“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.
— Mark Twain
Twain wrote this particular quip after having read his own obituary – something which must have come as a bit of a shock. It’s not the sort of thing one expects to read in the papers.
There is, perhaps, a parallel in relation to the Great God, known as Pan. Sometime around the 8th decade of the Common Era, (according to Plutarch), a ship’s captain was called by name (Thamus) as his vessel passed the island of Paxos. After his name was called the third time (how often do we see that particular pattern – being called three times – repeated? It seems to somehow be an important number for humans…), he was told to announce on his arrival in Italy that “The Great God Pan is dead”. On accomplishing this quest, the captain and passengers heard a sounds as of many voices, lamenting the passing of such a God .
Needless to say, some have made much of this, as the death of a particularly Pagan (as in, rural, as well as in Pagan-religious) God, being announced at such a time 1. Others have suggested that this was merely the boatswain hearing a ritual cry for the death of Adonis, (who would have been known as Thammuz in that part of the world) .
Judging by current Pagan and neo-Pagan practice, however, this announcement of the death of he who was styled “The Great God” was not only premature but was, in fact, just plain wrong. Pan is invoked in the well known “Charge of the God”; his name is used in many rituals, such as that cited by the Farrars as the Rite of the Thirteenth Megalith . This is hardly new, of course: the Romantics knew Pan well, and as Irwin said quite some time ago, “No one modern author has pre-empted Pan and promoted a single-handed revival. Indeed, revival was quite unnecessary” .
There is, for some reason, a tendency at the moment to connect Pan, Herne and Cernunnos, almost as aspects of the one deity2. I have begun to wonder if this is not another, more subtle, but still erroneous announcement of the death of the Great One. It certainly seems to represent a departure from the way the ancients, at least, viewed the deity whose name means, simply, “all”, or “all that there is”.
What is there to connect these deities of Pan, Cernunnos and Herne? While this is not the place to discourse on the attribution of the name “Cernunnos” to the various representations of the Horned God in Europe,3 the fact is that the attribution is generally made on the basis of the presence of horns/antlers. The same may be true of representations which are labelled as being of Herne.
Pan, on the other hand, is not a deity with antlers at all – rather, he is a ram-horned God. The difference, of course, is that antlers are shed yearly by adult males of the deer species, while horns are permanent fixtures. While the presence (or absence, or growth process) of antlers thus has a significance in terms of the time of the year, the presence of horns means only that the animal in question has attained a particular state of maturity. This difference is often glossed over or indeed not mentioned, in that all of the deities involved are described as “horned”, while “antlered” might be a better appellation for Cernunnos at least, and would be more accurate in the significance many Pagans give his story in relation to the wheel of the year.
Cernunnos, or at least a figure so designated, does have some association with rams’ horns, however. He (or the figure of an antlered man) is often depicted holding, or near, a ram horned snake, which appears to be unique to this figure in Europe . Snakes are, of course, traditionally associated with wisdom (and particularly occult –hidden- knowledge, as they live so much of their lives in a manner that is hidden from view); horns, as well, are associated with knowledge and wisdom. Combining the two may have been a particularly strong message of hidden knowledge/wisdom? We can’t know, but this seems at least a sensible reading of the iconography.
All of which is very interesting, but leads us no closer to the Great God Pan. What do we know of Pan, from the ancient sources?
First of all, we know that he is ancient. Herodotus (who is reckoned to have died in about 484 BCE) records that the Egyptians listed him as among the most ancient of gods . He shows up early in Greek literature, in the Homeric Hymns, and in Pindar. The Greeks knew him as an Arcadian deity – that is, one of the countryside, rather than the city (polis), or, after the battle of Marathon, at most the Athenians knew him as “the wild in the midst of the city” , where they dedicated a temple to him in the cleft of a rock. His association with the countryside is perhaps one reason he is never reckoned among the Olympians: Olympia would have been too organised, too rigid, to civilised for him to be comfortable there.
Yet he is not adverse to those who live in cities, and indeed offered his help to the Athenians before the fabled battle of Marathon, earning himself a shrine from the citizens in return . He had a cult centre dedicated to him in Banyas, (at the bottom of Mt. Hermon in modern Israel), in what was then a thriving cult centre . Whether or not cities were to his taste, clearly he did not despise those who dwelt within them.
Yet he is most at home, and considered most commonly in relation to, the wilderness, the wild places – quintessentially, the places which shepherds frequent in the course of looking after their flocks.
There seem to be three distinct views of Pan, from the ancient sources. The first is the familiar one, the father of the satyrs, the lustful, playful, half-goat figure beloved of the Pan painter of ancient Greece . This is the figure who pursues Syrnix to the edge of the water, where she calls for help from the water nymphs and is transformed through their workings. The play of the wind across the resulting reeds leads Pan to create the pipes with which he is associated.
The second is, perhaps strangely, considering modern views of Pan as linked to Cernunnos and Herne, as advisor. It is Pan who convinces Psyche that doing away with herself will not solve her troubles (and indeed, eventually, after many trials, she is victorious in love) .
Finally, of course, Pan inspires the fear (best known at high noon or at the dark of night) of the wild places, the non-rational response to what we might term “that which goes bump in the woods” – PANic. This is an irrational terror . As Pan is linked to Dionysos, perhaps this Panic is also linked to the madness induced by that God in his maenads, when they are driven beyond the bounds of sanity. It is tempting to see in both the Panic inspired by Pan and the madness which resulted from the refusal of the king to recognise the God Dionysos, a sort of reaction to hierarchical authority, “civilised living” and the general rules which surround us – but this is a modern interpretation, rather than an ancient one. The ancient moral is much simpler and clearer: beware what you disturb (else Panic may ensure) and honour the Gods (or suffer the fate of Pentheus).
How, then, do these three views of Pan relate to the idea of the tripartide concept of Cernunnos, Herne and Pan? Or even to the general idea of a “Horned God”?
The answer is that to a great extent, it is impossible to tell. Those who interacted with Pan in the ancient world, at least in the Greek world, left us records of what they did, and why, and what they believed – those who drew pictures and created sculptures of the ubiquitous “Horned Gods” throughout much of Europe, particularly in the lands now denoted as “Celtic” often did no such thing – as we have seen, we only have one instance of the name, for example.
Is it likely that Pan would have been associated with a horned snake, as the Antlered God was? It seems to me unlikely – his wisdom is that of the forest and the lack of rules, regulations and dogma, rather than that of the learned ones.
Pan seems to have been a deity whose prowess continued throughout the year, which is in keeping with being a horned deity, rather than an antlered one; there seems to be no record of belief in a yearly life cycle as is commonly associated (rightly or wrongly) with The Horned God of modern Pagan lore.
Conversely, there seems to be little record of Cernunnos as Counsellor, while Pan is clearly seen in this role in relation to Psyche, at least. Nor is Pan’s demeanour of lustful playfulness at all akin to the sedate presentations of Cernunnos as a seated, pensive deity.
Are we, in linking Pan and Cernunnos in this way, perhaps presiding again over the announcement of if not the death, then the mutilation of the image of the Great God Pan? Perhaps it is time to sever the artificial link between these deities and look at each for what he is, and what he represents, rather than imposing an uneasy identification between them.
1 See, for instance, Bullfinch’s reporting that this great cry was occasioned by the revelation of the angels (to shepherds…) that Christ had been born. The Great God was dead, and several of the Olympian Gods were set to wander with no fixed abode.
2 Cf. among many others which could be cited….
3 This attribution may well be questionable, as he is named at only one place .
© Diotima; published in Immrama Samhain 2003