Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang


"What was he doing, the great god Pan,

Down in the reeds by the river?

Spreading ruin and scattering ban,

Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,

And breaking the golden lilies afloat

With the dragon-fly on the river.

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,

From the deep cool bed of the river:

The limpid water turbidly ran,

And the broken lilies a-dying lay,

And the dragon-fly had fled away,

Ere he brought it out of the river.

'This is the way,' laughed the great god Pan

(Laughed while he sat by the river),

'The only way, since gods began

To make sweet music, they could succeed.'

Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,

He blew in power by the river.

Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan!

Piercing sweet by the river!

Blinding sweet, O great god Pan!

The sun on the hill forgot to die,

And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly

Came back to dream on the river.

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,

To laugh as he sits by the river,

Making a poet out of a man:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,

For the reed which grows nevermore again

As a reed with the reeds in the river."

—E. B. Browning.

Were we to take the whole of that immense construction of fable that was once the religion of Greece, and treat it as a vast play in which there were many thousands of actors, we should find that one of these actors appeared again and again. In one scene, then in another, in connection with one character, then with another, unexpectedly slipping out from the shadows of the trees from the first act even to the last, we should see Pan—so young and yet so old, so heedlessly gay, yet so infinitely sad.

If, rather, we were to regard the mythology of Greece as a colossal and wonderful piece of music, where the thunders of Jupiter and the harsh hoof-beats of the fierce black steeds of Pluto, the king whose coming none can stay, made way for the limpid melodies of Orpheus and the rustling whisper of the footfall of nymphs and of fauns on the leaves, through it all we should have an ever-recurring motif—the clear, magical fluting of the pipes of Pan.

We have the stories of Pan and of Echo, of Pan and of Midas, of Pan and Syrinx, of Pan and Selene, of Pan and Pitys, of Pan and Pomona. Pan it was who taught Apollo how to make music. It was Pan who spoke what he deemed to be comfort to the distraught Psyche; Pan who gave Diana her hounds. The other gods had their own special parts in the great play that at one time would have Olympus for stage, at another the earth. Pan was Nature incarnate. He was the Earth itself.

Many are the stories of his genealogy, but the one that is given in one of the Homeric hymns is that Hermes, the swift-footed young god, wedded Dryope, the beautiful daughter of a shepherd in Arcadia, and to them was born, under the greenwood tree, the infant, Pan. When Dryope first looked on her child, she was smitten with horror, and fled away from him. The deserted baby roared lustily, and when his father, Hermes, examined him he found a rosy-cheeked thing with prick ears and tiny horns that grew amongst his thick curls, and with the dappled furry chest of a faun, while instead of dimpled baby legs he had the strong, hairy hind legs of a goat. He was a fearless creature, and merry withal, and when Hermes had wrapped him up in a hare skin, he sped to Olympus and showed his fellow-gods the son that had been born to him and the beautiful nymph of the forest. Baby though he was, Pan made the Olympians laugh. He had only made a woman, his own mother, cry; all others rejoiced at the new creature that had come to increase their merriment. And Bacchus, who loved him most of all, and felt that here was a babe after his own heart, bestowed on him the name by which he was forever known—Pan, meaning All.

Thus Pan grew up, the earthly equal of the Olympians, and, as he grew, he took to himself the lordship of woods and of solitary places. He was king of huntsmen and of fishermen, lord of flocks and herds and of all the wild creatures of the forest. All living, soulless things owned him their master; even the wild bees claimed him as their overlord. He was ever merry, and when a riot of music and of laughter slew the stillness of the shadowy woods, it was Pan who led the dancing throng of white-limbed nymphs and gambolling satyrs, for whom he made melody from the pipes for whose creation a maid had perished.

Round his horns and thick curls he presently came to wear a crown of sharp pine-leaves, remembrance of another fair nymph whose destruction he had brought about.

Pitys listened to the music of Pan, and followed him even as the children followed the Pied Piper of later story. And ever his playing lured her further on and into more dangerous and desolate places, until at length she stood on the edge of a high cliff whose pitiless front rushed sheer down to cruel rocks far below. There Pan's music ceased, and Pitys knew all the joy and the sorrow of the world as the god held out his arms to embrace her. But neither Pan nor Pitys had remembrance of Boreas, the merciless north wind, whose love the nymph had flouted.

