The Origins of the Goat Foot God

Diotima Sophia

The rustic god Pan chanced to be sitting at that moment on the brow of the stream … Close by the bank nanny-goats were sporting as they grazed and cropped the river-foliage here and there. The goat-shaped god … said: ‘I am a rustic herdsman.” (Apuleius 1999) Here – at least if we take the word of Apuleius – we have the words of Pan himself about what and who he is – a rustic herdsman.

The possibility of taking this statement at face value, however, immediately presents itself.Apuleius, in common with most of the rest of the sources cited here, was not generally in the habit of recording the words of rustic herdsmen for posterity – why should he do so? Yet these words, and many others like them, were recorded and are still there for us to read, peruse and ponder. The earliest literary information we have about Pan is probably from the Homeric Hymn to him (Merivale 1969), number 19 of that grouping, if one is counting.The Hymns almost certainly weren’t written by Homer; rather, they are in his style, and so fit within the corpus of work which is given the general title.Whoever wrote them, (and it is to Thucydides that we owe the attribution to Homer, so we can at least blame him), the Hymns form one of the basic building blocks of western literature (Richardson 2003). The Hymns are a series of songs– four are long and complex (to Aphrodite, Apollo, Demeter and Hermes), and were probably created (if not written down – therein lies an entirely different argument (Nagy 1992; Notopoulos 1962)) within a hundred years either way of 500 BCE.It’s thought that the other, shorter poems (29 in all, including that to Pan) are later (Burkert 1985).Although scholars are still not entirely agreed about their function, it would seem that the longer hymns, at least, were more about imparting and preserving myth than about liturgy or formal worship (Speake 1994). Of course, the hymns may well have been written down long after they were composed, like so much other oral poetry and epic.Our society seems to have little time for learning by memorisation (Diotima 2006), but we may well be unusual in that regard – simply because something was written down does not mean it was no longer recited or sung (Notopoulos 1962).(And the proliferation of internet sites offering lyrics to popular songs do not in any way detract from the singing of those songs, in our own time). While we can not and should not take the Hymns as some kind of liturgical primer, giving us a clear view of Greek religious practice, it does seem clear that the songs and chants involved performed some function in Greek society (Nagy 1992) (otherwise, why would they have been so carefully preserved?[1]).It may be that they were aetiological, in that they told the story of the originof certain things and practices – such as the lyre and the use of a 12 part sacrifice (Richardson 2003).But it also seems possible – probable? – that some of the hymns, notably those to Dionysus, Hestia and Hermes, and most importantly for our purposes, that to Pan – may well have been designed for particular religious festivals. While I’ve said above that there were no set texts in Greek religion, it’s worth pointing out that some texts had more status than others, being referred to time and time again – the Hymns, and other works attributed to Homer and Hesiod among them (Burkert 1985).They did not have the authority attributed to the Bible nor yet that given to the Koran, but they were seen, if you like, as the basis on which all else was built. (This makes some of their omissions even more interesting, as we shall see). And, while the Greeks really had no equivalent to a lectionary or a book of common prayer, no primer of “how to invoke”, there were certain, recognised ways of going about things: if you wanted something, you followed a fairly set pattern.You made sure you got the right god listening to you (after all, the chthonic Apollo is a very different entity, or differently interested entity, at least, from the Apollo of the lyre…), by giving the deity the full titles you want to invoke, and you remind them of their favoured places, as well as their past deeds.(Think of asking a boss for a raise… it might well be better to tell the boss how good they are and how much you have learned from them, at the outset, than to say that you really need to pay off that loan…). Having got the god’s attention (the right kind of attention from the right god), then you made your request, generally in connection with a sacrifice.As above, the gods weren’t all that interested in humans per se: asking for something usually required that you make it worth the god’s while (Garland 1994).One of the functions of the Hymns, then, was to act as a primer for such rituals: they told you where the god was born, or what she was known for, and gave you the wherewithal to contact them in as safe a manner as possible. The hymns tell us something about how people and gods related to each other.At times the relation is just that and the union of deity and human leads to the birth of a rather exceptional person; but more generally, the interchange is one of worship and sacrifice on the our part and (often rather capricious) favour on theirs (Richardson 2003).And, in the case of Hymn 19, they tell us a bit about how the gods deal with each other as well…

The Homeric Hymn to Pan

While it’s probable that this is one of the later hymns in the collection, scholars are no more agreed on the dating than on any other aspect of the hymns (starting with Allen 1897, and going on from there); but it seems doubtful that it is among the older hymns; there is a bit of a silence in general Greek literature about the goat foot god in the earliest times. Whatever its age, however, the hymn provides a very useful structure for an examination of the ancient ideas of Pan. That is not to say that it is the best ancient description of Pan, or the most accurate, or indeed the most representative – as we shall see, there are some surprising inclusions and some even more surprising omissions in the hymn.However, it still provides a useful framework.[2] A caveat, however: there is always a danger in deconstructing any ritual, sacred, or otherwise “other” piece of literature – that it will lose that sense of awe and wonder which makes it other.I would dislike this to happen to Hymn 19… Therefore, may I ask that now, at this juncture, the reader take her/himself to Appendix 1, and reads the Hymn in its entirety?Read it in whatever way seems fitting to you – and then return to the text. I’ll wait…. Allen, T. W. (1897). “The text of the Homeric Hymns, III.” The journal of Hellenic Studies 17: 42 – 62. Apuleius (1999). The Golden Ass. Oxford, Oxford Paperbacks. Burkert, W. (1985). Greek Religion. Oxford, Blackwell. Diotima (2006). “By heart.” Pagan Dawn Beltaine. Garland, R. (1994). Religion and the Greeks. Gunningham, M. Classical World Series.London, Bristol Classical Press. Merivale, P. (1969). Pan the goat-god. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. Nagy, G. (1992). “Homeric Questions.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122: 17 – 60. Notopoulos, J. A. (1962). “The Homeric Hymns as oral poetry: A study of the Post-Homeric oral tradition.” The American Journal of Philology 83(4): 337 – 368. Richardson, N. I. (2003). The Homeric Hymns. London, Penguin Classics. Speake, G., Ed. (1994). The Penguin dictionary of ancient history. London, Penguin Books Ltd.


[1] For discussions of this phenomena, generally called “functionalism”, please refer to any reasonable sociology textbook.In very condensed form, the idea is that things survive in society –any given society – as long as they fulfil a function.The reader is invited to muse, then, on the proliferation of “reality” TV – and fear.

[2] Chaoists: feel free to substitute the word, “paradigm” here.


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