Pan: the Greek God of the countryside, shepherds, and rustic music
In Greek mythology, Pan is the goat-legged god who is most famous for being in charge of the wild, shepherds, flocks and rustic music. Also known for being a lover of women, especially nymphs, he is one of the few Greek gods with a very peculiar depiction and origin story.
In many of the myths about Pan, he is represented as a kind-hearted companion of the desolate as well as people in grief who wander the countryside searching for meaning or purpose. This can be seen in the myth involving Pan and the likes of Princess Psyche and the goddess Demeter. This character trait perhaps its roots in his origin story.
In the article below, World History Edu explores the birth story, symbols, powers and abilities of Pan.
What is Pan the god of in Greek mythology and religion?
Pan is the god of the wild, nature, countryside, and music, particularly rustic music. He is also the god of pastures and shepherds. As we shall see below, he was a very important deity among rustic tribes in ancient Greece. His presence is said to have been felt in every aspect of the lives of people living in the countryside.
Powers and abilities
One of the most known ability of Pan is his speed. This Greek god most likely got this ability of his from his father, Hermes. Like his father, Pan could shuttle between earth and Mount Olympus at neck-breaking speed without breaking a sweat. And typical of many Olympian gods, Pan also possessed enormous amount of strength.
Pan also possessed the ability to comfort people in distress. He may have appeared a bit frightening on first appearance, but that does not take anything away from him when it came to being there for the people he encountered wandering in the wild.
He is also known for having a great sense of humor. Come to think of it, no one can say that his entire physical appearance isn’t funny.
How important was Pan in the Greek pantheon?
To the folks in the countryside of ancient Greece, Pan was an important deity who symbolized togetherness, happiness, and merrymaking. It was believed that Pan’s presence could be felt in all things in countryside. As a matter of fact the word “pan” in Greek evokes the meaning of “all”. So be it from one’s sexual life to one’s daily job of tending to the flock in the sheep, Pan’s presence was always felt by ancient Greeks who had an admiration for the rustic lifestyle.
It is certainly strange that Pan was seen as minor god, considering just how many interesting stories there are about him in Greek mythology. Perhaps the reason for this is due to the bias nature we as a society tend to look at people who live in the countryside.
Many mythographers and scholars alike note that Pan’s origin story goes really far back into the ancient world, perhaps long before the emergence of the worship of Olympian deities like Zeus and Hermes. This makes a lot of sense because the ancient world always had a fascination with nature and the spirits that they believed resided in those wild places. They would often incorporate human traits with the animals of the wild in describing the spirits and deities of the wild. Pan was an example of such deities who later made his way into ancient Greek religion and mythology.
In order to fit into the more civilized pantheon of Greek gods, Pan had to undergo a slight change while still maintaining some of his wild character traits and depiction. This explains why he often appears a tat bit wilder than his fellow Greek gods.
Birth and family
The commonly held believe in ancient Greek religion and mythology is that Pan is the son of the Greek god Hermes. Known as the youngest of the Twelve Olympians, Hermes is the messenger of the gods whose role includes being the god of traders, thieves, orators, and travelers. Hermes is also praised for being the deity who invented the musical instrument, the lyre. Therefore it comes as no surprise that he is often associated with not just Pan, but also music and art deity like Apollo.
If Hermes is the father of Pan, then Pan’s siblings are Hermaphroditus, Evander, Eudoros, Autolycus, among others.
There is not much detail about who Pan’s mother was. The general consensus is that Pan’s mother was a nymph, perhaps one of the three thousand nymphs born to Titans Oceanus and Tethys. In some accounts, Pan’s mother is either Dryope or Penelope.
Family Tree of the Greek God Pan
Through his father Hermes’ line, Pan is the great great grandson of Clymene – a nymph, wife of Titan of Iapetus, and daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.
Pan’s place of residence
In the myths, Pan resides in Arcadia, a mountainous area in central Greece that is known for being the home of many Greek nymphs, shepherds, and other creatures.
It’s believed that he spends most of his time in the wild and countryside, as he prefers being around nature and not in the regal environment of Mount Olympus. In this sense, he is almost similar to Greek goddess Artemis (known to the Romans as Diana), the deity of the hunt and the moon.
Character traits of Pan
Much of his playful and crafty traits came from his father, Hermes, the trickster god in Greek mythology. Pan is therefore cheerful and fun to be around. In the myths, he is described as deity who is full of sexual energy and desire. He often goes about meeting those needs of his in a playful and sometimes cunning manner.
Unlike his mother who was horrified at his birth, Pan’s father Hermes took a lot of pride in Pan. His sharp-bearded chin, hairy legs and cloven hooves did not frighten neither Hermes nor the Olympians. In the myths, the gods were pleased with Pan’s character and his ability to bring joy and laughter to Olympus. Other things that make Pan endearing to the gods were his love of music and unbridled appreciation of beauty, nature and sexual lust.
