Satyr Head in Profile

12. Pendant: Satyr Head in Profile

Accession Number83.AO.202.1
Date525–480 B.C.
DimensionsHeight: 65 mm; width: 68 mm; depth: 35 mm; Weight: 53.4 g
SubjectsDionysos, cult of (also Satyr); Inclusions
View in Collection


–1983, Antike Kunst Palladion (Basel, Switzerland); 1983, Vasek Polak, 1914–97 (Hermosa Beach, CA), donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1983.


Small sections in the hair at the front top and reverse of the head are broken off. The amber surface is in poor condition, with an extensive network of cracking and loss, mostly on the reverse. The surface is fragile, with many loose flakes; some surface flake losses are 1 mm deep. Before the pendant entered the Getty Museum, the surface was treated with a surface consolidant, likely in an attempt to strengthen it. (This probably contributed to the overall cracking pattern, causing further surface deterioration and shrinkage.) In ambient light, the pendant is light to dark brown, with some areas of translucency. In the places where modern chips have exposed the interior, it is dark orange and translucent. In transmitted light, the amber is bright red-orange. There are various inclusions.


The pendant is a large piece of amber, relatively flat on the reverse and rounded on the obverse. It represents the head and partial neck of a satyr in profile, facing right. The short, rounded forehead is modeled with a brow ridge and an eyefold in a manner close to the appearance of a human. The almond-shaped eye is plastically modeled, following the curve of the head. The eyeball area is recessed from the upper and lower lids. The lids are represented as filletlike lines and are of equal thickness. The upper lid line is more arched than the lower one, and overlaps it at the outer canthus. The short, upturned nose is deeply indented at the root, is rounded at the tip, and includes carefully modeled wings and nares. Rather small in proportion to the rest of the face, the long, teardrop-shaped ear is plastically modeled; the tip is acute.

A long mustache begins just under the nose. It is articulated with sweeping engraved lines, curving at the upper part and more horizontal below. The mustache overlaps the beard. The beard juts forward and ends in a rounded point. Closely engraved lines, straighter in front and more curved at the jaw, represent the beard hairs. A shallow ridge marks it off clearly from both the face and the neck. Just below the lower lip of the small mouth is carved a small patch of beard.

In front of the ear and surrounding the face are two rows of hair rolls, separated by a raised, filletlike line. At the forehead, the hair rolls bulge slightly, giving them the impression of volume. The lines defining the hairs in the bangs section are curved, the upper ones tilting slightly to the right and the lower ones slightly to the left. Behind the top row is another raised line, perhaps a fillet, defining the rolls from the crown portion of the hair. The cap of the hair is plain and follows the shape of the amber nodule to suggest the form of the skull. An engraved line separates it from the hair at the back of the head. The sweep of hair is modeled, with the midsection the most prominent. It is defined with nine horizontal rows separated by parallel curving grooves. Each of the rows is further described by short, finely engraved lines, giving the impression of coils of tightly curled hair pulled into a low-hanging bun. The neck is long and smooth and connects to a tiny section of the shoulder.

The idiosyncratic form of the pendant suggests that the carver closely followed the natural shape of the cleaned piece of amber. The head and neck are skillfully adapted to the surface’s irregularities. On the obverse is an indentation at the top of the head and a shallow groove at the top of the beard line on the cheek, and on the reverse, a long smoothed groove at the back of the head. There are no visible tool marks because of the severe cupping of the surface.

In the break are the remains of a shallow, drilled groove, all that is left of the suspension perforation. There are four stopped bores: two on the obverse—one at the point where the beard meets the neck, another at the base of the ear—and two on the reverse, at the back of the head and at the neck. The two on the obverse retain their plugs (which are darker in color than the surrounding amber). When hung, the head would have fallen into position with the nose upward.


This is one of the largest and most finely worked of all extant pre-Roman figured ambers. It has no exact parallel. Satyrs are the second most common subjects of head-pendants and date from the late sixth to the late fourth century. This profile head-pendant of a satyr and the other head-pendant of a satyr in the Getty collection (, cat. no. 13) are among the earliest portrayals of the subject in amber. They are also the two most common types, the profile head-pendant and the frontal face. Only a trio of satyr heads in a New York private collection is earlier.1 The Getty and New York satyrs are of three different types and styles and reveal three different traditions of satyr illustration.

The two best comparisons for 83.AO.202.1 are the satyrs of two ambers in London: Satyr and Maenad (BM 35) and Vintaging Satyr (BM 36).2 Both British Museum satyrs have small noses and mouths similar to those of the Getty head-pendant, and both 83.AO.202.1 and one of the British Museum satyrs (BM 35) sport luxuriant, long mustaches and extremely neat beards of rather short and straight hair (vertically delineated), barbered in two tiers. The two figures’ coiffures are also similar, typified by a full bang that is longer in front of the ears. The mustache of BM 36 is less full and shorter, his beard more pointed, his hair shorter, and instead of a plastically rendered eye, his is hollowed out and flat, as for an inlay.

