Attic painted vases depict mature satyrs as being strongly built with flat noses, large pointed ears, long curly hair, and full beards, with wreaths of vine or ivy circling their balding heads. Satyrs often carry the thyrsus: the rod of Dionysus tipped with a pine cone.
Satyrs acquired their goat-like aspect through later Roman conflation with Faunus, a carefree Italic nature spirit of similar temperament. Hence satyrs are most commonly described in Latin literature as having the upper half of a man and the lower half of a goat, with a goat's tail in place of the Greek tradition of horse-tailed satyrs. Mature satyrs are often depicted in Roman art with goat's horns, while juveniles are often shown with bony nubs on their foreheads.
Satyrs are described as roguish but faint-hearted folk — subversive and dangerous, yet shy and cowardly. As Dionysiac creatures they are lovers of wine and women, and they are ready for every physical pleasure. They roam to the music of pipes (auloi), cymbals, castanets, and bagpipes, and they love to dance with the nymphs (with whom they are obsessed, and whom they often pursue), and have a special form of dance called sikinnis. Because of their love of wine, they are often represented holding winecups, and they appear often in the decorations on winecups.
Some satyrs are depicted as old. On painted vases and other Greek art, satyrs are represented in the three stages of a man's life: mature satyrs are bearded, and older ones are shown as fat and balding, both a humiliating and unbecoming disfigurement in Greek culture.
In earlier Greek art, satyrs appear as old and ugly, but in later art, especially in works of the Attic school, this savage characteristic is softened into a more youthful and graceful aspect.
This transformation or humanization of the Satyr appears throughout late Greek art. Another example of this shift occurs in the portrayal of Medusa and in that of the Amazon, characters who are traditionally depicted as barbaric and uncivilized. The compassionate representation of the Satyrs in a work of Praxiteles known as the "Resting Satyr" shows the level of Greek civilization and their desire to accept all types of people.
Older satyrs were known as sileni, the younger as satyrisci. The hare was the symbol of the shy and timid satyr. Greek spirits known as Calicantsars have a noticeable resemblance to the ancient satyrs; they have goats' ears and the feet of donkeys or goats, are covered with hair, and love women and the dance.
Although they are not mentioned by Homer, in a fragment of Hesiod's works they are called brothers of the mountain nymphs and Kuretes, strongly connected with the cult of Dionysus, and are an idle and worthless race. In the Dionysus cult, male followers are known as satyrs and female followers as maenads or bacchants.
In Attica there was a species of drama known as the legends of gods and heroes, and the chorus was composed of satyrs and sileni. In the Athenian satyr plays of the 5th century BC, the chorus commented on the action. This "satyric drama" burlesqued the serious events of the mythic past with lewd pantomime and subversive mockery. One complete satyr play from the 5th century survives, the Cyclops of Euripides.
Roman satyrs were conflated in the popular and poetic imagination with Latin spirits of woodland and with the rustic spirit Pan, called the Panes.
Roman satire is a literary form, a poetic essay that was a vehicle for biting, subversive social and personal criticism. Though Roman satire is sometimes linked to the Greek satyr plays, satire's only connection to the satyric drama is through the subversive nature of the satyrs themselves, as forces in opposition to urbanity, decorum, and civilization itself.
Some classical works depict young satyrs being tended to by older, sober satyrs, while there are also some representations of child satyrs taking part in Bacchanalian / Dionysian rituals (including drinking alcohol, playing musical instruments, and dancing).
The presence of a baby or child satyr in a classical work, such as on a Greek vase, was mainly an aesthetic choice on the part of the artist. However, the role of a child in Greek art might imply a further meaning for baby satyrs: Eros, the son of Aphrodite, is consistently represented as a child or baby, and Bacchus, the divine sponsor of satyrs, is seen in numerous works as a baby, often in the company of the satyrs. A prominent instance of a baby satyr outside ancient Greece is Albrecht Dürer's 1505 engraving, "Musical Satyr and Nymph with Baby (Satyr's Family)". There is also a Victorian period napkin ring depicting a baby satyr next to a barrel, which further represents the perception of baby satyrs as partaking in the Bacchanalian festivities. See Revivals, Reveries, and Reconstructions: Images of Antiquity in Prints from 1500 to 1800, an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There are also many works of art of the rococo period depicting child or baby satyrs in Bacchanalian celebrations. Some works depict female satyrs with their children; others describe the child satyrs as playing an active role in the events, including one instance of a painting by Jean Raoux (1677–1735). "Mlle Prévost as a Bacchante" depicts a child satyr playing a tambourine while Mlle Prévost, a dancer at the Opéra, is dancing as part of the Bacchanal festivities.
In the 17th century, the satyr legend came to be associated with stories of the orangutan, a great ape now found only in Sumatra and Borneo. Many early accounts which apparently refer to this animal describe the males as being sexually aggressive towards human women and towards females of its own species. The first scientific name given to this ape was Simia satyrus.