Pan, the Goat-God of Nature

Pan, the Goat-God of Nature

Art from “Le Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi” by Vincenzo Cartari, 1664

There is no Greek god as strange and bizarre as Pan, part man, part goat.

Pan was depicted as a man with the horns, legs and tail of a goat, and with thick beard, snub nose and pointed ears. He often appears in the retinue of Dionysos alongside the other rustic gods. Greeks in the classical age associated his name with the word pan meaning “all”. However, it true origin lies in an old Arkadian word for rustic (Theoi Greek Mythology).

It is said that Dionysos was especially delighted in Pan. No surprise here. Pan is the god of nature, wild and rustic. He never dwells in civilized areas, but always remains in the wild, hunting, playing music, and chasing nymphs. He is a god of fishermen and hunters. His uncertain genealogy bespeaks his wandering ways.

Karl Kerenyi, in his book, Gods of the Greeks, says that Hermes was his father, but it is uncertain. Hermes sometimes appeared as a phallic god. This role was inherited by Pan, as well. When Pan was born, it is said that his mother, frightened by the beard and goat horns, fled away from her newly born child. His father, Hermes, wrapped him in a hare’s pelt and whisked him off to Olympus, where, there, the gods received and welcomed him with open arms. Dionysos took a liking to the goat-god right away and Pan was often found in his company in wild landscapes.

The primary importance in discussing Pan has to do with his existence in the human psyche. Pan played a large role in the worship of the Greek and later the Romans, in various guises. The ancient peoples who recognized Pan as alive were very much in touch with the ways and things of nature, both the inner and outer nature of humankind (these are, however, inseparable).

There are many characteristics of Pan that one should investigate. These will further self-knowledge concerning nature and our role in it. James Hillman, in his enlightening essay, which serves as an introduction to the English translation of Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher’s Pan and the Nightmare, does an amazing job of dealing with the complexities of the goat-god.

Greek myth asserted that Pan is the god of nature. Our Christian-influenced culture still views Pan as the Devil, which image took root in Western culture after Plutarch declared in the first century CE, “Great Pan is dead” (Moralia, The Obsolescence of Oracles). After this, the image of Pan metamorphosed into the current image of Satan, a horned and cloven-hoofed instigator of absolute evil. This resulted in Pan’s denial and repression in the human psyche. This repression has since caused much suffering and trouble in the Western world.

To understand why the transformation of Pan into Satan, a being that, according to Christianity, is to be eschewed, we must examine the reasons why Pan is so valuable to the human soul, and why we need to recognize him as being a crucial archetype in the soul’s pantheon. In this, I will borrow heavily from Hillman’s essay.

First of all, Pan’s place of birth in Arcadia is very important. Hillman says it “is both a physical and a psychic location.” “In European Renaissance arts, Arcadia was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness” (Wikipedia). Pan loved wild places, such as “caves obscure,” as in the Orphic Hymn to Pan.

His habitat in antiquity, like that of his later Roman shapes (Faunus, Silvanus) and companions, was always dells, grottos, water, woods and wilds – never villages, never the tilled and walled settlements of the civilized; cavern sanctuaries, not constructed temples (Hillman xviii).

This is the wild, natural, instinct that belongs to all of us as humans. Pan is, pardon the pun, a very horny character. He spent much of his time chasing after nymphs. Most of the time, he is portrayed with an erection. So, sex plays a large role in the wild nature of Pan, and in our souls, as well. We know the consequences of the repressed sexual instinct. Much harm has been wrought over the centuries because of sexual repression.

Pan was said to cause great panic, as in the sudden terror that quickly spreads through a herd of animals. The human experience of fearful panic, as in “panic attacks,” is brought on by Pan. There are two sides to panic. One is acted out and stimulated by fear; the other repressed and held in as anxiety. Hillman says fear possesses an object, but anxiety has none. Both can result in death.These are two extremes of human instinct, but one and the same god that brings them about.

