Ancient History & Civilisation

Section VIII

Demon Lovers & Gods Dark & Light

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The Great God Pan:
Not dead, just poorly translated

A homely, squatty, horned god who never made the Olympic deity lineup, Pan is often confused with Greek satyrs and fauns—when not being accused of being the devil. (For the latter label, you can thank later Christians, who transformed Pan into the Satan familiar to modern eyes.)

Without a doubt, Pan was a hybrid. Besides ram’s horns and bad hair, he boasted the hindquarters and cloven hooves of a goat. He’s gotten an even more rancid reputation in today’s world. That’s what comes from being caught in mid-coitus with a large male goat—and then having your private bestiality interlude captured as an X-rated marble sculpture that tourists giggle over at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. When that sculpture went on exhibit in 2001, an Italian priest called it a temptation that could “corrupt the morals of the chastest.” It was almost as bad as being immortalized on YouTube.

Anthropologists now believe that Pan, a fertility deity, god of spring festivals, and rustic lord of the wilderness, was far more ancient than the Olympian gods. In Greece, Pan called Arcadia home, where he was worshipped in caves and grottoes by mountain people and shepherds.

Even though he invented a flute and played a mean panpipe, Pan’s brutish looks and behavior never played well with the ladies. He did manage to seduce the moon goddess Selene once by wrapping himself in a sheepskin, but had an unsavory way of turning nymphs and other chicks he fancied into trees or tearing them into little bits. Pan’s habit of uncouth yelling and making other eerie sound effects often caused fear among humans—a reaction still called “panic” in remembrance of the god.

Unlike other deities, who by definition are immortal, Pan was believed to have died. As written up by Greek historian Plutarch, Pan’s alleged death occurred in the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). As the story goes, an Egyptian sailor named Thamus was en route to Italy when a voice described as “divine” hailed the sailor across the water, saying, “The Great God Pan is dead!”

When Christianity got rolling, the faith’s spokespeople were delighted to pass this tale along, since it seemed to sound the death knell of paganism and the coming of the new order. Eusebius of Caesarea was the first Christian writer to relate the anecdote, adding juicy details of his own devising.

Interestingly enough, subsequent study of Pan’s death by author and mythology expert Robert Graves and newer generations of mythologists has revealed a “lost in translation” aspect to the whole matter. Thamus Panmegas tethneke, “The all-great Tammuz is dead!” sounds a great deal like Thamous Pan ho megas techneke, “Thamus, Great Pan is dead!”

So who or what was Tammuz, as opposed to Thamus the sailor? Known as a shepherd god as early as 2500 B.C. by the ancient Sumerians, he was the consort of Inanna or Ishtar, goddess of love. The myth of Tammuz and Inanna has him going through a life-death-rebirth cycle to save his lover each year. When Tammuz goes to spend six months in the underworld, he is deeply mourned by his worshippers, especially the women. The Old Testament Ezekiel also mentions the women weeping for Tammuz.

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The goat-human hybrid called Pan cavorted with his own fan club of fauns and satyrs but was a fertility deity in his own right.

A century after Plutarch wrote of Pan’s putative death, an early travel writer named Pausanias visited a great many sites around Greece where shrines to the Great God Pan were still drawing crowds. As Mark Twain would say centuries later, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

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