Pan: Greek God of the Wilds

As a god, Pan rules the wilderness. He naps, plays the pan flute, and lives life to its fullest. 

More famously, Pan is besties with Dionysus and the stalker of a number of nymphs who ghosted him. Though, there may be more than meets the eye with this folksy god. 

Yeah, he isn’t really all that graceful (give him a break – he has a goat’s feet), nor is he easy on the eyes like some other Greek gods. Okay…he may give poor Hephaestus a run for his money. However, what Pan lacks in physical appeal, he makes up for in spirit! 

Who is the God Pan?

In Greek mythology, Pan is the outdoorsy, “let’s go camping!” guy. As the purported son of many deities, including Hermes, Apollo, Zeus, and Aphrodite, Pan functions as the companion – and a passionate pursuer – of nymphs. He was the father of four children in all: Silenus, Iynx, Iambe, and Crotus.

The first written record of Pan is in the Theban poet Pindar’s Pythian Odes, dated around the 4th century BCE. Despite this, Pan likely existed in oral traditions for eons before. Anthropologists have reason to believe that the conception of Pan precedes that of the treasured 12 Olympians. Evidence suggests that Pan plausibly originated from the Proto-Indo-European deity Péh₂usōn, themselves a significant pastoral god.

Pan primarily resided in Arcadia, a highland region of the Peloponnese that was glorified for its stunning wildlife. Over the years, the mountain wilds of Arcadia became romanticized, thought to be a refuge of the gods.

Who are the God Pan’s Parents?

The most popular pairing for Pan’s parents is the god Hermes and a princess-turned-nymph named Dryope. Hermes lineage seems to be filled with notorious troublemakers and, as you will see, Pan is no exception. 

If the Homeric hymns are to be believed, Hermes helped King Dryops shepherd sheep so that he could marry his daughter, Dryopes. From their union, the pastoral god Pan was born.

What does Pan Look Like?

Described as being homely, unattractive, and an all-around unsightly guy, Pan appears as a half-goat in most depictions. Sound familiar? Although it is easy to mistake this horned god as a satyr or a faun, Pan was neither. His bestial appearance was simply due to his close relationship with nature. 

In a way, Pan’s appearance can be equated to the aquatic appearance of Oceanus. Oceanus’ crab pincers and serpentine fish tail symbolize his closest associations: bodies of water. Likewise, Pan’s cloven hooves and horns mark him as a nature god.

With the upper body of a man and the legs of a goat, Pan was in a league of his own. 

The image of Pan was later adopted by Christianity as a representation of Satan. Boisterous and free, Pan’s consequent demonization at the hands of the Christian Church was a treatment extended to most other pagan gods that held a measure of influence over the natural world.

Pretty much, early Christianity didn’t outright deny the existence of other gods. Instead, they declared them to be demons. It just so happens that Pan, the spirit of untamed wilds, was the most offensive to behold.

What is Pan the God of?

To be straight to the point, Pan can best be described as a rustic, mountain god. However, he influences a long list of realms that are closely affiliated with one another. There’s a lot of overlap here. 

Pan is regarded to be the god of the wilds, shepherds, fields, groves, forests, rustic melody, and fertility. The half-man, half-goat pastoral god monitored the Greek wilderness, stepping in as a fertility god and a god of rustic music on his time off.

What was the Greek God Pan’s Powers?

The Greek gods of yore don’t exactly have a plethora of magical powers. Sure, they’re immortal, but they aren’t necessarily the X-Men. Also, what supernatural abilities they have are usually restricted by their unique realms. Even then they are subjected to abide by the Fates and deal with the consequences of their decisions.

In the case of Pan, he’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Being strong and fast are just a few of his many talents. His powers are thought to include the ability to transmute objects, teleport between Mount Olympus and Earth, and scream.

Yes, scream.

Pan’s shout was panic-inducing. There were numerous times throughout Greek mythology when Pan caused groups of people to become filled with overwhelming, unreasonable fear. Out of all of his abilities, this one certainly stands out the most.

Is Pan a Trickster God?

So: is Pan a trickster god

Although he doesn’t hold a candle to the mischief of the Norse god Loki or his apparent father Hermes, Pan does dabble in a bit of funny business here and there. He enjoys tormenting folk in the woods, whether they be trained hunters or lost travelers. 

Pretty much any weird – even mind-bending – stuff that happens in isolated nature can be attributed to this guy. This also includes frightening things. That surge of – ahem – panic you get in the woods when you’re all alone? Also Pan. 