Then, there is the two-sided constellation of panic and sexuality in Pan:

To further mix the contexts: let us say that the world of nature, Pan’s world, is in a continual state of subliminal panic just as it is in a continual state of subliminal sexual excitation. As the world is made by Eros, held together by that cosmogonic force and charged with the libidinal desire that is Pan…so its other side, panic, recognised by the Buddha belongs to the same constellation. Again, we come back to Pan and the two extremes of instinct (Hillman, xxvii-xxviii).

This is a very complex archetype we are dealing with here, to say the least. To deal with the many complexities that accompany the study of Pan would takes many volumes. I became so fascinated with this topic after reading Hillman’s essay that I had to write something about it, albeit a small and paltry contribution.

Hillman goes to great length in discussing the place that rape plays in Pan’s behavior. Even though we see this as repulsive and disgusting, these things are not to be literalized. The rape of the soul occurs all the time. We must think imaginally concerning these things. On this subject, read the Hillman essay.

Hillman also goes into the subject of masturbation, and how Pan relates to it. The following is a good summation of his thinking in regard to this act, which Christianity and so-called civilized society, has long forbidden:

…masturbation may be understood in its own right and from within its own archetypal pattern, condemned neither as substitute behaviour for prisoners and shepherds, as regressive behaviour for adolescents, as recurrence of Oedipal fixations, nor as a senseless compulsion of physiology to be inhibited by the opposite prohibitions of personal relations, religion and society. As masturbation connects us with Pan as goat, it also connects us with his other half, the partie superieure of the instinctual function: self-consciousness. Because it is the only sexual activity performed alone, we may not judge it solely in terms of its service to the species or to society. Rather than focusing upon its useless role in external civilisation and procreation, we may reflect upon its usefulness for internal culture and creativity. By intensifying interiority with joy — and with conflict and shame, and by vivifying fantasy, masturbation, which has no purpose for species or society, yet brings genital pleasure, fantasy and guilt to the individual as psychic subject. It sexualizes fantasy, brings body to mind, intensies the experience of conscience and confirms the powerful reality of the introverted psyche — was it not invented for the solitary shepherd piping through the empty places of our inscapes and who re-appears when we are thrown into solitude. By constellating Pan, masturbation brings nature and its complexity back into the opus contra naturam of soul-making (Hillman, xxxv). 

At one time in Western history, the nature of Pan had, for the most part, been nullified and quiesced by the Church and its teachings. The past one hundred years or so have seen a resurgence of interest in Pan and what he means for nature and human consciousness. The psychological ramifications of viewing Pan as Satan, or as evil in general, seem to be harmful to the soul. Certainly, Pan must be connected to the Shadow archetype in some way, for some characteristics of Pan certainly represent shadow material, indeed. That is not to say that Pan’s behavior was always strange and bizarre. He was quite fond of music and dancing. Aspects of his nature are, according to Hillman, very therapeutic to the soul.

The admonition from Hillman is to not suppress the god, Pan. Learn of his nature, for there is much to be gained.

We shall not be able to find our way back to harmony with nature through the study of it alone. Though our major concern is ecological, it cannot be solved through ecology alone. The importance of technology and scientific knowledge for protecting nature’s processes goes without saying, but part of the ecological field is human nature, in whose psyche the archetypes dominate. If Pan is suppressed there, nature and instinct will go astray no matter how we strain on rational levels to set things right. In order to restore, conserve and promote nature ‘out there‘, nature ‘in here’ must also be restored, conserved and protected to precisely the same degree. Otherwise our perceptions of nature out there, our actions upon it and our reactions to it, will continue to show the same mangled exaggerations of inadequate instinct as in the past. Without Pan, our good intentions to rectify past mistakes will only perpetrate them in other forms (Hillman, lxi).

One must simply read Hillman’s essay, which can be found here at Scribd. You will not regret it. There is so much more that I haven’t shared.

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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2 thoughts on “Pan, the Goat-God of Nature

  1. very helpful in my research project in him for school. but i would like more detail on how and why he died.

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