Unicorns, giants and fairies, the UFOs of antiquity, have yet to turn up in any archaeologist's overturned shovel. Aside from their frequent appearances on ancient frescoes, statuary and artwork, such fanciful creatures of mythology don't have a clear origin, although some have linked the mermaid to lonely sailors glimpsing dugongs (also known as sea cows) in the distance, and making a giant leap.
But a recent discovery in an Iranian salt mine, suggests one scholar, may shed light on the origins of a famous satyr of antiquity, one so well-known that it merited a visit from the emperor himself. The satyr was a goat-man in Greek legend who danced and frolicked, playing pipes and chasing nymphs all day, living in a woodsy version of the Playboy Mansion.
In June, a man's body, naturally mummified within an ancient salt mine, was found in the Chehr-?b?d salt mine outside the Iranian city of Zanj?n. Six such discoveries have been made since 1993, according to the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS) foundation based in London. Past salt man finds go back as far as 540 BC, around the time of the ancient Achaemenid dynasty. Archaeologists treasure natural mummy discoveries, such as "Otzi" the ice-entombed man preserved in an Alpine glacier and uncovered in 1991, because preservation of soft tissues, even beards in the case of the salt men, allows for investigation with DNA analysis and other tools of forensics
Stanford University's Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist, specializes in analyzing how fossil discoveries in prehistory may have led to legends such as the Titans of Greek mythology (botched reconstructions of mammoth bones) or mystic water serpents in Native American legends (fossilized fish-tailed crocodiles preserved in desert rock deposits.)
As far back as the era of the great Roman emperor Constantine, who reigned from the year 312 to 337, cities had their own special attractions, Mayor explains. The early Christian writer, St. Jerome (the patron saint of librarians in the Roman Catholic Church who died in the year 420) recounted that Constantine made a special trip from Constantinople (today Istanbul) to Antioch, once a great city of his empire, to view an exhibit of a "satyr" that had been extremely well preserved in salt.
In an earlier book, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Mayor suggested that the "satyr" was likely a faked patched-together body of a man and goat. But now she thinks the recently discovered salt man might provide another explanation. "Obviously, satyrs are mythic creatures," Mayor says. But the head of the man preserved in salt since about 540-300 BC, "bears a striking resemblance to ancient Greek and Roman depictions of satyrs," she says, which are depicted with similar hair and beard, a snub nose and protruding jaw.
"I think it's very likely that an ancient discovery of a similarly preserved "salt man" in northwestern Iran is the basis for St. Jerome's account of the 'satyr' preserved in salt and examined by the Emperor Constantine and numerous other curious visitors in Antioch," Mayor concludes.
Expert opinions are mixed. Roman historian Andrew Merrills of England's University of Leicester, says in an email, "Overall, it sounds like a great big 'maybe' to me. Interesting story, fabulous idea, but I wouldn't want to build too much of an argument on it." But Tufts University archaeologist Bruce Hitchner calls the idea credible.
The 540 B.C. salt man from Iran most resembles an elderly satyr figure commonly seen in Greek art, called Silenus, says Mayor. Silenus was usually depicted with long golden hair, a beard, a bulging forehead, snub nose and an open mouth. Mayor suspects the early images of satyrs may have sprung from such discoveries, transformed into art (with the addition of a goat's body) in the stories of the travelers and traders of the ancient world.
"When I saw the picture of the salt man, I was just struck by how much like a satyr he looks," Mayors says. "Satyr plays were very popular in antiquity, so everyone knew what satyrs looked like. There's no reason to think people back then wouldn't have made the same connection."
Jerome mentions this, by the way, in his Life of Paulus the Hermit (chap 8). This salt man (which isn't the one mentioned above), does remind one of a satyr ...