The Uneventful Love Life of the Great God Pan

“The bounteous Pan, the god of rural scenery, shepherdi, and huntsmen,” as the poet Milton calls him, is the Greek god of woods and fields. Originally a pastoral god from Arcadia and depicted as a wild deity with the horns and hooves of a goat, Pan was believed to dwell in the mountains and forests of ancient Greece.

Statue of god Pan surrounded by nymphs
Pan and the Nymphs Fountain. Kansas City. Formerly in lead at Moreton Paddox, Kineton, Warwickshire, England. By Phillip Medhurst – Original photo commissioned by Donald Gilbert, CC BY 3.0

Pan’s image has undergone a wide range of representation. His early representations on Greek pottery from around 500 BCE depicted him as a goat, standing upright on his hind legs. In later arts, he acquires a human upper body and head, although still retains his goat horns, and is often in the company of Maenads and Satyrs.

The god’s popularity increased in the fourth century BCE when he appeared on the reverse side of coins minted for the Arcadian League and he became associated with the panic which could spread among soldiers in the heat of battle. In Roman times, Pan came to be regarded as the representative of paganism and the personification of all nature.

Bridge pan satyr urn
A lichen covered and mossy ornamental garden urn with pan or satyr handles on a bridge balustrade at the head of the lake in the Pleasure Grounds of Parham House, in West Sussex, England. by Acabashi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

 By approximately 300 CE Pan was demonized; this continued until the western world largely associated images of Pan with the devil. After the Council of Nicea issued the Nicene Creed and the Roman Catholic Church was established in 325 CE, Christian theologians – beginning with Eusebius – transformed Pan from a benign nature god to a personification of Satan.

Pan’s nature rather lends itself to this evolution as his nature was always one of paradox: an uncivilized god in a civilized world. Pan’s first role has always been that of the shepherd, the guardian between civilization and the wild. Much like the goat, which could never truly be domesticated, Pan has always retained a bit of his feral nature. He was among the most popular of the ancient Greek gods, yet his cult never had the far-reaching impact enjoyed by the cults of Dionysus, Athena, and Apollo. Pan is also famous for his unfettered sexuality, yet was rarely successful in his courting.

Pan, the lusty god out of place in ancient Greece

It is almost impossible to separate Pan and sex. He is a lusty god and the patron of sex for the sake of lust and physical satisfaction. True to his contrary nature, Pan’s myths are full of conquests and dalliances but are void of long-time partners. Although Pan represents instant gratification and living in the moment, to the ancient Greeks he also represented the price of such abandon, which is often heartbreak, regret, and loneliness.

Unlike many other depictions of the male gods, Pan is often depicted with an erect phallus. This is significant as, in the ancient world, depictions of small penises were more culturally valued as large penises were associated with characteristics such as foolishness, lust and ugliness.

Ancient Roman statue of god Pan
Roman statue of Pan, marble, from Argyroupoli (former Lappa), 2nd-century CE

Meanwhile, the ideal ancient Greek man was rational, intellectual and authoritative as his small penis allowed him to remain coolly logical. The Greek playwright Aristophanes summarizes this attitude in one of his plays, “Clouds”, where he writes,“… if you follow the practices of today, for a start you will have a pale skin, small shoulders, a skinny chest, a big tongue, a small rump, a big prick and a long-winded decree.”

Therefore, while depictions of nudity among the gods of ancient Greece was common, gods with throbbing members were not. The fact that Pan was generally depicted with an erection tells us that he was a sexual god, although not sex in the ways that were deemed “acceptable” to society.

The love story of Pan with the moon goddess Selene and the goddess of love Aphrodite

 The moon goddess Selene is often depicted as a beautiful woman with a fair complexion. She wears robes, a symbolic moon upon her head and carries a torch. She rides a silver chariot pulled by white oxen. The white oxen that pull her chariot were given to her by Pan.

statue of the goddess of the moon
Selene, the goddess of the Moon, with her cloak billowing above her head, By antmoose – Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Although Selene evidently appreciated Pan’s gift of love, she was not interested in Pan himself. Therefore, one night, Pan promised to present her with a beautiful fleece made of delicate white wool. However, when Selene entered into the woods to claim her gift she found only Pan dressed in the guise of a white sheep. Unaware that she was being deceived, Selene climbed upon his back and much to her surprise was passionately ravished by Pan.

Selene was not the only goddess pursued by Pan. A marble group was found on the island of Delos in 1904, in a room of the Hall of the Guild of the Poseidoniasts (worshippers of the god Poseidon) from Beirut. The Parian marble statue group of Aphrodite, Eros, and Pan from c. 100 BCE depicted Aphrodite fighting off the advances of Pan with her sandal.

Pan was drinking and carousing when he found Aphrodite. Aphrodite wanted nothing to do with Pan in this state. As she was trying to fight him off from defiling her, she took her right sandal and threatened him. Pan tried to pry her hand away from her genitals so he could take advantage of her. However, Eros came to the rescue and stopped Pan from getting Aphrodite. In the end, Aphrodite was able to escape Pan’s clutches with Eros.

The tragic story of Echo and Narcissus

The story of Echo is maybe the most tragic compared to Pan’s prospective lovers. Echo was a nymph with a beautiful voice. One day, Zeus tore into the woods looking for a place to hide from the very angry Hera who suspected him of another infidelity. Seeing Echo, Zeus asked her to help him escape. When Hera arrived in the woods, Echo distracted her with chatter and gossip. The infuriated Hera, who then punished Echo by denying her much of her power of speech. Echo was condemned to forever only be able to repeat the last few sounds she heard.

painting of a woman
“Echo” by Alexandre Cabanel

Not long after, Echo saw and fell in love with the most beautiful young man, Narcissus. Narcissus was looking into the stream, enchanted by his own reflection.