Even Plato refers to the great god as “the double-natured son of Hermes” which…sort of sounds like an insult, but I digress. 

While noting that there are deities within the Greek pantheon that can be considered “trickster gods” in nature, there is a specific god of trickery. Dolos, a son of Nyx, is a minor god of cunning and deception; moreover, he is under the wing of Prometheus, the Titan that stole fire and duped Zeus twice.

What are the Paniskoi?

The Paniskoi in Greek mythology are the walking, breathing, embodiments of the “don’t talk to me or my son ever again” memes. These “little Pans” were a part of Dionysus’ rowdy retinue and generally just nature spirits. Although not full-blown gods, the Paniskoi did manifest in the image of Pan. 

When in Rome, the Paniskoi were known as Fauns.

Pan as seen in Greek Mythology

In classical mythology, Pan is featured in several famous myths. Even though he may not have been as popular as the other deities, Pan still played a significant role in the lives of the ancient Greeks. 

Most of Pan’s myths tell the duality of the god. Where in one myth he was both joyous and fun-loving, he appears in another as a frightening, predatory being. The duality of Pan reflects the duality of the natural world from a Greek mythological standpoint. 

While the most well-known myth is that of Pan giving a young Artemis her hunting dogs, below are a few others worth noting.

Pan’s Name

So, this is possibly one of the more endearing myths attributed to the god Pan. Not yet old enough to chase nymphs and scare hikers, the myth of Pan getting his name features our favorite goat god as a newborn. 

Pan was described as having an “uncouth face and full beard” in spite of him being a “noisy, merry-laughing child.” Unfortunately, this wee little bearded baby just spooked his nursemaid away with his unconventional appearance.

This delights his father, Hermes. According to the Homeric hymns, the messenger god swaddled his son and swooped by the homes of his friends to show him off: 

“…he went quickly to the abodes of the deathless gods, carrying his son wrapped in warm skins of mountain hares…set him down beside Zeus…all the immortals were glad in heart…they called the boy Pan because he delighted all their hearts…” (Hymn 19, “To Pan”).

This particular myth relates the etymology of Pan’s name to the Greek word for “all” as he had brought joy to all the gods. On the flip side of things, the name Pan could have originated instead within Arcadia. His name is strikingly similar to the Doric paon, or “pasturer.”

In the Titanomachy

The next myth involving Pan on our list piggybacks off of another famous myth: the Titanomachy. Known also as the Titan War, the Titanomachy kicked off when Zeus led a rebellion against his tyrannical father, Cronus. Since the conflict lasted 10 years, there was plenty of time for other famous names to get involved.

Pan just so happened to be one of these names.

As the legend goes, Pan sided with Zeus and the Olympians during the war. It wasn’t clear if he was a late edition or if he simply had always been an ally. He is not originally listed as a major force by Hesiod’s account in Theogony, but many later revisions added details that the original may have lacked. 

Anyways, Pan was a significant help to the rebel forces. Being able to shout his lungs out totally worked in the Olympian’s favor. After all was said and done, Pan’s shout was one of the few things able to actually invoke fear amongst the Titan forces. 

Y’know…it’s nice to think that even the mighty Titans got panicked sometimes. 

Nymphs, Nymphs – so many Nymphs

Now, remember when we mentioned that Pan had a thing for nymphs who didn’t have a thing for him? Here’s where we discuss that a bit more. 

Syrinx

The first nymph we’ll talk about is Syrinx. She was beautiful – which, to be fair, which nymph wasn’t? Whatever the case Syrinx, a daughter of the river god Ladon, really did not like Pan’s vibe. The dude was pushy, to say the least, and one day chased her down to a river’s edge. 

When she reached the water she begged the present river nymphs for help and they did! By…turning Syrinx into some reeds. 

When Pan happened by, he did what any sensible person would do. He cut the reeds to different lengths and whipped up a brand new musical instrument: the pan pipes. The river nymphs must have been horrified.

From that day on, Pan was scarcely ever seen without the pan flute. 

Pitys

At some point between napping, debauchery, and playing a sick new folk song on his pan flute, Pan also tried to romance a nymph named Pitys. Two versions of this myth exist within Greek mythology. 

Now, in the case he was successful, Pitys was murdered out of jealousy by Boreas. The god of the North wind also vied for her affection, but when she chose Pan over him, Boreas threw her from a cliff. Her body was made into a pine tree by a pitying Gaia. In the likely instance that Pitys wasn’t attracted to Pan, she was turned into a pine tree by the other gods to escape his ceaseless advances.

