The Great God Pan

Somewhere, the ancient Greek god of waste places and the wild, Pan, is smiling. The wild, irrational fear that he caused in those who angered him has swept North America.

Pan was one of the oldest of the Greek gods, in the sense that, like Zeus, his name traces back to an Indo-European root and has cognates in Sanskrit, Persian, and in the Latin and English word “pasture.” It is a different root than “pan” meaning all or entire, unless a link is found in the sense that for the Indo-European speaking horse nomads, all the world was a pasture, and so all came under the gaze of a pastoral god.

From the earliest apparent evidence to date, Pan was the god of remote areas, of wastes and wilds, of pastures and the people who lived on the fringes. His territory in Greece was Arcadia, known for rough terrain and shepherds. The people belonged to a different, older culture than did the urban Greeks. As is true in other places, this gave them a sense of “belonging” and the urban Greeks considered the Arcadians to be closer to the land and to the wild, rather like the Norwegians and others consider the Sami (Laplanders). Among the Arcadians Pan was also a deity of hunters.

So Pan belonged to the edges and fringes, to those places away from civilization. He watched over shepherds and hunters, those who avoided the haunts of men. His physical form was often half goat, half man, unlike the physical perfection of the other Olympians. There is no set lineage for Pan. So many variations of his ancestry exist that they are probably buried far, far in the depths of myth. To me, that suggests that he pre-dates the Greeks arrival in the area, and that his name was attached to an older, earlier deity known in Old Europe.

So where does “panic” come from? Supposedly, Pan would shriek or yell in a way that caused pure, unreasoning fear in the hearts of all who heard the sound. Be they demigods, mortals, or something else, they fled. “Panic fear” described the sensation. Over time, “panic” came to include the sense of fear, chaotic reaction, blind search for safety, and everything else all wrapped into one word.

Pan lived in caverns or grottoes, and anyone who has felt cave (or room) walls closing in on them, or heard strange sounds coming from no where and everywhere can understand why the association came about. We humans don’t like strange sounds or shrieks in the dark. Especially back in the days when larger, meaner predators with large teeth and claws lurked in the dark, waiting for a slow, foolish meal to wander away from safety.

Panic has not gone away. For all of our well-lit safety, Pan’s ghost still lurks in the unknown fringes. His shriek still moves people to wild flight, flight without reason (no Apollo, only Pan), flight that they cannot later explain.

The web-site below provides lots and lots of information and Classical references to Greek and Roman sources on Pan:


4 thoughts on “The Great God Pan

  1. It’s “interesting” when you see most of the rest of the world under Pan’s control and you’re not panicking.

    • Hm, tricksters tend to get upset when their tricks go poorly– explains why those who keep their head are so abused. 🙂

  2. Good post, more interesting things to read.

    Especially if you’re short-pasturing Pan and place the joke on him …

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