He had a knack for taking delight in everything. This positive attitude allowed him to bring joy to the Olympian gods.
After his mother abandoned him, Pan was placed in the care of nymphs in the wild. There he came to be a very outgoing god who always loved singing, dancing and carrying out pranks here and there. In the myth, Pan is described as far from passive. As he was not raised on Mount Olympus, he ended up not carrying himself in a regal manner like his fellow Greek gods did. This is perhaps the reason why many of his counterparts found him charming.
According to the myths, Pan was born fully formed and grown. Following his birth, Pan’s mother was so horrified of the look of Pan that she discarded him. Pan then had no option than to head into the wild, where he spent most of his time interacting with the creatures of his kind.
In artworks since ancient times, the Greek god Pan has always been depicted an adult man with goat-like features. For example, Pan has the tail and legs of a goat. To complete his goat-like look, he has two fully formed horns atop his head. It was also not uncommon to have him depicted disheveled with untidy clothes, a feature which further reinforces his wild side.
It’s been stated that Pan’s worship most likely originated from ancient Arcadia. It was from those kinds of cultures, that Pan then went on to become a member of the Greek pantheon of gods.
Pan’s representation as a lover of natural things and the wild meant that his follows did not erect massive and spectacular temples to his honor. Pan would certainly not have approved of having regal temples and worship sites like the Acropolis where the Parthenon is. This explains why many of his temples were found in rural places and the countryside.
Perhaps the most noticeable symbol of the Greek god Pan is his flute. Being the son of Hermes, who is believed to have invented music, Pan’s association with music comes as no surprise. With respect to the flute, the musical instrument was a very popular one among shepherds in rural areas in Greece. These shepherds would play the flute as a means to keep themselves entertained while keeping an eye on their flock that were grazing in the field. As a result, Pan became associated with rustic music.
Why was Pan depicted as a half goat?
To the ancient Greeks the goat symbolized an imperfect animal who was not concerned that much about fidelity or staying true to something. The goat was the go-to animal whenever the Greeks wanted to appease the gods because it was communicating to the gods their people’s imperfections. What better way to do this than to use a goat, an animal they considered unworthy and flawed. Perhaps this is the same imagery that came to mind when they depicted Pan as a half goat. Pan was not concerned with fidelity, preferring to pursue pleasure in a more natural manner. Ancient Greece also saw the goat as very crafty but lacking any form of nobility.
Pan and the Olympian gods
To the ancient Greeks, Pan was anything but easy on the eyes. This probably explains why his mother was so frieghtened of his look that she took such a heartless decision of abandoning him in the wild. However, the Olympian gods found Pan a very fascinating god. He may have not been seen as a physically attractive deity, but he was definitely very endearing to many Olympian gods. In one account of the story, Pan was even taken to Mount Olympus by his father Hermes.
Pan’s association with Dionysus
In the myths, Pan has very good relationship with many of the Olympian gods and goddesses. He was mostly associated with deities like Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus. Regarding the latter, it was also said that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, religious ecstasy and festivity, took quite a shine to Pan as the two gods had a lot in common. Dionysus and Pan basically loved to party, so to speak. Pan’s association with merrymaking is reinforced by the number of times he interacts with the satyrs, nature deities that were also known as the spirits of the countryside or the wild.
The Maenads – followers of Dionysus
In Greek mythology, the Panes, deities with features of goats, were often associated with the Satyrs, nature deities with donkey or horse features. Like the Panes, the Satyrs were a race of hybrids who lived a relatively carefree lifestyle and mostly got themselves involved in mischief. The Satyrs are also known to have some bit of primal urges, as they often lust over nymphs. The Satyrs and the Panes often hanged out and drank to wild abandon with the Greek god Dionysus (Known to the Romans as Bacchus). They were known as the Maenads, the wild creatures who followed Dionysus.
Role in the Greek pantheon
Pan’s role in the pantheon basically is to be in charge of the wild areas and countryside. Specifically, he was revered as the patron god of shepherds. Being goat-legged god, Pan’s association with shepherds is not really misplaced as shepherds tend to animals like sheep and goats. It was believed that Pan would appear to shepherds and instruct them on which fields the shepherds should send their flocks to. He also intervened sometimes whenever a shepherd’s flock was threatened by wild animals, like wolves.
Ancient Greeks believed that Pan was very welcoming to people that had decided to live a stoic lifestyle or those that loved nature and wild and carefree lifestyle. This is why he was represented as the god of rustic lifestyle and rustic music.
A fertility god
In Greek mythology, Pan was also known as a fertility god. Perhaps his animal features contributed to him having this role. It was believed that Pan helped the flock of shepherd to breed.