The reverse or main side of BM 35 is a figural group that includes a dancing pair, a nude bearded male and a draped female, with a young fawn leaping up between them; on the obverse is a large bearded snake, coiled and upright. The finial is a dolphin. BM 35 has been variously identified: Donald Strong called it a satyr and maenad (even if the male figure does not have pointed ears, hooves, or a tail), and it was formerly identified as Artemis and Zeus and as Artemis and a giant. In the view of this author, the main figures are better read as Bacchic revelers, with the male figure wearing the mask of Dionysos. The bearded snake may be a symbol of the spirit of the dead, or it may act as a chthonic symbol that refers to Dionysos (and perhaps Orphism). BM 36 represents a figure with normal ears (it is also hoofless and tailless), accompanied by a wineskin and grapes, crowded in the amber with a pointed amphora and a vine, and on the reverse, a coiled and rearing bearded serpent. The figure may represent a satyr, but it is more likely that he, too, is a Bacchic reveler wearing the mask of “the god, who does not appear.” The bearded, coiled snake on the reverse may also refer to the chthonic Dionysos. For the initiated, the imagery of BM 36 may have conjured up Dionysos’s mythic vineyard on Naxos, the wine of which was divine and held the promise of eternal life.3 Reveling dancers are the subject of nine other carved amber pendants. Single male dancers ornament pendants in Boston and New York,4 and single female dancers are the subject of many more pendants, including three from excavated graves in South Italy—one from Oliveto Citra and two from the Rutigliano-Purgatorio Necropolis (one is armed).5 In addition to BM 35, a high-stepping couple is the subject of an amber pendant in the Louvre.6

The active pose of 83.AO.202.1 is demonstrated by the forward position of the head and neck as well as by the satyr’s hair, streaming out behind him. Parallels for the head position are numerous; it is characteristic of many Attic black-figure painters and is a hallmark of the Etruscan black-figure vase painter known as the Micali Painter. The Attic examples include the active satyrs on an aryballos by Nearchos, three dancing satyrs on an amphora in the manner of the Lysippides Painter (an aulos-playing satyr on side A and a pair on side B, where one crushes grapes and the other attempts an abduction of a nymph), the dancers on an amphora by the Painter of Cambridge 47, and the ithyphallic harvester on an Amasis Painter amphora.7 The beard and hair of 83.AO.202.1 are most similar to those of the satyrs of the Amasis Painter and the Micali Painter. The Etruscan master’s rendering of the hair and beards of his fast-moving, ithyphallic satyrs—the dancing, aulos-playing, and running satyrs of Louvre CA 3185, the racers on his amphorae in Baltimore and Palermo, and those on the column krater in Berlin—are especially similar.8

Etruscan artisans working in bronze and in ivory refined the millennia-old manner of indicating fast movement—the stretching out of bodies with hair flying out behind. The rendering of the acrobats’ hair on a tripod excavated at Vulci and the running figure of Perseus on a tripod foot from Orvieto are two outstanding parallels mirroring the speedy satyr of 83.AO.202.1. P. J. Riis has attributed these bronzes to his Group of the Mainz Censer, the earliest one of which he describes as “Late Ionizing (Late Ripe Archaic) or early Late Archaic.”9 The motif is current in ivory and bone carvings of male figures engaged in strenuous activities: driving chariots, wrestling, or fighting sea monsters.10

Many of the descriptive details of 83.AO.202.1—the very fine striations of the hair and beard, the tongue of hair beneath the lower lip, and the form of the eye—draw it close to the design and cold working of a group of bronzes thought to be Northern Etruscan, perhaps Chiusine, from about 500–480 B.C.: (1) a banqueter in London (British Museum GR 1831,1201.1); (2) the “Herakles” from Contarina (Rovigo); (3) the “Fufluns” in Modena; and (4) the Getty Statuette of Tinia.11 83.AO.202.1 is also very close to a group of Vulcian bronzes first brought together by Mario Del Chiaro (but which are for Riis part of his extended Mainz Censer group, as noted above).12 Del Chiaro’s group includes sirens, satyrs, and acrobats, in addition to the Cortona lamp.

