Pan and the Nymphs Unite

Pan and the Nymphs Unite

Pan and Selene, by Hans von Aachen (1552–1615)

There is no access to the mind of nature without connection to to the natural mind of the nymph (Hillman lii).

In Greek mythology, the Nymphs are beautiful and nubile female nature deities who rule over a variety of natural phenomena. They are “personifications of the wisps and clouds of mist clinging to valleys, mountain-sides and water-sources, veiling the waters and dancing over them” (Hillman xlvi).

Pan spends much of his time frolicking and cavorting with the meek Nymphs. Sometimes, they fly into a panic while being chased by the randy god.

One of the most fascinating ideas in Hillman’s essay is that the twin nuclei of sexuality and panic, desire and anxiety, both abide in the Pan archetype. One can say that Pan and the Nymphs are images of these nuclei. Pan is unbridled sexuality, but is also the anxious fear and panic experienced by the Nymphs when being pursued. Pan and the Nymphs are twin images of the same archetypal god. Hillman says,

Both anxiety and sexuality are words covering an immensely sophisticated range of experiences. Furthermore, these words cover experiences that are neither only actions or reactions, but are also metaphors for situations of consciousness governed by archetypal fantasies. In fact, the actions and reactions are themselves part of a metaphorical pattern and are meaningful within that pattern, expressing something always more sensuously qualified than what is covered by the definitions of anxiety and sexuality. One of these metaphorical patterns is provided by Pan. By placing anxiety, fear or panic against that background, we may not solve the dubious, if not nonsensical, ‘what is fear? ’, but we may gain insight into kinds of experience for which we use that word and thus make more precise the intentionality of fear (Hillman xxx).

This is why an attempt should not be made to eradicate fear from human consciousness. It is natural. We can gain awareness by experiencing it and allowing it to transform itself into reflection. According to Jung, there is a process that certain natural instincts undergo that actually transforms them into what he calls the “reflective instinct:”

Reflexio means ‘bending back’ and, used psycho­logically, would denote the fact that the reflex which carries the stimulus over into its instinctive discharge is interfered with by psychization. Owing to this interference, the psychic processes exert an attraction on the impulse to act excited by the stimulus. Therefore, before having discharged itself into the external world, the impulse is deflected into an endopsychic activity. Reflexio is a turning inwards, with the result that, instead of an instinctive action, there ensues a succession of derivative contents or states which may be termed reflection or delibera­tion. Thus in place of the compulsive act there appears a certain degree of freedom, and in place of predictability a relative un­predictability as to the effect of the impulse.

The richness of the human psyche and its essential character are probably determined by this reflective instinct. Reflection re-enacts the process of excitation and carries the stimulus over into a series of images which, if the impetus is strong enough, are reproduced in some form of expression. This may take place directly, for instance in speech, or may appear in the form of abstract thought, dramatic representation, or ethical conduct; or again, in a scientific achievement or a work of art (Jung 117).

Thus, Pan, following his natural instinct for raw sexual fulfillment, strikes terror into the hearts of the Nymphs, and they flee. Hillman says that “flight is essential to nymphic behavior” (Hillman liii). But, the flight instinct bends back upon itself and is transformed, paradoxically, into a reflective instinct. 

Where the Nymphs are present, Pan is there. Where Pan is present, the Nymphs are there. They go hand-in-hand. According to Hillman, “We cannot be touched by Pan without at the same to time fleeing from him and reflecting upon him” (Hillman lii). The fear and panic brought by Pan is actually the root of reflection. This may be the primary reason why Pan is said to be God of all. The archetype brings about all human reflection, which results in all human culture, art, and creativity in general.

Hillman delves into alchemy in an attempt to explain Pan’s full intention. In order to seduce the beautiful Selene, Goddess of the Moon, he hides his black and hairy parts with white fleece, which symbolizes a

movement into the albedo of lunar consciousness. What is resistant to light, obscure and driven, suffering nature in ignorance, turns white and reflective, able to see what is going on in the night. The white fleece does not halt Pan in the course of his conquest. The whitening is not an askesis of the goat. It is not that Pan now knows and so does not act out, but the action, by becoming white, turns reflective and thus the connection with Selene ( selas = light like that of a torch shining in the night) has been made possible. Like cures like: Pan, by becoming like Selene is already connected with her (Hillman xlviii).

Pan seeks self-awareness, so he desires to become like Selene, i.e. reflective. The archetype of Pan is complete. The raunchy sexuality of the goat-god, along with the meekness of the Nymphs, alchemically creates a very powerful reflective instinct and desire for self-consciousness.


Works Cited

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.

Jung, C.G. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Trans. by R.F.C. Hull. London: Routledge, 1960.

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