Like the ancient Egyptian fertility god Min who has an erect phallus, Pan was also shown with a sizable phallus. This is also another reason why he was seen as a fertility god. His sphere of influence had to do with fertility particularly in animals. This sometimes transferred to primal urges of human beings. In some artwork, he is shown having relations with female creatures of the wild, including wild goats and nymphs. The nymphs he made merry with in the wild were not always open to the advances of Pan.
In one account, the nymphs, having grown tired of Pan’s incessant advances, ganged up and tied Pan down. They did not release him until his primal urges had subsided.
The dark side of Pan
Typical of many ancient Greek gods and goddesses, Pan too had a dark side. The Greeks were not afraid to portray their gods with the emotional and mental flaws that us humans have. In other words, Pan was not always the jolly and stoic character in the myths. The Greeks associated many of the fears they had with venturing into the wild with Pan. Whenever, a shepherd’s flock was seen running helter-skelter it was said that Pan might have startled them. Perhaps his physical appearance is what scared them.
It’s also been noted that the English word “Panic” likely came from Pan’s name. This shows just how much horror and fear Pan could evoke. In the myths, he has the ability to spread panic like wildfire. It was said that Pan came to the aid of a besieged city by impregnating the invading army’s camp with panic, leaving them overwhelmed by a sense of doom that forced them to abandon reason.
There is also another story of Pan purposely blanketing King Cyzicus’s kingdom with panic. The king was being punished for killing the goddess Cybele’s sacred lions. The myth goes on to say that Pan took immense pleasure in watching animals or humans panic. This is perhaps one of his favorite past time activity.
Did you know: The ancient Greeks believed that whenever a god/goddess visited a mortal, the mortal was consumed by panic?
Pan’s love affair and children
He may have not always had a great deal of luck when it came to finding a romantic partner, however, Pan did get to interact with some women, most notably Selene, the goddess of the Moon. Pan was able to seduce Selene by covering the lower part of his body, i.e. his goat half, with a sheepskin, which ultimately attracted the goddess. Selene was particularly pleased with the gift of white Oxen Pan presented to her. She used the oxen to pull her cart.
In the myths, Pan had a number of romantic partners with whom he bore children such as: Silenus, a follower of Dionysus; Krotos, a follower of the Muses; Eurymedon, one of the fighters who defended Thebes against the Seven Against Thebes; and Lynx.
Pan’s son Silenus was a fat old satyr who drank a lot and engaged in many hedonistic activities. In some versions of the story, Silenus is believed to have raised the Greek god Dionysus. Now we know why Dionysus ended up being the god of wine and feasts.
Pan and Echo
In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the blabber mouth Echo falls head over heels with Narcissus, an extremely handsome young man who is obsessed with his obsessed with his own looks. However, the curse placed on Echo by Hera prevents Echo from properly conveying her feelings to Narcissus; so Narcissus rejects her love. For being an accomplice in Zeus’ philandering activities with the nymphs, Echo had been cursed by Hera to repeat the last words of people’s sentences.
Also in the myth, it is stated that the Greek god Pan professed love to Echo, who rejected him as she had her eyes only for Narcissus. And even Echo had withered away due to Narcissus unrequited love, Pan continued to love Echo. He often played his flute in honor of her.
Read More: The Myth of Echo and Narcissus
Pan and the nymph Syrinx
It was pretty known in Greek mythology that followers and priestesses of the goddess Artemis had to take a vow of chastity. They did this in honor of Artemis, who herself was one of three maiden goddesses in Greek mythology (the other two are Hestia and Athena).
One day, Pan, while frolicking mindlessly in the wild, gazed upon a very beautiful wood nymph called Syrinx. Unbeknownst to Pan, Syrinx was a devout follower of Artemis, and as such, Syrinx had taken a chastity vow. Overcome by his primal urges, Pan tried to grab Syrinx, who due to her being nimble as a bird was able to quickly flee the scene. Syrinx ran to her father, a sea god. The wood nymph then pleaded with her family to help her guard against the unwanted advances of Pan. Her sister then changed her into a reed.
Upon arriving at the river side, Pan decided to gather as many reeds as possible, as he could not tell which reed was Syrinx. He then proceeded to fashion a pipe out of those reeds. Ever since then Pan always carried his music pipe on him.
The musical contest between Pan and Apollo
With his extraordinary gifts in music as well as playing the flute, it was only a matter of time a competition broke out between Pan and Apollo. Bear in mind, Apollo was also the deity of music and a gifted player of the lyre.
In the contest, Apollo adjudged the winner, as his lyre proved to be better of the two musical instruments. Just as Apollo was presented with the winner’s medal and a laurel, King Midas, who happened to be in the vicinity, voiced out his preference for Pan’s flute. Being a vengeful Olympian, Apollo did not take too kindly to the comment by King Midas, one by a mortal for that matter. Apollo responded by saying that Midas most likely had an ear of a donkey for him to make such a blatantly ignorant judgment. And so Apollo turned Midas’ ear into donkey ears.