Echo

Pan would go on to famously pursue the Oread nymph, Echo. 

The Greek author Longus describes that Echo once rejected the nature god’s advances. The denial angered Pan, who consequently inspired a great madness over local shepherds. This potent madness caused the shepherds to tear Echo to pieces. While the whole thing could be chalked up to Echo just not being into Pan, Photius’ Bibliotheca suggests that Aphrodite made the love unrequited. 

Thanks to multiple variations of Greek mythology existing, some adaptations of this classical myth involve Pan successfully winning Echo’s affections. He was no Narcissus, but Echo must’ve seen something in him. The nymph even bears two children from the relationship with Pan: Iynx and Iambe. 

In the Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon is a significant event in the history of ancient Greece. Taking place during the Greco-Persian Wars in 409 BCE, the Battle of Marathon was the result of the first Persian invasion that arrived on Greek soil. In his Histories, the Greek historian Herodotus notes that the great god Pan had a hand in the Greek victory at Marathon. 

As the legend goes, the long-distance runner and herald Philippides encountered Pan on one of his journeys during the legendary conflict. Pan inquired as to why the Athenians didn’t worship him appropriately even though he had helped them in the past and was planning to in the future. In response, Philippides promised that they would. 

Pan held onto that. The god showed up at a pivotal point in the battle and – believing the Athenians would uphold a promise – wreaked havoc on the Persian forces in the form of his infamous panic. From that point on, Athenians held great Pan in high regard.

Being a rustic god, Pan was not so popularly worshiped in major city-states like Athens. That is, until, after the Battle of Marathon. From Athens, the cult of Pan spread outwards to Delphi.

Seducing Selene

In a lesser-known myth, Pan ends up seducing the moon goddess Selene by wrapping himself in fine fleece. Doing so hid his goat-like lower half. 

The fleece was so breathtaking that Selene couldn’t help but come down to admire it. 

While this is probably a misinterpretation of Selene falling madly in love with a mortal shepherd prince, Endymion, it is still an interesting story. Also, it is a bit funny that the one thing Selene couldn’t resist was a really nice fleece. 

One-Upping Apollo

As Hermes’ son, Pan has a reputation to uphold. Being crafty is one thing, but nothing says you’re a kid of Hermes like getting on Apollo’s last nerve. 

So one fine mythical morning, Pan decided to challenge Apollo to a musical duel. Through raging confidence (or foolishness), he wholeheartedly believed that his music was superior to that of the god of music. 

As one would expect,  Apollo couldn’t turn down a challenge like that. 

The two musicians traveled to the wise mountain Tmolus, who would act as judge. Ardent followers of either deity flocked to witness the event. One of these followers, Midas, thought Pan’s jaunty melody was the best thing he had ever heard. Meanwhile, Tmolus crowned Apollo as the superior musician. 

Despite the decision, Midas openly stated that Pan’s music was more enjoyable. This angered Apollo, who swiftly turned Midas’ ears into those of a donkey’s. 

Two things can be said after hearing this myth: 

  1. People have different music tastes. Choosing a better musician between two talented individuals with opposing styles and genres is a hopeless endeavor.
  2. Oh, boy, Apollo cannot handle criticism. 

Did Pan Die?

Maybe you’ve heard this; maybe you haven’t. But, word on the street is that Pan is dead

In fact, he died way back during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius!

If you’re familiar with Greek mythology you would get how crazy that sounds. Pan – a god – dead?! Impossible! And, well, you aren’t wrong. 

The death of Pan is much more than saying an immortal being died. Theoretically speaking, the only way you could feasibly “kill” a god is by no longer believing in them. 

So…they’re sort of like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. The Tinkerbell Effect absolutely affects them.

That being said, the rise of monotheism and the substantial decline of polytheism in the Mediterranean certainly could imply that Pan – a god belonging to a divine pantheon – did symbolically die. His symbolic death (and subsequent rebirth into the Christian idea of the Devil) suggests that the rules of the ancient world were breaking.  

Historically, the death of Pan just didn’t happen. Instead, early Christianity came-a-knockin’ and took over being the most dominant religion in the region. It’s that simple.

