Pan and Panic

Pan and Panic

Pan and Syrinx, by Jean François de Troy
One of the primary characteristics of the goat-god, Pan, is that he incites panic when he is present. The Online Etymological Dictionary, under “panic,” says Pan “is the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots.” Psychology says that panic, or fear, is one of the four primary affects in animal behavior. It is a natural instinct. We all experience it at one time or another. 

Most in our culture claim that fear is negative, that there is nothing valuable in it, and it is to be rejected. This is the attitude of the Herculean ego in the human psyche. According to this view, one should be fearless in the face of adversity, whatever the cost. It is viewed as a moral problem to be overcome. In Frank Herbert’s wonderful story, Dune, a Bene Gesserit litany to overcome fear, states,

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

This is pure heroic ego, the same attitude that attempts to pull dreams from their underworld habitat up into the light of reason, in the attempt to perform “dream interpretation,” instead of something like dream hermeneutics. It is the motivation that compelled Hercules to descend into Hades in an attempt to circumvent the usual method of entering the Underworld.

Fear, panic, is a natural instinct that has evolved in us over millions of years. It is there for a purpose. When we kill it with ego, we lose the benefits of fear. So, what are the benefits of Pan’s panic? There is more to panic than merely a physiological defense mechanism. Let’s think mythologically.  I would like to investigate the idea of panic.

James Hillman, in his introduction (An Essay On Pan) to Roscher’s Pan and the Nightmare, says

Jung, in his unpublished Seminar Notes, discusses at times the problem of fear, nding it a legitimate path to follow. He seems to mean that one goes where one is afraid, not as the Hero in order only to meet the Dragon and overcome it. But fear, as an instinctual pattern of behaviour, as part of the “wisdom of the body” to use Cannon’s phrase, provides a connection with nature (Pan) equal to hunger, sexuality or aggression. Fear, like love, can become a call into consciousness; one meets the unconscious, the unknown, the numinous and uncontrollable by keeping in touch with fear, which elevates the blind instinctual panic of the sheep into the knowing, cunning, fearful awe of the shepherd. When Jung said that we need to learn to fear again, he picked up the thread from the Old Testament – the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord – and gave it a new twist. Now the wisdom is that of the body that comes into connection with the divine, as panic with Pan, with the same intensity as described in the sexual visions of Saints. For where panic is, there too is Pan. When the soul panics, as in the story of Psyche‘s suicide, Pan reveals himself with the wisdom of nature. To be fearless, without anxieties, without dread, invulnerable to panic, would mean loss of instinct, loss of connection with Pan (xxx-xxxi).

Those who assert fearlessness have constructed walls of defense to prevent all experiences of panic. These are called “paranoid defenses” by psychologists. Jung’s idea is that the obliteration of these walls of defense releases panic (one enters the realm of Pan), and thus puts one on the road to what Hillman calls the “therapeutic way of fear,” which is a journey that “leads out of the city walls and into open country, Pan’s country” (ibid.)

The point of all this is that, when we are connected intimately with natural instincts, such as panic/fear, the imaginal realm becomes incredibly alive to us. The following is a crucial paragraph in this study:

Panic, especially at night when the citadel darkens and the heroic ego sleeps, is a direct participation mystique in nature, a fundamental, even ontological experience of the world as alive and in dread. Objects become subjects; they move with life while one is oneself paralysed with fear. When existence is experienced through instinctual levels of fear, aggression, hunger or sexuality, images take on compelling life of their own. The imaginal is never more vivid than when we are connected with it instinctually (ibid., highlighting mine.).

One important example of an instinctual connection is the classic nightmare. It is a crucial experience on the path of soul-making. One must not assume something is wrong when experiencing nightmares. It is natural and for your benefit. It is the way of Pan.

My next article will deal with the panic of nymphs while being pursued by Pan.

Hillman, James. An Essay On Pan. Pan and the Nightmare. By Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher. Trans. A.V. O’Brien, M.D.  New York: Spring, 1972. i-lix.

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4 thoughts on “Pan and Panic

  1. Good stuff! I'm really enjoying these articles on Pan especially as someone who is very familiar with panic & panic attacks. It's good to see them through the lens of mythology which seems to disarm them or see them not as enemies but perhaps a gateway to further adventure!

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