How do we explain the mention of satyrs in Isaiah?

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“How do we explain the mention of satyrs in Isaiah?” Ensign, Feb. 1996, 63–64

How do we explain the mention of “satyrs,” commonly regarded as mythical creatures, in 2 Nephi 23:21 and Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14?

Stephen Ricks, professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and associate dean of General Education and Honors, Brigham Young University.

The word satyr or satyrs occurs twice in the King James Version, both times in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah, speaking of the fate of Babylon, says that “wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there” (Isa. 13:21; 2 Ne. 23:21). In another passage about judgment against the wicked, we read, “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest” (Isa. 34:14).

The rich and subtle development of the English language is reflected in the King James translation of the Bible, where words are sometimes used in senses different from those we normally associate with them today. For example, the word unicorn is found several times in the King James Version. Unicorn is understood in modern English to refer to a mythical beast, but unicorn is used in the King James Version as a translation of the Greek Septuagint word monokeros (“single horn”), probably in the sense of “rhinoceros.” (King James translators frequently used the Septuagint to aid them in their work.)

Similarly, in contemporary English the word satyr usually refers to a mythical creature. In Greek mythology, a satyr was a creature of the hills and woods, half man and half animal, who followed Dionysus and Pan. In Roman art the satyr regularly appeared with goat legs and horns (Anthony S. Mercatante, “Satyrs,” The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, New York: Facts on File, 1988, p. 575). The animal’s association with goat features may have influenced King James translators to select the word in the two Isaiah passages. The Hebrew word translated satyr may, according to most recent dictionaries, mean “hairy” (this word is used in Gen. 27:11 to describe Esau), “he-goat,” “hairy one,” “hairy being,” and “demon” with “he-goat’s form” (Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1958, p. 926).

The translator’s task is to select the word or phrase that best represents in another language the meaning in the original language. It is likely that the word satyr was selected by the King James translators because they expected that the English-speaking readers of their day would recognize the word’s associations with goats or goatlike creatures.

Many recent translations of the passages in Isaiah render satyr as “goat” or “wild goat.” In the New International Version, for example, Isaiah 13:21 [Isa. 13:21] reads: “But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about.”

The mention of satyrs in Isaiah 34:14 [Isa. 34:14] presents an image both vivid and apt. Isaiah’s warning against the wicked includes graphic depictions of desolation. The haunting image of wild desert animals and satyrs (in either sense, goatlike creatures or demons) inhabiting man’s smoking, forsaken ruins is consistent with the tone, portent, and symbolism of Isaiah’s message. This imagery heightens the pathos of the Lord’s judgment against the wicked and the irony of the reversal of order. As Victor L. Ludlow notes: “Having banished men from the area, the Lord transforms their cities and dwellings into nests for birds and dens for animals so that instead of these cities standing as monuments of human achievement, they become memorials of foolish ambition” (Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982, p. 310).

Apparently, the King James translators, as well as the Prophet Joseph Smith, appreciated the literary value and symbolic nature of Isaiah’s prophetic style enough to preserve those qualities, and the word satyr, in translation.

Certainly the Prophet Joseph Smith could have rendered a plainer, more literal translation of satyrs—one that would not lead literalist modern readers to wonder whether goat demons really exist—but the translation apparently was “sufficiently plain to suit my purpose” (D&C 128:18), as Joseph said of another Biblical verse he quoted. A comment by Robert J. Matthews, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and author of A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible—A History and Commentary, is instructive:

“It is evident that Joseph Smith was closely allied to the text of the King James Version. … That doesn’t mean that he copied it from the Bible, but that he might have relied upon the language of the King James Version as a vehicle to express the general sense of what was on the gold plates” (Ensign, Mar. 1980, p. 40).