Pan: The God of All
By Jason Mankey, 2013
(As an aside, “Pan: The God of All” makes a great title for workshops and blog postings, but it’s not literally true. Also this is probably the oldest thing I’ve ever shared with a large audience, my writing has improved greatly since first putting this together many, many, years ago.)
In Modern Greek the word pan translates to “everything” or “all” but it’s much more likely that the god Pan derives his name from the Greek word root “pa” which translates to “Guardian of the flocks.” Pan’s first role has always been that of the shepherd, the guardian between civilization and the wild.
Pan has always been among the most popular of the ancient Greek gods, and the god-form that usually springs to mind when people talk about The Horned God, but that’s been a mixed blessing. Pan was extremely beloved in ancient Greece, and his image appears in lots of art, but he was an infrequent character in Greek mythology, and his cult never had the far-reaching impact that the cults of Dionysus, Athena, and Apollo had. While Pan was always invited to the party, he usually wasn’t the most popular guy there.
Most of what we know about the worship of Pan comes from sources outside of mythology. We know about his worship because of some letters and plays that have survived which provide general details about how he was venerated. Archeology has also been beneficial in revealing the truth about ancient Pan, but there is still a lot of color that needs to be added to get the full picture.
Pan hailed from the region in Greece known as Arcadia. To the ancient Greeks Arcadia was a magical, ancient place. They referred to it as the land “that existed before the moon,” and thought of it as the home of the first Greeks. And while the Greeks might have originated in this rocky, hilly, country in Greece, they didn’t stay there. Arcadia was a land of shepherds, peasants, and acorn gatherers; it was not a hotbed of agriculture or city-life.
As a god of the people Pan wasn’t worshiped in the traditional Greek way. Only in his native Arcadia was Pan worshiped in a temple, in most of the ancient world he was worshiped in caves or grottoes. The grottoes dedicated to Pan weren’t dedicated solely to him either; he generally shared his sacred space with nymphs local to the region. On the acropolis in Athens he wasn’t given a temple or even a church, it was said he resided in a crack on the side of the plateau that housed the acropolis. (The acropolis in Athens housed many temples and shrines dedicated to the ancient Greek Gods; the most magnificent structure on the top of the acropolis was the temple dedicated to Pallas Athena-the Parthenon.)
There may have been a great deal of symbolism associated with the caves where Pan was worshiped. The grottoes were a link to the primitive world and were seen as way to escape the burdens of civilization. The grottoes had always served as a haven for outcasts, and Pan with his dual nature-half beast and half god, was often viewed as an outcast in Greek society. Caves were also seen as the birthplace of new beginnings, a place to regroup and start over. Caves served as dwelling places for the first humans, and visiting one was thought to put an individual in touch with their true feelings. Shepherds also used caves for shelter when they were out in the fields, and this might have something to do with the cave being the preferred place to worship Pan.
It’s almost impossible to separate Pan and sex, or sex and Pan. The two subjects go together like cake and ice cream. Pan was associated with sex from the very beginning. While nudity amongst the gods of ancient Greece was common, gods with throbbing members were not. The fact that Pan was generally depicted with an erection speaks to the fact that he was a sexual god, but not sex in the way we always view it in the modern world.
Pan was the patron of what has come to be known as “panic sex,” sex for the sake of lust and physical satisfaction. Pan was not the god of love, and he was not the guy you petitioned if you were looking to fall in love. Pan was the god of lust, or of sex in its grunting, groaning, moaning, dirtiest form. Pan was anti-monogamy, and his myth is full of conquests and dalliances, but is void of long-time girlfriends and partners.
With a few exceptions, Greek gods were rarely monogamous, and nearly all the male gods had lovers on the side, but they almost always had a primary partner. Pan has no primary partner, his ladies were the nymphs, and those nymphs seemed to change frequently. The ancient Greeks saw the joys in panic sexuality, that idea of instant gratification and living in the moment, but they also believed that it came with a price. A life that consisted of only panic sexuality led to heartbreak, regret, and lack of family.
