The Great God Pan is Alive

Once, years ago, on a short walk in the Cévennes Mountains in the south of France, I came across one of those ferny ravines with a stream running through. It was a hot day, I had been walking for a w

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hile, and this fresh bubbling brook offered a cooling respite. I took off my shoes, soakedmy feet for a while, then lay back on the bank. I fell into one of those dreamy half sleeps. I was awake and could still hear clearly the riffles of the brook and, beyond the ravine, the incessant shushing sound of the cicadas, and far off, somewhere beyond the high walls, the distant clang of goat bells. Maybe I fell asleep.

Maybe I dreamed what came next, but suddenly there was a little cascade of rocks, and in the leafy tangle across the stream, I saw a bearded goatlike face, with loose lips, great curling horns, and a strangely human nose and mouth. I sat up abruptly to get a better look, but whatever it was ducked out of sight. In the dry valleys and hills of the Cévennes there were many little herds of goats and sheep; you could almost always hear their bells on the distant slopes, and sometimes in the late afternoons, you could hear the sharp whistles and shouts of the goatherds bringing down their charges for the evening milking. In fact, what I had seen probably was a goat. But I could not shake the thought that I had seen this face before somewhere. About an hour later, it came to me. It was the face of Pan, the Lord of the Wood, one of the ancient deities of this part of the world.

Of all the Greek and Roman gods and heroes, from Zeus to Athena, Apollo, and Artemis, Pan is the only one who would be instantly recognizable to people in the 21st century. He is the horned god who haunted the pre-Christian forests, the oldest and most powerful–half man, half goat, horns, beard, hooves, and shaggy limbs. He is the old Arcadian god of wild places, transformed by Christianity into the Archdemon himself, the Devil. Pan’s image is still with us, either in his devil form, or with his pipes as Pan himself. Pan has even come to the New World. I’ve seen him not five miles from my home, in a pine grove behind the tea garden at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, where there is a hideous, grinning statue of the lecherous goatman, my hero.

Born in Arcadia in the remote valleys and highlands where shepherds tended their flocks, Pan was the son of the nymph Penelope (not the wife of Odysseus, but a different Penelope). His father may have been no less a figure than Zeus, although in some accounts both Apollo and Hermes are contenders as well. In fact, it is rumored that all of Penelope’s various suitors managed to introduce some genetic material into this decidedly earthy god. Though the Greek word pan means ‘all,’ his name is more likely a contraction of the root word paon, which means herdsman and is the source of the English word pasture.

He is associated with wild nature and inhabits that untamed zone of forest and rock just beyond the village boundary. You go out to some wild place, some remote, rocky hillside, a rushing falls, and you stand there in awe, and then it hits you, a sense that something terrifying could happen here in this god-haunted site. That is Pan.

There is a Christian legend about Pan. In some versions it takes place at the birth of Christ, in others it occurs during his crucifixion, but all involve travelers, usually sailors on the Mediterranean Sea. As they approach the coast, the wind suddenly drops, the air thickens, the vessel is becalmed, and an odd stillness descends. All day the sailors wait, and then, toward evening, a great thundering voice rings out: ‘The Great God Pan is dead!’ Suddenly, from all the hills and streams, from the little hidden valleys, from temples and sacred groves, from mountain pastures and ferny cliffs, there rises a cry of lament, a vast outpouring of wailing and weeping and shrieking that echoes across the hills and valleys and spreads all across the land. Pan is dead.

After this event, the Greek oracles no longer prophesy accurately. The old gods of the classical world, the genies of all the old sacred sites, the nymphs of the wild places, the fauns and satyrs and centaurs, and all wild things fall silent. The Lord of the Wood is dead, and the new king’s domain is not earth but heaven. The old order dies with Pan, giving way to a heaven-inspired mystic religion spread by the followers of Christ.

‘Pan is dead, the Great God Pan is dead,’ is a phrase that was picked up and used by poets and playwrights, and it is probably true that the classical world, of which Pan was so much a part, may be lost. In the museums, parks, and gardens of Europe, you can see the graven images of all these forgotten gods and heroes, old Pan and Procreus, Artemis and Titan and Neptune, but half the tourists you encounter don’t know who is chasing whom and who got turned into a tree by whom, having been chased by which god. I include myself in this group, even though I grew up with these stories.

But is Pan dead? His image lives on. You can still find him everywhere in the modern world, even if he has to take the image of the devil himself. As for the real Pan, the spirit of the wild has never been so alive. Thoreau knew all about him and his fellow gods. On his first expedition to Mount Katahdin in Maine, Thoreau stopped short of the summit because he heard the Olympian gods thundering, ‘Why came you here before your time?’ Emerson and Hawthorne knew about Pan, and so did all the 19th century American landscape painters. The spirit of Pan was effectively reborn in the wilds of America, these wilderness ‘temples,’ as John Muir called them.

Pan is still with us if you know how to look. And you don’t have to go west to find him. Just go out to a nearby woodland on a moonless night, bushwhack 30 yards into the thickets without a flashlight, and stand still for a few minutes and wait. He’ll be there.

From Orion (Winter 2001). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues, plus 4 issues of Orion Afield) from The Orion Society, 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.

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