The contest between Apollo’s lyre and Pan’s flute was in effect a contest between urban music and countryside music respectively. The sheer admiration Greeks had for urban lifestyle and cultured living are perhaps why Apollo’s lyre was praised as the winner. This is further reinforced by the punishment meted out by Apollo to King Midas, a man whose preference for rustic music was deemed uncultured.
Shepherd of Apollo’s sacred cattle
When Hermes stole Apollo’s sacred cattle, he looked no further than to place the cattle in the care of his son Pan. As the patron deity of shepherds, Pan knew everything that there was about shepherding animals. He could tell which places or pastures were best for a particular animal.
The god who comforts people wandering in the wilderness
In many of the myths about Pan, the Greek god is represented as a kind-hearted companion of the desolate as well as grieving people who wander the countryside searching for meaning or purpose. This can be seen in the myth involving Pan and the likes of Princess Psyche and the goddess Demeter. This character trait perhaps its roots in his origin story. Remember, Pan himself was abandoned by his own mother the moment he was born. Therefore, if there is anyone who truly understands what that feeling feels like, then it is Pan. This explains why he never hesitated to offer assistance to people in need that he encountered in the wilderness.
Pan and the beautiful princess Psyche
In one story involving Greek goddess Aphrodite and her son Eros (Roman Cupid), it was said that the beautiful princess Psyche incurred the displeasure of Aphrodite, the Olympian goddess of beauty and love. Aphrodite ordered her son Eros to punish Psyche by making her fall in love with a hideous creature. As fate would have it, Eros mistakenly shoots himself with his golden-tipped love-inducing arrow. So Eros then falls madly in love with Eros, and the two run away to live happily ever after. Or did they? It turned out that Psyche’s sisters had grown very jealous of Psyche’s perfect relationship with Eros. The sisters then convinced Psyche to look upon Eros’ face. Eros had categorically forbidden his lover from doing so. One night, curiosity got the better of Psyche, and she looked upon Eros’ face. Eros then abandoned Psyche, who spent all her days looking for the love of her life. It was during one of her futile searches that she met Pan. The Greek god took pity on the grieving princess and comforted her. He also dissuaded Psyche from committing suicide.
Inspired by the comforting words of Pan, Psyche soldiered and won back the favor of Aphrodite, who helped bring Eros back into Psyche’s life.
Pan and the goddess Demeter
After Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, abducted Persephone, the goddess Demeter went into hiding. The sheer grief for her as result of the disappearance of her daughter Persephone caused Demeter to neglect her duties – which is tending to the crops of the land. Demeter is said to have headed into the wild, the home of Pan. Demeter’s absence caused the crops to wither, and soon, famine and starvation became the order of the day. Afraid that the inhabitants of the world could all starve to death, the Greek gods tasked Pan to find Demeter. Perhaps with the exclusion of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, there was no one better skilled than Pan at finding things in the wild. The goat-legged god knew the wild like the back of his palm, or should we say the back of his hoof.
In any case, it did not take too long for Pan to discover the whereabouts of Demeter in the wild. He then relayed his findings to the gods, and soon, Demeter was back at her post attending to crops of the land.
Read More: Hades and Persephone: How the seasons came to being
Parallels with Peter Pan
It is possible that the famed character Peter Pan, which was created by Scottish novelist and playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937), took a bit of inspiration from the Greek god Pan. Like Pan, Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, is known for playing his reed flute. Peter Pan also mingles a lot with mermaids and nymph-like creatures of the wild.
Pan and the devil in Christianity
Depictions of Pan as the devil or Satan by some Christians gained momentum during the Victorian era. This depiction of him was in parallel with the Christian faith’s strong admonishing of pagan god. Somehow Pan was the unfortunate one to be compared to Satan, while the other Greco-Roman gods were given some kind of pass and seen in more artistically. Even to this day, it is not uncommon to have depictions of Satan with similar features as the Greek god Pan. Pan’s hairy goat legs and goat horns are basically the image used when the devil is shown.
More facts about the Greek god Pan
In one account of the myth, Pan fought on the side of Greek Olympians against the Titans. As a baby, Zeus was sometimes cared for by a she-goat. Pan is praised for being the shepherd of that she-goat.
Pan’s advances toward the nymph Syrinx was rejected. The nymph caught the attention of Pan with her bird-like voice. Syrinx was also nimble as a bird and a quick runner. The latter trait of hers was used to perfection when she fled from Pan.
In some accounts, Pan is portrayed as the son of Zeus rather than Hermes.
Hermes, known sometimes as “a cattle-raider”, infamously stole Apollo’s cattle and then placed the cattle in the care of Greek god Pan.