It wasn’t all bad though, panic sexuality can lead to new things. In the world of Pan his tendency to just grab the nymph and damn the consequences, often resulted in the creation of something new. The origins of the panpipes can be found in his failed conquest of the nymph Syrinx (and sometimes those panpipes are called syrinx in her honor) who resisted the amorous overtures of our god and turned herself into some reeds rather than lie with Pan. Good can come out of wanton lust, but not always.
Pan was said to bring more than lust to people, he brought uncontrollable longing, almost animal like desire. While I personally don’t mind feeling this way from time to time, it can have very negative consequences. Pan’s myth is full of instances where the god basically rapes the object of affection, behavior that is reprehensible in modern Paganism. When calling on Pan to give you that lustiness, it’s best to do with a partner who shares your desires.
When people ask me to describe the feelings that Pan stirs up in the loins I tend to describe it as an inability to control the self. I don’t want summon the lusty aspect of Pan before going out on a first date, but I might want to summon it when I’m with someone I care about it and who I’ve been with for awhile. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from calling on the goat-god to help them with their love-life, but I am trying to point out the consequences. Pan is not a cartoon; he’s a very real god with a side that many of us might call “dark.”
I do like to think that Pan grew up a little bit as he matured as a god. We all get hit with those urges of uncontrollable lust now and again, and oftentimes there’s no one around to share that passion with. It must have been ever harder for a shepherd god; maybe that’s why Pan is said to have invented masturbation.
For many of us, and especially for us men, napping and sex go together. Now I’ve never taken a nap in the middle of sex, but afterwards I’ve been known to rollover and sleep until Yule. Perhaps for this very reason, Pan has always been associated with napping. Napping is so important to Pan that he does it everyday, and at the same time everyday-shortly after noon for an hour or two.
For the ancient Greeks, Pan’s naptime was so sacred and special that they left the god alone during that period of the day. Pan was not just cranky if he was disturbed during his nap, he was said to get scary violent. While there are no accounts of anyone losing their life due to waking up Pan, he did stir up quite a ruckus when he was bothered.
Perhaps the reason for Pan’s daily nap was that it was the only time of day it was truly quiet. In the morning people are about their business, especially if they work in agricultural, but early afternoon is a quite time, too early to party, and oftentimes too warm for serious toil and labor. Pan was said to have hated absolute quiet and stillness, and if you gave him a chance, he’s fill up that space with a lot of noise. Perhaps his nap was helpful not only to him, but to the rest of us as well.
Pan was sometimes considered a god of prophecy, and while he wasn’t in the same league as Apollo at Delphi, people did turn to him when trying to see what the future might hold. Generally it was believed that the best time to get in touch with Pan for this purpose was during his nap, usually by taking your own. Pan was said to visit the dreams of his followers, usually at naptime. Pan was also said to cure people of ailments during naptime, and to sometimes bless them with good fortune.
One of the instruments that Pan used to fill up the quiet times of day was his syrinx, or pan flute. The flute was named after the nymph Syrinx, who changed herself into a cluster of reeds to escape from Pan’s lustful longings. Pan then cut down the reeds and fashioned a flute out of them. The syrinx was a popular instrument in ancient Greece because anyone could make one and learn to play it. It wasn’t cost prohibitive like a lyre; it was an instrument of the common people.
The music of the syrinx was known to make people dance and lower their inhibitions, it was the perfect instrument for the life loving, erection-toting Pan. It was said that when Pan played his syrinx he could drive people mad with its music. The sound of the syrinx filled people with the lustful nature of Pan, and as a result, they often lost control.
That Pan drove people to madness shouldn’t come as a big surprise. His nature was always one of paradox. He was an uncivilized god in a civilized world. Much like the goat, which could never truly be domesticated, Pan always retained a bit of his feral nature. I think he enjoyed living living wild and free in the mountains of Arcadia, but I think he also liked some of the comforts of civilization-things like wine, women, and song. For this reason he would help the lost shepherds find their way back into town, and why he always longed to receive honors in the major Greek cities.
Perhaps this dual nature explains why the god was often thought of as shy, he was often referred to as “The god heard, but not seen.” More people have claimed to hear Pan’s pipes than to have actually seen him, and some of the myths even suggest that his piping was so powerful and persuasive that it sounded like speech.