83.AO.202.1 and the two Dionysiac ambers in London, BM 35 and BM 36, are strikingly similar to the earliest pseudo-scarabs made in Italy. Strong was the first to connect the figure of BM 36 with a cornelian in Boston,13 on the back of which is a splayed, bearded Dionysos that “immediately argues a close stylistic connection with a whole group of S. Italian ambers. Other examples of such pseudo-scarabs, a number of which are in the British Museum, exhibit several of the same characteristic elements of style.”14 Strong thought the group to be South Italian, very probably Campanian, especially BM 459, which is made of sard, with a siren on the scarab side and Apollo(?) on the flat.15 J. D. Beazley, writing earlier, was more cautious about the London sard: “The style of the stone may perhaps be called Etruscan rather than Greek. If it is Etruscan, it is one of the earliest Etruscan gems.”16 P. Zazoff, J. Boardman, and, most recently, J. Spier have noted the key role of the Master of the Boston Dionysos (as he is now called) in the story of gem engraving in Etruria.17 Two silver objects from Lydian Usak have suggested to Spier a possible explanation for the immigrant master’s training in a specific East Greek atelier.18 Boardman’s latest thoughts on the gem cutter are relevant for 83.AO.202.1:

Other gems by the same artist (Master of the Boston Dionysos) have their backs detailed in an “Etruscan” manner, and the style of the figures—stocky, big-headed, flat-footed in stance—is very close to that of peripheral Etruscan work in bronze and stone (as the Volterra stelai). This does not mean that the artist was not a Greek, since we may only be witnessing the establishment in Etruria of an immigrant and highly individual Greek style. But it is not one as yet well attested in the west so, whatever his nationality, the artist might be considered the first of the “Etruscan” gem engravers. There are later and still purely Greek works made in the west which contributed to the development of the local studios.19

Was a gem engraver or bronze worker responsible for 83.AO.202.1, as might have been the case for earlier figured ambers? Was the head-pendant made in Vulci? Might it even have been made by the Master of the Boston Dionysos?

In spite of its state of preservation, this satyr is a striking object. The large size of the piece of amber and the exquisite artisanry of 83.AO.202.1 must have occasioned admiration from the day it was finished. In its function as an amulet, it may have been considered “homopoeic,” meaning that through assimilation it would endow the wearer with the subject’s characteristics, the swift and nimble satyr promising its owner fleetness of foot, the ability to speed away from danger or pain, as would a hare amulet. It may have been considered especially lucky, the magic and potency of the image being enhanced by the material. Satyrs were apotropaic images that could work on the “like banishes like” principle. An “active” satyr could call up the god Dionysos, the dance, and the ceremonies of sacrifice. Tied onto the body, in life or in death, such an amulet could place the wearer under the protection of Dionysos.

Since satyrs were not just useless hedonists but were also understood to be wise and to be participants in religious ritual as servants of Dionysos (Strabo),20 “accomplished in dancing and in secret rites or initiations of Dionysos” (as described by Eustathios),21 the pendant may have been involved in related activities. Etruscan funerary rites were not complete without the dances of reanimation, which took place at the cremation or burial place. Dancing satyrs are endlessly depicted on vases found in tombs throughout Italy, notably in Archaic Etruria. On the Micali Painter’s famous vase of a funeral procession, satyrs figure prominently, dancing among veiled women, important insignia-bearing personages, and others. As Jean-René Jannot notes, the most archaic Etruscan illustrations of sacrifice “place very odd sacrificants in the scene: Sileni and satyrs, who impart a Dionysiac atmosphere, or at least invoke the savage character of the sacrificial act.”22

If the head-pendant were sufficient to represent the whole and the satyr was understood as dancing, the subject may have alluded to the ceremonies of the funeral and reanimation through death. If the satyr were abstracted from an activity such as vintaging and the image understood to be a “quote,” the Getty Satyr Head in Profile could allude to Dionysos’s magic vineyard on Naxos. If the satyr were completed as ithyphallic, the pendant may have called up the phallic aspect of Dionysiac religion, and the head-pendant could have alluded to Dionysos Oipholios. Then again, 83.AO.202.1 may have conjured up a specific episode in Dionysian myth—the arrival of Dionysos by sea, or the union of Dionysos and Ariadne. Certainly, the amber’s optical characteristics, recalling the rejuvenating sun or the color and sparkle of wine, would have been especially apt in underlining an association with the divinity for one of Dionysos’s servants.

That 83.AO.202.1 is of amber, the golden “tear” of Phaethon’s mourning sisters transformed into poplars, may be of special relevance for this head-pendant. If the gloss in the late lexicon of Harpocration is to be believed, that those who were initiated into the “Bacchic rites” (Bakkhika) were crowned with a wreath of white poplar “because the tree is chthonic, and chthonic also is Dionysos, the son of Persephone,”23 what better material for an adherent to wear than Phaethonic amber?


