Deep in the forest: Silvanus and Faunus

Recently, I’ve been wondering about Silvanus, Faunus, and Pan. The former has been an interest of mine for some time, though I haven’t added Him to my religious life (at least not yet); the latter two are a recent focus, but all three inevitably raise the issue of who’s who: one god or different ones?

Historically, the interpretatio has been diverse. In late sources, Silvanus and Faunus were equated, as indicated by Peter Dorcey in his Cult of Silvanus (1992, 34). According to the same scholar, Augustine’s reference to a childbirth ritual in Civitas Dei intended to ward off Silvanus may also derive from a confusion between Him and Faunus, but I’ll get to that later. Earlier sources are no less complex, since they appear to refer to the two gods interchangeably, but then there are also cases of distinction: Martial mentions altars to Silvanus and trees of Faunus (Epigrams X:92). And then Cato speaks of Mars-Silvanus (De Agricultura 83), leaving us to guess if it was a syncretic deity or a form of Mars that protected the cattle. Unsurprisingly, in a religion with no orthodoxy, beliefs on the nature and identity of the Gods were diverse.

There’s also a problem of sources: a lot of the information on Faunus comes from written works, not all of them from the same period and place, whereas Silvanus is largely attested in archaeological remains, with over one thousand known inscriptions and most of them from Italy. The former is known to have had a place in Rome’s public religion, while the latter is not. Greek influence is also a factor, since it dates back to the early period of Roman religion. So it is with all of this in mind that I attempt to organize my thoughts on the matter and explain them in an understandable fashion.

Some cultores argue that Silvanus is a god of the deep wood, wild and dark, while Faunus is a more approachable rustic deity. This is not without reason: the term silva may imply an untamed woodland and the latter of the two deities is said to have a female counterpart, Fauna, mentioned as His sister, wife, or even daughter and sometimes equated with Bona Dea. Plus, there is Augustine’s reference to a domestic ritual, supposedly taken from Varro, where women who have just gone through childbirth are protected from Silvanus by three gods represented by an axe, a pestle, and a broom. He adds: “because trees are not cut down nor pruned without iron, and grain is not ground without a pestle, and produce is not gathered without a broom.” The intent, and again I quote, is to repel “the harsh, terrible, crude deity of the forest with the symbols of agriculture” (Civitas Dei, 6:9). Yet one look at Silvanus’ iconography should, at the very least, makes us doubt Augustine’s claim.

Silvanus 02Surviving images of the god often depict Him with a sickle or a falx, which was used to prune or cut vegetation. It’s an instrument of agriculture, which is reinforced by the occasional depiction of Him with an animal skin full of food – a horn of plenty of sorts. Plus, He was also considered a protector of the home, boundaries, fields, and was even called Lar Agrestis (Dorsey 1992, 22-5). So what’s the point of driving away Silvanus with an axe when He’s depicted carrying a similar tool? And why should He be repelled by the symbols of agriculture? Perhaps, as Peter Dorcey suggests, it is Faunus who should be seen as a threat to women or maybe Augustine misrepresented an old ritual to Silvanus (1992, 37).

There’s more to be drawn from the god’s iconography: He’s sometimes depicted with a dog, which can be both a guardian of the home or farm (remember the Lar Agrestis), but also a companion to those who venture into the woodland in search of game; He’s shown naked in some images, but in a bucolic fashion, like Hercules and other heroes, and not in an erotic way. Even when He’s represented with the silvanae or female Nature spirits, He commonly appears more like a fatherly figure and less like an aroused chaser. And the underlying idea to all of this seems to be that of a sober woodland deity who is well-disposed towards those who enter His deep-green abode and will also extend His action to the settlements around the forest. You could probably say that He will respect and keep your home if you keep and respect His. Sustainable silviculture, in other words.


Pompeii's Faun

Pompeii’s Faun

The iconography of Faunus is less abundant and written sources hardly allow for a distinction between Him and Pan (assuming They’re different). Like His Greek counterpart, Faunus is described as having prophetic gifts, sexually chasing women and nymphs, causing noises and nocturnal panic (even nightmares), accompanying shepherds, and appearing on the field of battle. Like Pan, He should not be disturbed at noon, but the caprine features are not as common: Ovid mentions a pede duro or hard foot, perhaps a hoof (Fasti IV), but if Pompeii’s House of the Faun is correctly named after the statue in its interior, then it depicts a fully human faun and not a half-goat. It may be a rare glimpse of an earlier stage of the syncretisation process, but it may also reflect a Roman taste for the full anthropomorphic form. In any case, the stance is one of revelry.

It’s hard to reach a conclusion, if that’s even possible or advisable in such matters. That Silvanus and Faunus are both forest gods and share a sacred tree – the pine – should not mean that They’re one and the same: as Green wrote in her study on the cult of Diana at Aricia (2007, 73), there is “an unstated assumption that a special function or field of responsibility could belong to one god only (…). Yet polytheism had no such artificial boundaries and in itself encourages multiple divinities with overlapping responsibilities.”

Silvanus’ iconography reveals a different god from Faunus/Pan, something reinforced by Latin authors: linked to both home and field, He appears as a more sober forest deity who’s friendly to human activity. Faunus, however, at least as He comes to us in the written sources, is a more ecstatic god, which is probably no surprise considering His oracular ability. He’s the life of the wild party, so to speak, with the resulting madness and revelry, sexual or otherwise. And because of that wildness, He’s also less tamed and more prone to be a trickster. That doesn’t mean that He’s unfriendly, just that He does things His own way and it may not always be ours. So why did He have a temple in Rome and Silvanus did not? Maybe because the equating of Faunus with Pan enriched His legends and enhanced His status among the Hellenized elites, whereas Silvanus, lacking a clear Greek counterpart, remained more obscure. Or perhaps the latter is simply more rural, while the former’s untamed nature allows Him to be more versatile, enough at least to be an urban dweller as well and even if His temple was on an island, as if to control Him.

Is Faunus Pan? Perhaps. Perhaps the statue from Pompeii is just a case of different outer clothing for an identical inner nature. They could just be similar, but for the moment I am inclined to believe They’re the same. Of course, I could be wrong and may change my opinion in the future.


8 thoughts on “Deep in the forest: Silvanus and Faunus

  1. Pingback: Back like Nero « The House of Vines

  2. Wonderful. Thank you for this post. Before I became a cultore and had read much on the subject of Silvanus I had a couple of small encounters with him. In fact, at that time I knew nothing about him other than his name. From those encounters I had come to the same conclusion as Dorcey about his nature. The jury is still out on Faunus and Pan, at least for me.

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