Note: Caprinids are members of a division of Family Bovidae that includes goats and sheep.
In his biography of Sulla, Plutarch gives the following account of a satyr. Satyrs, which many Romans believed actually to exist, were supposed to be creatures half goat and half human (like Pan in the image at right).
The Nymphaeum near Apollonia was sacred to the god Pan and to the nymphs, the female nature entities of ancient myth, and the supposed frequent prey of lustful satyrs. In fable, they often accompany the higher divinities, in particular Apollo, and rustic gods such as Artemis, Dionysus, Pan, and Hermes (as the god of shepherds).
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Above: A nineteenth-century account of an incoherent satyr, reminiscent of Plutarch’s gibbering satyr, appears on page 4 (col. 5) of the May 11, 1888 issue of The Kimball Graphic, a newspaper published in Kimball, South Dakota (source).
The Greeks used the word satyr to refer to a different sort of animal. Instead of goat-human hybrids, as the Romans imagined them, a Greek would have described a satyr as a cross between a human and a horse, more like a centaur. But by Roman times satyrs had morphed in the popular imagination into goat-human creatures and were generally conflated with fauns, which were also human above and goat below (see the paintings of fauns on this page). Generally speaking, however, satyrs were more lusty than fauns.
Classical literature is rife with accounts such as Plutarch’s, and the authors of these stories often represented them as real events. In Roman times it was widely accepted that humans could hybridize with non-human animals. For example, in his De Natura Animalium (VI, 42), the Roman author Aelian (c. 175 - c. 235 CE) relates the following:
Indeed, in very ancient times such hybrids were not only accepted, but even viewed in a sacred light. Thus, Budge (Gods of the Egyptians, 1904, p. 353) writes: “At several places in the [Nile] Delta, e.g., Hermopolis, Lycopolis and Mendes the god Pan and a goat were worshipped. Strabo, quoting (xvii. 1, 19) Pindar, says that in these places goats had intercourse with women. Herodotus (ii. 46) instances a case which was said to have taken place in the open day.” The passage from Herodotus (excerpted from Macaulay 1890) reads as follows.
St. Jerome in The Life of Paulus the First Hermit (§8), states that, when Constantine was on the throne, a satyr “was brought alive to Alexandria and shown as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.” Jerome adds that “it was a matter of which the whole world was witness.”
But during the Dark Ages — when Christian jurists came widely to believe that Satan made a habit of seducing witches in animal form, often that of a goat — any seeming half-human birth came to be viewed as a manifestation of great evil. And up until about 1700, any woman who gave birth to such an infant ran a grave risk of being burnt at the stake. Indeed, Satan himself was often depicted as a goat-human hybrid, similar in aspect to the pagan god Pan.
Writing during the reign of Elizabeth I, Batman (1581) tells of a cyclops found in England that, from his account, he clearly believed to be a human-sheep hybrid. His comments are those of an individual, but their tone reflects the marked shift in attitude society had undergone since ancient times with respect to such matters. What to the pagan had been a mere foible, to the Christian had become a black sin against nature.
The seventeenth-century writer Johannes Praetorius (Neüliche Miß-Geburten, 1678) reports the German town of Plößte a lamb with a human face was yeaned on the 28th of March 1670. He says it had a naked body and lamb-like ears. Also in Germany, Christian Lehmann (1611-1688) describes an infant born to the wife of a certain Hans Bäßer, a resident of Weipert, in 1678. He says this “horrific monstrosity” (“heßliche Mißgeburt”) had a goat’s head with two horns on its forehead and goat’s eyes on its cheeks.
The physician Gabriel Clauder (1688, pp. 328-330), published in a medical journal an article describing a fetus that had been birthed by a goat that same year in the Bavarian village of Schlehenhain. It had a naked white skin, he said, and the head and ears were like those of a human being, except that there were merely two pits in place of eyes (in general, the incidence of anophthalmia and cyclopia seems to be higher in distant hybrids). The legs and body, however, were “nearly like those of a goat.” The fetus had been dead in the womb for several days.
The Dutch surgeon Nicolaes Tulp (1593-1674) was the mayor of Amsterdam and seems to have been the first European scientist to publish a description of the chimpanzee. As did many other physicians of his day, he wrote up for the benefit of his colleagues a compilation of the more interesting cases he had seen in private practice. One such was that of “The Bleating Youth” (Juvenis balans), where Tulp describes a youth who grew up among wild sheep in Ireland and who had certain sheep-like characteristics. Tulp says the following of this unusual individual:
Tulp’s account of the bleating youth shows interesting parallels to the descriptions of the Mesopotamian humano-bovine deity Enkidu, a half-man half-bovine demigod who is one of the main characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh. His body was similar to that of the Greek god Pan, or Christian Devil (human torso, hairy legs with cloven hooves, horns on head). The following account of Enkidu’s origin is from my own English reconstruction of the ancient epic:
This creature was later listed by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae (1766) as a specimen of feral human (Homo ferus) under the name Juvenis ovinus Hibernus N. Tulp, 1672, the Irish sheep-boy.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
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