The Authorized Version of the Scriptures has many puzzling terms that often confuse us in the modern age. It references creatures like unicorns, dragons, and cockatrices. Most of the time it is a simple misunderstanding. For example, unicorn is just the historic English term for a rhinoceros.
One term does cause some puzzlement for many and that comes from Isaiah 34:14 (also Isaiah 13:21).
“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.”
Now, many today understand the “satyr” to be a half-man, half-goat creature from Greek and Roman mythology. Is this what Isaiah meant? Is this what the King James translators meant?
The Hebrew term for satyr is sa’iyr (I’ll use transliteration for simplicity). It is most often used in the Old Testament to describe simply a male goat. However, a few times it is used in a more supernatural fashion. For example, Leviticus 17:7 says:
“And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.”
The term is translated similarly in modern translation of Lev. 17:7 as “goat demons” (ESV, NASB) and “goat idols” (NIV).
The “sa’iyr” is also used in Gen. 27:11 to describe Esau as “hairy” (i.e. goat-like).
Looking at all the data we find that sacrifices were made to this “sa’iyr”, so it seems that it was also used as a pagan god as well. This goat-god is probably where we get the mythological “satyr”. As well, the term came to be used for someone hairy and animalistic and came to be used to describe someone that had an insatiable sexual drive.
Due to the association with sacrifices, many believe the term came to be also used to describe a goat-demon that lived in the desert and they believe this is what Isaiah is talking about. If you look at the context of Isaiah 34 (and 13), it is talking about judgment and destruction. So, this goat-like creature will cry to his fellows to join in the party of the destruction. With that in mind, it makes sense that this is talking about some sort of malevolent goat-like creature, whether a literal animal or simply a demon. It is not a good thing for these “sa’iyr”s to be around. This seems to be implying more than a normal “goat”. This could be why the KJV translators chose “satyr” instead of simply “goat”.
Here is how the LXX translates this word:
And devils shall meet with satyrs, and they shall cry one to the other: there shall satyrs rest, having found for themselves a place of rest.
(Breton’s English translation of LXX)
The Greek term in the LXX is ὀνοκενταύροις, which is translated onocentaur. That means a centaur with the body of a donkey instead of a horse. A mythological creature, not simply a male goat.
The Vulgate has a similar rendering:
“And demons and monsters shall meet, and the hairy ones shall cry out one to another, there hath the lamia lain down, and found rest for herself.”
(Douay-Rheims English translation of the Vulgate)
Historically, this verse had a more supernatural interpretation to it than the way moderns translate it. Whether they are correct or not can be disputed, but the KJV is following the established traditional understanding of the verse as some sort of goat-like demon creature. Remember this is a judgment passage and all manner of chaos is going on. Whether the term means “goat” or “goat-demon”, the point of the passage is that this is not a place you will want to go. There will be wild animals and possibly even demons there. God has judged that place and destroyed it and you should stay away from there.
Calvin explains it quite well in his commentary on the passage:
14. And the wild beasts shall meet with the satyrs. These animals are thought by some commentators to mean fauns, by others screechowls or goblins, and by others satyrs; and it is not fully agreed what is the exact meaning of the Hebrew words; but it would serve no good purpose to give ourselves much uneasiness about them, for it is quite enough if we understand the meaning and design of the Prophet. He draws a picture of frightful desolation, as if he had said that Idumea shall be destroyed so as to be without inhabitants, and instead of men it shall be inhabited by frightful beasts. This reward is most justly reaped by the ambition of those who built costly palaces to be, as we have already said, monuments of their name and reputation. Yet this is also a punishment threatened against the cruelty of a wicked nation, which was eagerly bent on the oppression of neighbours and brethren.
Though we cannot absolutely determine whether the Prophet means witches, or goblins, or satyrs and fauns, yet it is universally agreed that these words denote animals which have the shape of men. We see also what various delusions are practiced by Satan, what phantoms and hideous monsters are seen, and what sounds and noises are heard. But of these we have already spoken under the thirteenth chapter.
The sin which God punished so severely in a single nation, is common to almost every nation; for hardly ever are those splendid buildings reared without committing much violence and injustice against the poor, and giving great and numerous annoyances to others; so that the lime, and stones, and timber, are filled with blood in the sight of God. Therefore, as Habakkuk says,
“the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall bear witness to it.” (Habakkuk 2:11.)
Let us not wonder, therefore, at those dreadful changes, when ambition lays hold on plunder and wicked extortions, but let us contemplate the righteous judgments of God.