Ere Pan could touch her, a blast, fierce and strong as death, had seized the nymph's fragile body, and as a wind of March tears from the tree the first white blossom that has dared to brave the ruthless gales, and casts it, torn and dying, to the earth, so did Boreas grip the slender Pitys and dash her life out on the rocks far down below. From her body sprang the pine tree, slender, erect, clinging for dear life to the sides of precipices, and by the prickly wreath he always wore, Pan showed that he held her in fond remembrance.

Joy, and youth, and force, and spring, was Pan to all the creatures whose overlord he was. Pan meant the richness of the sap in the trees, the lushness of grass and of the green stems of the blue hyacinths and the golden daffodils; the throbbing of growth in the woodland and in the meadows; the trilling of birds that seek for their mates and find them; the coo of the doves on their nests of young; the arrogant virility of bulls and of stags whose lowing and belling wake the silence of the hills; the lightness of heart that made the nymphs dance and sing, the fauns leap high, and shout aloud for very joy of living. All of these things was Pan to those of his own kingdom.

Yet to the human men and women who had also listened to his playing, Pan did not mean only joyousness. He was to them a force that many times became a terror because of its sheer irresistibleness.

While the sun shone and the herdsmen could see the nodding white cotton-grass, the asphodel, and the golden kingcups that hid the black death-traps of the pitiless marshes, they had no fear of Pan. Nor in the daytime, when in the woods the sunbeams played amongst the trees and the birds sang of Spring and of love, and the syrinx sent an echo from far away that made the little silver birches give a whispering laugh of gladness and the pines cease to sigh, did man or maid have any fear. Yet when darkness fell on the land, terror would come with it, and, deep in their hearts, they would know that the terror was Pan. Blindly, madly, they would flee from something that they could not see, something they could barely hear, and many times rush to their own destruction. And there would be no sweet sound of music then, only mocking laughter. Panic was the name given to this fear—the name by which it still is known. And, to this day, panic yet comes, and not only by night, but only in very lonely places. There are those who have known it, and for shame have scarce dared to own it, in highland glens, in the loneliness of an island in the western sea, in a green valley amongst the "solemn, kindly, round-backed hills" of the Scottish Border, in the remoteness of the Australian bush. They have no reasons to give—or their reasons are far-fetched. Only, to them as to Mowgli, Fear came, and the fear seemed to them to come from a malignant something from which they must make all haste to flee, did they value safety of mind and of body. Was it for this reason that the Roman legionaries on the Great Wall so often reared altars in that lonely land of moor and mountain where so many of them fought and died—

"To Pan, and to the Sylvan deities"?

For surely Pan was there, where the curlew cried and the pewit mourned, and sometimes the waiting soldiers must almost have imagined his mocking laughter borne in the winds that swept across the bleak hills of their exiled solitude.

He who was surely one of the bravest of mankind, one who always, in his own words, "clung to his paddle," writes of such a fear when he escaped death by drowning from the Oise in flood.

"The devouring element in the universe had leaped out against me, in this green valley quickened by a running stream. The bells were all very pretty in their way, but I had heard some of the hollow notes of Pan's music. Would the wicked river drag me down by the heels, indeed? and look so beautiful all the time? Nature's good humour was only skin-deep, after all."

And of the reeds he writes: "Pan once played upon their forefathers; and so, by the hands of his river, he still plays upon these later generations down all the valley of the Oise; and plays the same air, both sweet and shrill, to tell us of the beauty and the terror of the world."

"The Beauty and the terror of the world"—was not this what Pan stood for to the Greeks of long ago?

The gladness of living, the terror of living—the exquisite joy and the infinite pain—that has been the possession of Pan—for we have not yet found a more fitting title—since ever time began. And because Pan is as he is, from him has evolved a higher Pantheism. We have done away with his goat's feet and his horns, although these were handed on from him to Satan when Christianity broke down the altars of Paganism.

"Nature, which is the Time-vesture of God and reveals Him to the wise, hides Him from the foolish," writes Carlyle. Pan is Nature, and Nature is not the ugly thing that the Calvinists would once have had us believe it to be. Nature is capable of being made the garment of God.

