hide a good mind.