Out of the many things associated with Pan, the most misunderstood attribute of the goat-god is probably his association with “panic.” In the Greek world, Pan was so associated with it that the word panic, actually derives from the name of the god. Even for someone who has spent years researching Pan, the whole notion of panic as an attribute of the god can be confusing.
In most instances, Pan unleashed panic upon individuals he was upset with. As a god generally opposed to civilization and order, Pan enjoyed unleashing panic upon armies that entered his domain. It was said that any army that entered the woods and hills of Arcadia, Pan’s domain, would be inflicted with a sudden panic. Generally, the panic used by Pan in these instances wasn’t life threatening, but it did lead to the breakdown of order in the ranks, and cause a general to think twice about every doing it again.
In wartime Pan was known to throw armies that attempted to invade Greece into a blind panic. Pan was said to have helped the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in exchange for their worship of him. The myth is a common one, but there is no mention of what Pan actually did for the Athenians. Most scholars assume that he threw the invading army into some sort of crazed panic.
The general assumption is that Pan creates such a racket on his own that an army feels as if they are being attacked, and in that moment of terror, with their lives flashing in front of their lives, comrades in arms end up killing each other without realizing it. The Persian army that tried to invade Athens was probably defeated this way. One Pan myth tells of him leading an army into India, and defeating the Indians by causing them to fight each other.
Panic was said to spread like wildfire among armies, and that it only took a few frightened individuals to throw everyone else into a panic state. While this all sounds very sinister, Pan was never a god of war. He was almost always referred to as a peaceful god, and in a lot of pottery he was always pictured with his back turned away from violent battlefield scenes. My guess that Pan’s punishment of armies stemmed from his general dislike of them, and he only used his power of panic for true violence when his followers were being threatened.
The panic of Pan could be unleashed away from the battlefields, and sometimes it was even overwhelmingly positive. As a god of the dance, his panic was said to descend upon a crowd when he lead them in dancing. I think this probably means that the festivities were taken up a notch, and while they were probably very chaotic, they were also probably spiritually fulfilling. When dancing Pan was sometimes called “The Leaper,” because of his way of dancing and how he leaped into his more animal instincts.
Ecstatic dancing within a large group allowed the individuals to retain a sense of self while losing themselves to the dance and group energy. In this way, people could experience Pan in their own way, share some of the panic energy around them, and have a personal experience. Personally, I theorize that group panic in a ritual situation was seen as a way to commune with the god, to be touched by him for a moment or two. Shifts in consciousness are usually seen as ways to experience the divine, and a group in the middle of a highly charged panic situation, is definitely shifting consciousness.
When people worshiped Pan at one of his grottoes they seldom did so alone. At the bare minimum devotions were usually done by a couple, but more often, by large groups of people. A couple might take a midnight stroll to one of the grottoes and then make love there (or outside of the cave). A ritual involving several people was usually more complicated.
Unlike most of the other Greek gods Pan didn’t have set in stone feast dates, so people worshiped him when they felt the need to. Perhaps Pan visited someone in a dream and said that it was time to honor him, or maybe someone needed something from Pan, and decided to have a ritual in his honor. A rite done in honor Pan was an exercise in endurance. Rites generally began in the mid-afternoon, after Pan’s daily nap, and lasted until sunrise the next day.
Revelers approached Pan’s worship centers with little of the reverence we might expect, instead they approached with pan-pipes blaring, drums beating, hands clapping, and throats singing. It was considered a good idea to approach Pan with a great deal of noise, as to not startle the god. After everyone entered the cave an opening sacrifice was usually made. Most often the “sacrifice’ was more of an offering, consisting of wine for Pan, and honey-cakes for his nymphs. If an actual sacrifice was going to be performed it was almost always a male goat with his sexual organs intact. After the sacrifice the goat meat was generally boiled and eaten by the participants, with whatever was left going to the god in the form of a burnt offering.
Post-offering Pan rituals degenerated into insult contents between the male and female participants. These insults were generally coarse, and sexually provocative. The titillation between the sexes probably upped the amount of energy in the room and created a pretty charged atmosphere. Teasing and taunting were often used in Pan worship to honor him.