“Come to me,” Narcissus said, looking into the water.

“Come to me,” Echo echoed eagerly.

“Who’s there?” Narcissus looked around angrily.

“Who’s there?” Echo echoed loudly.

“Go away,” Narcissus shouted and, again, Echo echoed forlornly.

Echo went sadly away and watched Narcissus from afar. Narcissus returned to the stream again and again to stare at the lovely young man he saw in the water. Hidden from his sight, Echo watched Narcissus as he lay by the stream, repeating everything Narcissus said, albeit quietly. Day after day, Narcissus laid by the stream, so busy admiring his own reflection that he eventually stopped eating and drinking. Narcissus died, leaving Echo heartbroken.

When Pan courted the heartbroken nymph, Echo ignored his advances. This angered Pan who then used his powers to drive his shepherds into a state of panic. The shepherds went mad and tore Echo to small pieces which were then blown by the wind to all parts of the world. Gaia, the Earth mother, took pity on Echo and let her pieces retain her beautiful voice. To this day, people can still hear a piece of Echo repeating the sounds around her.

statue of a  god Pan and a nymph
Pan and Syrinx, photo by Dr. Bernd Gross – CC BY-SA 3.0

Pan, Syrinx and the creation of the Pan Flutes

Syrinx was a beautiful wood Nymph from Arcadia, famous for her strong passion for hunting. One day, Pan saw Syrinx in the backwoods on her way to hunt. Delighted by what he saw, Pan decided to approach her. However, Syrinx ran away from him. The nymph ran as fast as she could, but Pan followed in hot pursuit. Her path was cut by the river Ladon. Desperately, Syrinx appealed to Zeus to rescue her and Zeus turned her into a reed.

Enraged, Pan smashed the reeds into pieces. However, he was quickly struck with remorse. He wept and kissed the broken reeds. As he kissed the reeds he discovered that his breath could create sounds from them. He therefore he made the reeds into a musical instrument that would carry the lost nymph’s name.

Although he called the instrument “Syrinx”, people forever recognize the instrument as “Pan Pipes” or “Pan Flutes”. Everywhere he went, Pan took his beloved Syrinx with him, delighting deities and mortals alike with its harmonious sounds.

statue of god Pan chasing a nymph
Pan chasing Syrinx by Gilles-Lambert Godecharle, 1804, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

An encounter between Pan and another nymph is mentioned in Longo’s second century CE novel “Daphnis and Cloe”, as well as by Lucian of Samosata. The nymph’s name was Pitys. Pan pursued the running nymph until she turned herself into a pine tree. In a slightly different version of the story, Pitys found herself to be desired by both Pan and Boreas, the god of the north wind. One day, Boreas became so overwrought with jealousy over the maiden that he released a big breath and accidentally blew her off the side of a nearby cliff. When her body hit the earth, Gaia pitied the unfortunate nymph and promptly transformed her into the shape of a pine tree.

The nobility of Pan

In a rare story where he is not depicted as a lusty god, Pan made a brief appearance in the writings of the Roman poet Lucius Apuleius in his second century CE novel “The Golden Ass”. The story is that, just as Psyche was about to cast herself into a river, the now older and wiser god Pan appeared and convinced her that self-sacrifice was not the answer to her troubles. Pan comforted the young woman and assured her that all would be well if she would just put aside her sadness and seek forgiveness from her estranged husband Eros. Psyche took Pan’s advice to heart, and quietly left the riverbank in quest of her lost love.

There is a wide assortment of myths surrounding Pan’s parentage. Hermes or Dionysos are most often named as his father, but Zeus has also been named. Pan has also been said to possibly be the son of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. The legend is that while Odysseus was away, Penelope slept with her 108 suitors and became pregnant with Pan—an idea that would certainly explain Pan’s prodigious eroticism.   

Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus spoke of Apollo, Pan, and Zeus, as the gods who send the Furies; Zeus as ruler of the world, Pan as the daemon that disorders the intellect, and Apollo as the god of punishment. Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus said Pan was adored by the Egyptians. His statues were to be seen in all the temples, and it was to his honor they had built the city of Pan or Panopolis. However, there was no place in all the world where Pan was more honored than in Ancient Greece, in Arcadia, which was part of the administrative region of the Peloponnese.

Pan, the protector god of Arcadia

Herodotus said that the inhabitants of Arcadia were Pelasgians, the supposed ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of Greece who dwelled there before the arrival of the ‘Hellenic’ tribes—the same Pelasgians who first appear in the poems of Homer. Those who are stated to be Pelasgians in the Illiad are among the allies of Troy.

Painting of a satyr and a girl
“Pan and Psyche” by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Pan’s ability to cause panic would have been useful at war. Out of the many things associated with Pan today, his powers to cause panic is possibly the least cited. The Hebrew word Pan or Phan, denotes a man under consternation and feelings of anxiety or dismay— typically at something unexpected.

Legend has it that any army that entered the woods and hills of Arcadia, Pan’s domain, would be inflicted with a sudden panic. The general assumption is that Pan creates such madness on his own that an army feels as if they are being attacked, and in that moment of terror, even comrades in arms end up killing each other without realizing it. One Pan myth tells of him leading an army into India, and defeating the Indians by causing them to fight each other. Panic was said to spread like wildfire among armies, and that it only took a few frightened individuals to throw everyone else into a panic state.

Geographically, ancient Arcadia occupied the highlands at the center of the Peloponnese. The Peloponnese could be considered highlanders, much like the goat is the highlander of animals, and this may be one of the reasons that the goat was chosen by the Pelasgians as their symbol. After the collapse of the Roman power in the west, the home of the political empire known as the Peloponnese in Arcadia became part of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire whose symbol we know today as the double headed eagle.

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