- Oct 2018
But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.
Robert Shore, The San Dominick, 1965 Something similar to the "ample oval" appears to be on the visible side of the ship, just in front of the stern. The figures are, unfortunately, indiscernible.
The iconography lends itself to multiple interpretations, and stands out as one of the few overtly ekphrastic passages in the novella. The subjugated figure in the image is not described as human or animal, simply as "writhing" - struggling against the satyr's dominance. This figure would seem to represent both an allegory for and a critique of slavery -- the prostrate figure being the slave. However, the "dark satyr" in Greco-Roman mythology is a hybrid man-beast, associated with what in Melville's time would be considered animalistic passions including revelry, madness, violence, and lust. Given Delano's repeated, obtuse descriptions of slaves in animalistic terms, this is one clue that suggests the satyr represents, if not the slaves themselves, then the reversal of power that has taken place on board the ship. It may also reflect the institution of slavery, which, regardless of who is master and who is slave, is fundamentally immoral and based on violence. This ambiguity is heightened by fact that both figures are masked; neither Delano nor Melville's readers are able to see their faces, and, this would suggest, their races.