After the stand-up comedy portion of the ritual, there were sometimes vigils held to await the appearance of the god. Since Pan rituals were almost always gender inclusive, sometimes the men would wait for Pan while the women went off drinking, and sometimes the women would wait while the men drank. Women continually held a place of honor in the cult of Pan, and both sexes had equal access to him. The vigil came to an end when someone found a genuine sign that Pan had arrived at the ritual. It might come in the form of a vision, or something a bit more tangible. When it was established that he was at the rite, the sexes joined together again for the remainder of the ritual.
I use the term “rite” but what happened after the vigil was more like a party than a ritual. People danced, they drank, and sometimes they participated in group sex. Just about anything was allowed in the grottoes, and people took advantage of the situation. While all of the drinking, boogieing, and copulating were going on, the panpipes would continue to play. The pipes were a constant presence throughout the ritual, and were played continuously.
As the ritual reached its climax many of the women there would begin to make a sound called a “krauge.” The krauge was a loud, frightening noise, the kind of sound that could truly inspire a panic-type situation. The sound of the krauge mixed with the drunkenness and sexual energy created a ritual environment flush with energy. During these rites people were often visited with visions of the god, and there were times when he was said to descend into the body of one of his followers.
The ritual usually ended sometime around sunrise, but never before then. It was considered an insult to the god to not make it through the night. I’m sure people monitored their drinking to make sure they didn’t offend great Pan by passing out shortly before midnight. It was a little easier to drink until dawn three thousand years ago since most Greek wine was mixed with water. I’d also like to point out that these rites were all pre-Viagra, I’ve got to give it up to my ancestors!
I’ve always wanted to see what one of these large Pan-rituals would feel like, but in our day and age it’s not really acceptable to invite a large group of friends over for an all night drinking orgy. (OK, maybe your friends are cooler than mine, but you get my point.) It’s the smaller ritual that isn’t described very often in the ancient literature that’s probably the most easily replicated. Most writers make reference to smaller Pan devotions in passing, but it’s pretty easy to guess what happened based on the larger model.
[…] Arcadia was void of large cities, so citywide celebrations honoring Pan are rare, but they existed in limited form. In Athens a run in honor of Pan was conducted every January. All the unmarried boys ran in it, in the hope that Pan would help them find a mate. How this helped anyone find a girlfriend is anyone’s guess, but it allegedly did. Pan shared his run with the gods Hephaestus and Prometheus. Lots of images of Pan existed in the big Greek cities, just not a lot of rites. City-dwellers also contributed to his grottoes, even though most of them were several miles from any major population centers.
Pan was said to sometimes posses his worshipers, and those who neglected him. The term “panolepsy” refers to possession of a human being by the god Pan, and it was generally seen as a negative thing. Most people who ended up possessed by Pan withdrew from society and became social misfits. On rare occasions the possessed one might find themselves stuck in a fit of hysterical laughter, this was generally seen as a sign of favor from Pan.
Pan loves to laugh. When he was born and brought up to Mt. Olympus it’s said that his appearance brought joy and laughter to the gods, and that they were delighted by him. As he grew up, he became something of a trickster on occasion, relying on his wits when all the blood in his body wasn’t focused on his engorged member.
Pan once saved Zeus’ rear end in a battle against the sea-monster Typhon. Unable to defeat the creature in battle, Zeus sought the help of Pan. In one version of the myth Pan befriended the creature before tricking it into washing up on shore and dying there. Other myths tell of Pan putting the beastie to sleep with his syrinx, and slaying it afterwards.
On a few rare occasions Pan tricked a few goddesses into his bed, instead of using his usual method of running after them and then start humping their leg. One of those instances involved the goddess of the moon, Selene, whom Pan wanted in the worst way. She was infatuated with her own image, so Pan donned a cloak of the purest white wool that reflected her light back at her. The trick worked and what we now call “The Man in the Moon” was the result of their union.
While never the most popular of the Greek gods, Pan was a constant motif in art, and his worship was widespread, ranging from Spain all the way to the Middle East. In the ancient world wherever there was sex and joy you were sure to find great Pan.