  1. Unpublished.
  2. , pp. 61–63, nos. 35–36, pls. XV–XVI. BM 36 is said to come from Canosa. The provenance of BM 35 is confused. Rival stories have it found at Ruvo, Armento, and Canosa. Ibid., p. 63, records the existence of another amber satyr, referring to Schultz (Bullettino dell’Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica 1843, p. 39), who “mentioned a fragment of a similar piece in the collection of Signor de Jorio, who also had an amber ram and a lion from the Basilicata.”
  3. , pp. 86–87, n. 149.
  4. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 02.2547 (“from Palestrina”); New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.11.4, Purchase, Renée and Robert A. Belfer Philanthropic Foundation, Patti Cadby Birch, and The Joseph Rosen Foundation Inc. Gifts, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1992.
  5. For the Oliveto Citra dancer (Paestum, Museo Nazionale OC/00082), see , pp. 129, 133, fig. 84; and P. C. Sestieri, “Ambra intagliata da Oliveto Citra,” 4 (1952): 16, pl. 14. For the Rutigliano-Purgatorio Necropolis dancing figures, see , p. 199, fig. 7.6.
  6. The Louvre amber of a couple, Bj 2253, is unpublished.
  7. See the figures on an amphora in London (Fitzwilliam Museum GR.26.1864) by the Painter of Cambridge 47, and on an amphora by the Amasis Painter in Würzburg (Martin von Wagner Museum 265).
  8. For Louvre CA 3185 (from Vulci), see , p. 7, no. 3, fig. 1; for the Early II amphora in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery 48.7, from Castel Campanile), ibid., p. 10, no. 27, fig. 5; for the Middle I amphora in Palermo (Museo Archeologico Regionale 1498, from Chiusi), ibid., p. 13, no. 55, fig. 11a; for the “late” column crater in Berlin (Staatliche Museen F4204), ibid., p. 28, no. 184, fig. 31a–b.
  9. , pp. 42–52. Does this manner of painting derive from Laconian vase painting? Compare the flowing hair of the speeding harpy on the Boread Painter’s name piece in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (a vase found in Etruria) and that of the flying figure on a cup fragment by the Arkesilas Painter from the Samian Heraion (Berlin, Staatliche Museen 478x).
  10. Compare, for example, the bone plaque of a charioteer in a biga pulled by winged horses from Tomb 15, the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis, Orvieto (M. Bizzarri, Le necropoli di Crocifisso del Tufo in Orvieto [Orvieto, 1963], p. 85) and the small plaques from a chest in Paris (Louvre S. 2028: , p. 208, figs. 1–4; and A. Hus, Les Etrusques: Peuple secret [Paris, 1957], pp. 66–68).
  11. The “Herakles” from Contarina (Rovigo) is Adria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 9996; the “Fufluns” is Modena, Galleria Estense 12505; the Statuette of Tinia is Getty Museum 55.AB.12 (, p. 133; ; and , pp. 219–23).
  12. M. Del Chiaro, Etruscan Art from West Coast Collections (Santa Barbara, 1976), pp. 12–13, no. 64. Close in spirit and technique is a small bronze in the Thorwaldsen Museum: T. Melander, Thorvaldsens antikker—en temmelig udvagt samling (Copenhagen, 1993), pp. 116–17, no. 93.
  13. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 21.197.
  14. , p. 31.
  15. Ibid.
  16. J. D. Beazley, The Lewes House Collection of Ancient Gems (Oxford, 1920), p. 8.
  17. See , pp. 153, 420; J. Spier, “From East Greece to Etruria: A Late Sixth-Century B.C. Gem Workshop,” in , pp. 333–35; , pp. 162–63; , pp. 17–24; and , pp. 63–78. Beazley 1920 (in n. 16, above), pp. 31–33, was the first to note the connection between carved amber pendants and the pseudo-scarabs. See also , p. 31; and , p. 286, n. 94. was the first to suggest that Early Etruscan amber scaraboids were carved by gem engravers.
  18. Spier 2000 (in n. 17, above), p. 335.
  19. , p. 153.
  20. , p. 168, nn. 83–84, refers to Strabo (10.3.11 [C 468]) and cites R. Seaford, “On the Origins of Satyric Drama,” Maia 28 (1976): 214–15. Seaford draws the conclusion that the satyrs reflect initiatory practices.
  21. , p. 168, referring to R. Seaford, Euripides: Cyclops, and to Eustathios on Homer’s Iliad 1.311.25.
  22. , p. 41.
  23. The reference to Harpocration (s.v. “leuke”) comes from W. Burkert Greek Religion, trans. J. Raffan (Cambridge, MA, 1985), p. 294, n. 13. For the translation, see F. Graf, “Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology,” in Masks of Dionysus, ed. T. H. Carpenter and C. Faraone (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1993), p. 244. In the Suda, s.v. “leuke” (“poplar”; Adler no. λ 319), “Those celebrating the Bacchic rites used to be crowned with white poplar because the plant is from the nether world and the Dionysos of Persephone, too, is from the nether world. He [Harpocration] says that the white poplar grew by the [river] Acheron, which is why in Homer it is called acherois.”


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