In the 1st century AD, a passing ship headed to Italy heard the cry “the great god Pan is dead!” The source of the voice was never discovered, but the message was passed on. The god Pan’s demise and his symbiotic relationship with nature has long been a topic of interest, even in the ancient world. Is the present-day crisis over the loss of nature a modern concern? Or has it always been a concern? What happened to the great god Pan, lord of Arcadia?
Who Is, Or Was, The God Pan?
In Greek mythology, the great god Pan ruled over the domain of the wild. His name originates from the old Arcadian word for rustic, but in later ancient Greek society, his name came to be associated with the Athenian word “παν” meaning “all.” He was born with hooves, shaggy legs, a furry tail, and horns – in a manner of ways, he was part goat.
Pan was raised by nymphs, spirits of nature, whose life force are attached to things such as trees, rivers, and plants. Pan was welcomed into the divine pantheon by all the gods. Just as the gods were delighted to welcome Pan, so were they delighted by nature itself — the gods often had sacred living spaces found in rural places all around Greece. Mount Olympus itself, the collective home of the gods, is the highest mountain in Greece, a place where nature thrives.
Arcadia, “the land of many springs” was the most rural place in ancient Greece; it was the god Pan’s home – and the most popular place for worship of the god. Here Pan took part in leading the nymphs in dances, or was found chasing them, and reveling in the beauty of the wild. He is often depicted wandering through valleys, mountains, and glades. In Greek mythology, his essence as the God of the wild, imbued his surroundings with life and vitality. Nature was at its most bountiful when Pan was present.
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The great god Pan also enjoyed music and so was often found playing melodious tunes on his reed pipes. Nonnus captures the rural life of Pan: “Melodious Pan sat beside herds of goats or sheepcoates playing his tune on the assembled reeds…” (Dionysiaca 45. 174 ff)
Rural Arcadia, To Urban Athens… To Rome
Arcadia was often seen as a land where people lived in a utopian wilderness. Life was closest to the Golden Age of ancient Greece in Arcadia. This land was home to many rustic figures from myth. Hermes the god of travellers was born here, and he was sometimes a companion to the god Pan. In some myths Hermes is said to have been Pan’s father. The Greek heroine Atalanta, who was raised by a bear, grew up in the forest and became an unparalleled huntress.
Arcadia was located in the middle of the Peloponnese, part of the southern mainland of Greece. As its neighbouring city-state Athens grew in wealth and power, foot traffic through the land of Arcadia increased, leading to a disruption of the unspoiled wilderness. As the empire grew, nature receded.
Arcadia was later overtaken by the Romans, when the Empire expanded. By the time the Empire was at its peak, nature all over the Mediterranean was interrupted by roads to Rome and other urbanization projects. In Emperor Augustus’ time, he built aqueducts, 82 temples, and completed the Roman Forum — all within the city of Rome. This was a huge development from the original pastoral life of the Romans. The Romans had originally lived in mud huts on the seven hills of Rome, although they soon built up their lands.
In Renaissance mythology, Arcadia is sometimes equated with a lost Eden. Through this imagery, people living in the Renaissance period yearned nostalgically for a time that had passed, and they used Arcadia as a symbol of a more peaceful, pastoral time. In the arts, nature became a very popular theme to illustrate mankind’s relationship with the wild. Nature and its timelessness, albeit repressed, was a central part of artistic discourse.
It was under the Roman Empire, in the reign of the second Emperor, Tiberius, that the announcement of Pan’s death was heard. Plutarch records the story in De Defectu Oraculorum:
“[the] ship drove with the tide till it was carried near the Isles of Paxi; when immediately a voice was heard … calling unto one Thamus, and that with so loud a voice as made all the company amazed; … the voice said aloud to him, ‘When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great god Pan is dead.’ … this voice did much astonish all that heard it, and caused much arguing whether this voice was to be obeyed or slighted…”
After this absurd announcement, the sailors were unsure whether to believe the cry or not. Already, the name of Pan, or Faunus as he was known by the Romans, was becoming forgotten. Who was Pan? Nevertheless, the message was conveyed first by Thamus to the Emperor, and then on to the rest of the Empire.
“Thamus standing on the deck, with his face towards the land, uttered with a loud voice his message, saying, ‘The great Pan is dead!’ He had no sooner said this, but they heard a dreadful noise, not only of one, but of several, who, to their thinking, groaned and lamented with a kind of astonishment. And there being many persons in the ship, an account of this was soon spread over Rome, which made Tiberius the Emperor send for Thamus; and he seemed to give such heed to what he told him, that he earnestly enquired who this Pan was?”
Even Tiberius, a great Hellenophile, had forgotten the name and identity of the god Pan. As a result, Pan and “the wild” became obsolete and neglected.
