What's Behind the Ancient Greek Idea of Panic?

Don't Panic! It's Just...Panic.

An image of the god Pan, from Keightley's Mythology, 1852.
An image of the god Pan, from Keightley's Mythology, 1852. Keightley's Mythology, 1852.

Definition: The ancient Greeks attributed the emotion of panic to the Greek god Pan, lord of loud parties, wild animals, and forests. In The Emotions of the Greeks, David Konstan explains that, in mythology, when people accidentally would into the wild beast that was the god Pan, he would instill them with terror.

Legend has it that, at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., Pan instilled "panic" in the rival Persians; in gratitude, his cult was formally introduced to Athens.

As Herodotus told it, the herald Philippides ran from Marathon to Athens to tell his allies of his victory, but "when he was in the Parthenian mountain above Tegea, he encountered Pan." Pan asked Philippides why the Athenians didn't honor him when he'd been of such help to them in the past; after this incident, the Athenians "established a sacred precinct of Pan beneath the Acropolis. Ever since that message they propitiate him with annual sacrifices and a torch-race."

Pan possesses his worshippers and those he would meet, creating panic and causing them to act as raucously as the god himself. In fact, celebration of the god was noisy, leading to an association of panic and commotion. The Greeks understood panic as a collective, irrational fear, that came on suddenly and without visible cause.

As Yulia Ustinova opines in her Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind, Pan would instill visions and horrific hallucinations in his victims.

This was a form of "panic" and connected to Pan's own mythic associations with prophecies. Indeed, in Pseudo-Apollodorus's Library, the author wrote, "Apollo learned the art of prophecy from Pan." Just as Pan was tied to predictions of the future and altered states of consciousness, he was also tied to a more negative interpretation of those states of mind: panic!

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-Edited by Carly Silver