The rumor emerged when Thamus, an Egyptian sailor, claimed a divine voice hailed to him across the salt water that the “great God Pan is dead!” But, what if Thamus was lost in translation? Like an ancient game of telephone, there is a theory that the water distorted the voice, which instead was announcing that the “all-great Tammuz is dead!”

Tammuz, also known as Dumuzi, is a Sumerian god of fertility and the patron of shepherds. He is the son of the prolific Enki and Duttur. In one particular legend, Tammuz and his sister, Geshtinanna, split their time between the Underworld and the living realm. Thus, the proclamation of his death may have signified Tammuz’s return to the Underworld.

How was Pan Worshiped?

Worship of the Greek gods and goddesses was a standard religious practice throughout the Greek city-states. Regional differences and opposing cultural influences aside, Pan is one of those deities you don’t hear much about in large poleis. In fact, the only reason he had standing in Athens was because of his aid during the Battle of Marathon.

As a pastoral god, Pan’s most avid worshippers were hunters and herders: those who relied on his mercy the most. Furthermore, those that resided in rugged, mountainous regions revered him highly. The ancient city of Paneas at the base of Mount Hermon had a sanctuary dedicated to Pan, but his known cult center was at Mount Mainalos in Arcadia. Meanwhile, worship of Pan came to Athens sometime during the early stages of the Greco-Persian Wars; a sanctuary was founded near the Acropolis of Athens. 

The most common places to worship Pan were in caves and grottoes. Places that were private, untouched, and enclosed. There, altars were established to accept offerings. 

Since Pan was venerated for his hold over the natural world, the locations where he had established altars reflect that. Statues and figurines of the great god were commonplace at these sacred locations. The Greek geographer Pausanias mentions in his Description of Greece that there was a sacred hill and cave dedicated to Pan near the fields of Marathon. Pausanias also describes “Pan’s herds of goats” within the cave, which were really just a collection of rocks that looked a whole lot like goats. 

When it came to sacrificial worship Pan was usually given votive offerings. These would include fine vases, clay figurines, and oil lamps. Other offerings to the pastoral god included gold-dipped grasshoppers or a sacrifice of livestock. In Athens, he was honored through annual sacrifices and a torch race.

Does Pan have a Roman Equivalent?

Roman adaptation of Greek culture came after their occupancy – and eventual conquest – of ancient Greece in 30 BCE. With it, individuals throughout the Roman Empire adopted different aspects of Greek customs and religion that they resonated with. This is especially reflected in Roman religion as it is known today. 

For Pan, his Roman equivalent was a god by the name of Faunus. The two gods are incredibly similar. They practically share realms.

Faunus is known to be one of Rome’s most archaic deities, therefore being a member of the di indigetes. This means that despite his striking similarities to Pan, this horned god likely existed long before the Roman conquest of Greece. Faunus, according to the Roman poet Virgil, was a legendary king of Latium, deified post-mortem. Other sources suggest that Faunus could have instead been a harvest god at his inception that later became a broader nature god.

As a Roman deity, Faunus also dabbled in fertility and prophecy. Like the Greek original, Faunus also had smaller versions of himself in his retinue called Fauns. These beings, much like Faunus himself, were untamed spirits of nature, albeit with lesser importance than their leader.

What was Pan’s Significance in Ancient Greek Religion?

As we have discovered, Pan was a bit of an uncouth, lecherous god. Such, however, does not discount the magnitude of Pan’s existence in Greek mythology. 

Pan himself was the image of nature unfiltered. As it was, he was the only Greek god who was half-man and half-goat. If you compare him physically to, say, Zeus, or to Poseidon – any of the glorified Olympians – he sticks out like a sore thumb. 

His beard isn’t combed and his hair isn’t styled; he’s a prolific nudist and he has goat’s feet; and, yet, Pan remained admired for his tenacity. 

Time and time again it is shown that Pan, like nature itself, had two sides. There was the welcoming, familiar part of it, and then there was the more bestial, fearsome half.

On top of that, Pan’s homeland of Arcadia was viewed as a paradise of the Greek gods: the wild landscapes untouched by the troubles of humanity. Of course, they weren’t the kept gardens of Athens or the sprawling vineyards of Crete, but the woodlands and fields and mountains were undeniably captivating. The Greek poet Theocritus couldn’t help but sing idyllic praises of Arcadia in the 3rd-century BCE in his Idylls. This rose-tinted mindset was carried over for generations into the Italian Renaissance. 

In all, the great Pan and his beloved Arcadia became the ancient Greek embodiment of nature in all of its wild glory. 

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