The Rise Of Empire And Loss Of Nature
Despite being pushed into the background in favor of enabling empire and urbanization to grow, nature never left the mind of mankind completely. The series of artworks named the Course of an Empire by Thomas Cole depicts the cyclical relationship of nature and humankind. The artwork series consists of five stages.
Stage One, The Savage State, depicts the uncultivated, wild land before mankind’s development. Nature rules the world, and man is its subject. The painting is very dark and ominous, suggesting that the unrestrained wild can be dangerous and threatening.
Stage Two, The Arcadian or the Pastoral State, illustrates the slow growth of mankind, also a deep healthy relationship with nature. The landscape is bright and idyllic. Humankind and nature coexist in a tranquil state. This second stage is often equated to the peaceful and bountiful era of Homeric Greece, a time when the god Pan would be a very strong force in the lives of humankind. The title of the piece ‘Arcadian’ alludes to Pan’s home and presence.
Stage Three, The Consummation of Empire, shows how humankind has dominated nature. This painting is crowded with buildings and nature is heavily repressed. This stage reflects the “cry” that “the great god Pan is dead”, as nature is hardly in sight. Nature has been lost at the expense of urban and imperial development.
The Great God Pan Reclaims The Ruins
Stage Four, Destruction, hints at the rise of nature, with the background gaining prominence. This illustrates the waking influence of Pan once again. In this painting, humankind is running riot, murdering and pillaging society. As humankind destroys itself, nature increases its presence, ready to reclaim its lost status.
Stage Five, Desolation, is the final stage of the cycle. In this painting, there is no human presence, only the ruins of civilization. Nature and green growth spreads over the abandoned buildings and the destroyed remnants of man’s Empire. This symbolically reflects the rise of the god Pan once again.
Thomas Cole’s cyclical depiction of humankind and nature advocates the idea that Pan’s presence, or “the wild”, will continue to gain prominence and decline over and over again; starting with the original wealth of nature (Pan’s alert consciousness), to the fall into repression at the expense of mankind’s development (Pan’s sleep/death), and then the return of nature after the demise of civilization (the waking/rebirth of Pan). And so it will begin all over again.
Pan, Poetry, And The Pastoral: Thoreau
It is a popular theme in the arts that nature can offer something beyond the human experience. Over the centuries, artists have returned to nature as a theme that draws on introspection, nostalgia, prudence, and peace.
Henry David Thoreau is a very interesting example of an artist taking to the power of nature. Thoreau was an American philosopher and transcendentalist writer. He decided to leave society for a period of time to live in the woods to further understand nature and life.
He wrote the following lines, in his book Walden, alternatively named, Life in the Woods:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In accordance with his wishes to delve further into nature, Thoreau relocated to a cabin in the woods in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. Here, he lived by Walden Pond and studied nature and the wildlife of his surroundings. He felt that the experience afforded him a valuable relationship with nature and a deeper understanding of existence. Thoreau’s life in the woods deeply reflects the life of the god Pan who also roamed the wild.
It was common for writers in busy periods of rapid colonization or urban development to feel nostalgia for a peaceful and rural life — a time that was most commonly associated with the pastoral lands of ancient Homeric Greece.
Nostalgia For The Lost God
Similarly, on the other side of western world, Oscar Wilde in the late 1800s in England wrote the poem Pan. The poem bemoans the lack of the god Pan’s presence in the contemporary world. Here are a few stanzas:
O goat-foot God of Arcady!
This modern world is grey and old,
And what remains to us of thee?
Though many an unsung elegy
Sleeps in the reeds our rivers hold,
O goat-foot God of Arcady!
Ah, what remains to us of thee?
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady,
Thy satyrs and their wanton play,
This modern world hath need of thee.
Then blow some trumpet loud and free,
And give thine oaten pipe away,
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady!
This modern world hath need of thee!
In this poem, Wilde is calling to the great god Pan to return to the modern age because Wilde’s world has lost the influence and presence of Pan. Wilde’s poem evokes the idea that Pan is only sleeping — that he has the ability to awake and return. To reinstate the power of nature in the modern world and revitalize it with his essence.
The God Pan And Modernity
In the modern day, the drive to revitalize nature and protect what is left of the wild on our earth is increasingly advocated. Many steps have been taken in an effort to preserve and regrow lost natural spaces. In effect, a recovery of the lost god Pan.
Every day, the “search for Pan” is on the rise. Companies are cautioned to be more environmentally friendly, political campaigns raise awareness for global health, and eco-friendly practices are implemented into day-to-day habits.
The efforts of humankind over the last century have worked towards a healthy relationship with nature. Unlike Thomas Cole’s depiction, that the rise of humankind inevitably results in the demise of nature… is it instead possible for humans to find a way to live in harmony with nature? The unnamed voice announcing the death of the great god Pan could be reversed in our modern era. Like Wilde, perhaps humankind can be the voice, and announce the call for Pan to return.
For is Pan dead? Or only sleeping?