“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end” ― Neil Gaiman
In the 1st Century A.D., the world reeled from the shocking announcement that the Great God Pan was dead, which of course is remarkable, if for no other reason, than the fact that one assumes a central perk to being a god is immortality. Certainly, gods frequently put out hits on one another, but it was unheard of for divinity to die of natural causes. Many scholars equate the death of Pan with the rise of Christianity, suggesting that the new theology signaled the end of the old pantheistic world theologies and the rise of the far more serious and severe monotheisms, and consequently Pan died of a broken heart. Still, the circumstances surrounding Pan’s death are suspicious. No body was ever produced, authorities only investigated superficially, and Jesus, having only recently been resurrected, was unable to account for his whereabouts on the night in question. If this was an episode of Law and Order: Classical Gods Unit, we’d all be suspecting murder was afoot. Greek historian become Roman citizen Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) gave us an account of the report of Pan’s death.
As for death among such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelopê (Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum 17).
Tragically, Pan’s divine career had been on a downward slide even before the heyday of the Greek gods. Although the wise men of classical antiquity, including Herodotus, Cicero, Appollodorus, and Hyginus maintained that Pan was the child of Apollo and Penelope (the wife of Odysseus), the Greco-Roman pantheons were exuberantly syncrestic, begging, borrowing, and stealing gods from all around them. It seems fairly clear that Pan (from Greek, “to pasture”), as god of the wilds, be it wild beasts, wild forests, wild sex, or wild partying, predated the Olympian gods (odd tidbits appear supporting this like the fact that Pan gave Artemis her hunting dogs and taught Apollo the art of prophecy) likely had an Indo-European origin lost in the mists of time given striking similarities with the Vedic solar deity and lord of the pastures, Pushan, and this would also account for why the Romans found it so easy to equate their god Faunus with Pan. We’re all familiar with the popular image of the Pan – the satyr: half-man, half-goat, generally considered to be the hard-partying god of raw nature, fertility, shepherds, drink, sex, and music. Quite the ladies’ man and original rock god, hanging out with gorgeous nymphs in the seat of his worship in Arcadia. Stern monotheisms no doubt looked askance at this libertine lifestyle, although none of the Greek Gods were especially well known for their high morals when it came to seduction and thrill seeking, it’s just than Pan embodied a certain unabashed Hunter S. Thompsom-esque enjoyment with abandon, a sort of “party like its 1 B.C.” attitude in stark contrast to the emerging ethos of relative order and civility that was popping up all around the Mediterranean in 1 A.D. Monotheism wasn’t all that new when Pan met his untimely end, it’s just that human affairs were starting to reflect some of its unitary aspects. The entire Mediterranean was coming under the sway of Greco-Roman social and political authority. It’s not hard to see why folks might start wondering if a similar shake-up in heavenly management was in the offing. The world was just plain getting a whole lot more serious. Now, many scholars, Christian apologists, and conspiracy theorists have suggested that it is precisely because the ancient order was coming to an end, and the new bosses were firm believers in institutionalized theology, that Pan had to be fitted for cement shoes and dropped in the Ionian Sea, as there was little chance that he would ever kiss the ring of whoever the monotheistic Capo di Tutti Capi would end up being. I’ve come to suspect that while this theory is commonly accepted, it is a likely just a convenient frame job to divert our attention from the real culprits. The apostles.
You see, this was the time of the first run of the New Testament, opening to rave reviews in the off Broadway theaters of the Near East, following closely on the stunning accolades, and long-running success of its prequel, the Old Testament. Despite being somewhat derivative, the New Testament was starting to play to larger audiences and sold-out shows, although by the 1st Century A.D. it had not yet attained the enduring mainstream popularity of say, The Lion King. An oft neglected fact is that Pan was also the god of theatrical criticism, and there is little doubt, raised as he was on the eclectic Greek tragedies and comedies that he would have found the New Testament a bit repetitive, and overly moralistic, with an obvious plotline and inadequate character development. That kind of bad review has been known to sink a production, and that would have put a nail in the coffin of the burgeoning apostolic script-writing commune. Pan had to go. Motive and opportunity, my friends. Of course, ever since the Victorian neopagan revival of “the horned god”, there has been the persistent rumor that Pan turned state’s evidence and went into witness protection to avoid getting wacked, but odds are he sleeps with the fishes. Sadly, we lose a bit of ourselves each time a god dies. As we consolidate into a monolithic comprehension of divine mystery, we lose essential pieces of humanity in favor of safety and security, the assurance of one way and one path that can lead us to eternal reward. H.L. Menken’s Chrestomancy, listing the countless gods who have perished or been murdered, from Anubis to Vesta, recognized the inherent tragedy, commenting, “You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity–gods of civilized peoples–worshiped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead”.
Plutarch. Selected Essays of Plutarch. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1913.
Taylor, Archer. Northern Parallels to the Death of Pan. [St. Louis, Mo.: s.n.], 1922.
Law and Order, Classical Gods Unit… That needs to be a thing. Why is that not a thing? I can see it now. This week on Law and Order CGU: Atlantians sue Gods over destruction of property. Tune in next week, when Izanami sues Izagami for harassment after a messy divorce and Medusa sues the gods for wrongful punishment.
Great article as usual. Maybe Pan isn’t dead at all. He just became our tradition view of Satan. You know the goat legs, hooves, horns, being part human and a love of partying are suspiciously similar.
Pan is not dead. Nor is he Libertarian Satan. He’s in witness protection waiting for the current crime boss to take his well-deserved dirt nap.