The Greek God Pan

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Who Was the Greek God Pan?

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Pan was a Greek god associated with fertility. Image by Matt Anker/Photolibrary/Getty Images

In Greek legend and mythology, Pan is known as a rustic and wild god of the forest. He is associated with the animals that live in the woods, as well as with the sheep and goats in the fields.

A son of the god Hermes and a local nymph, when Pan was born his mother took one look at his goat legs and horns, and promptly decided she wanted nothing to do with him. The other nymphs didn’t think much better of Pan as an adult, so he ran off to live in the woods. At one point, Pan fell in love with one of the wood nymphs, whose name was Syrinx, but she rejected him too, hiding from him by asking the water nymphs to change her into a reed at the riverbank. Ovid relates how Pan chased her, but all he could hear was the plaintive sound of the wind in the reeds:

Pan, when he thought he now had Syrinx, found that instead of the nymph’s body he only held reeds from the marsh; and, while he sighed there, the wind in the reeds, moving, gave out a clear, plaintive sound. Charmed by this new art and its sweet tones the god said ‘This way of communing with you is still left to me.’ So unequal lengths of reed, joined together with wax, preserved the girl’s name.

These reeds, of course, became known as the Panpipes, and although Pan himself is credited with their creation, the Panpipes are still played by musicians today.

Our About.com Ancient History Expert, NS Gill, says, “Pan, the noisy goat-footed god of the Greeks, looks after shepherds and woods, is a capable musician, and invented the instrument named for him, panpipes. He leads the nymphs in dances. He stirs up panic. He is worshiped in Arcadia and is associated with sexuality.”

Because of his connection to sexuality and fertility, Pan is often invoked during the Beltane season. Associated with the forest, like Cernunnos, Pan became somewhat unpopular during the early advent of Christianity. Kevin Hearne theorizes in The Demonization of Pan that because Pan was one of the most popularly worshiped Greek deities, he provided a direct competition to the new, one-god-only religion of Jesus Christ. He suggests that after the Council of Nicea met in the early fourth century, Christian leaders began deliberately painting Pan as the horned enemy from below.

It is important to note that although Pan and Cernunnos do have some distinct similarities, they are far from one and the same. Pan is a distinctly sexual god, often described in legends regarding his lusty adventures. Cernunnos, on the other hand, is specifically a hunting deity – while they are both connected to aspects of fertility, it is for entirely different reasons.