"In Being's floods, in Action's storm,

I walk and work, above, beneath,

Work and weave in endless motion!

Birth and Death,

An infinite ocean;

A seizing and giving

The fire of Living;

'Tis thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply,

And weave for God the Garment thou seest Him by."

So speaks the Erdgeist in Goethe's Faust, and yet another of the greatest of the poets writes:

"The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains—

Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;

But if we could see and hear, this Vision—were it not He?"


Carlyle says that "The whole universe is the Garment of God," and he who lives very close to Nature must, at least once in a lifetime, come, in the solitude of the lonely mountain tops, upon that bush that burns and is not yet consumed, and out of the midst of which speaks the voice of the Eternal.

The immortal soul—the human body—united, yet ever in conflict—that is Pan. The sighing and longing for things that must endure everlastingly—the riotous enjoyment of the beauty of life—the perfect appreciation of the things that are. Life is so real, so strong, so full of joyousness and of beauty,—and on the other side of a dark stream, cold, menacing, cruel, stands Death. Yet Life and Death make up the sum of existence, and until we, who live our paltry little lives here on earth in the hope of a Beyond, can realise what is the true air that is played on those pipes of Pan, there is no hope for us of even a vague comprehension of the illimitable Immortality.

It is a very old tale that tells us of the passing of Pan. In the reign of Tiberius, on that day when, on the hill of Calvary, at Jerusalem in Syria, Jesus Christ died as a malefactor, on the cross—"And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness all over the earth"—Thamus, an Egyptian pilot, was guiding a ship near the islands of Paxae in the Ionian Sea; and to him came a great voice, saying, "Go! make everywhere the proclamation, Great Pan is dead!"

And from the poop of his ship, when, in great heaviness of heart, because for him the joy of the world seemed to have passed away, Thamus had reached Palodes, he shouted aloud the words that he had been told. Then, from all the earth there arose a sound of great lamentation, and the sea and the trees, the hills, and all the creatures of Pan sighed in sobbing unison an echo of the pilot's words—"Pan is dead—Pan is dead."

"The lonely mountains o'er

And the resounding shore,

A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;

From haunted spring and dale

Edg'd with poplar pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent;

With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn,

The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn."


Pan was dead, and the gods died with him.

"Gods of Hellas, gods of Hellas,

Can ye listen in your silence?

Can your mystic voices tell us

Where ye hide? In floating islands,

With a wind that evermore

Keeps you out of sight of shore?

Pan, Pan is dead.

Gods! we vainly do adjure you,—

Ye return nor voice nor sign!

Not a votary could secure you

Even a grave for your Divine!

Not a grave to show thereby,

'Here these grey old gods do lie,'

Pan, Pan is dead."

—E. B. Browning.

Pan is dead. In the old Hellenistic sense Pan is gone forever. Yet until Nature has ceased to be, the thing we call Pan must remain a living entity. Some there be who call his music, when he makes all humanity dance to his piping, "Joie de vivre," and De Musset speaks of "Le vin de la jeunesse" which ferments "dans les veines de Dieu." It is Pan who inspires Seumas, the old islander, of whom Fiona Macleod writes, and who, looking towards the sea at sunrise, says, "Every morning like this I take my hat off to the beauty of the world."

Half of the flesh and half of the spirit is Pan. There are some who have never come into contact with him, who know him only as the emblem of Paganism, a cruel thing, more beast than man, trampling, with goat's feet, on the gentlest flowers of spring. They know not the meaning of "the Green Fire of Life," nor have they ever known Pan's moods of tender sadness. Never to them has come in the forest, where the great grey trunks of the beeches rise from a carpet of primroses and blue hyacinths, and the slender silver beeches are the guardian angels of the starry wood-anemones, and the sunbeams slant through the oak and beech leaves of tender green and play on the dead amber leaves of a year that is gone, the whisper of little feet that cannot be seen, the piercing sweet music from very far away, that fills the heart with gladness and yet with a strange pain—the ache of the Weltschmerz—the echo of the pipes of Pan.

". . . Oftenest in the dark woods I hear him sing

Dim, half-remembered things, where the old mosses cling

To the old trees, and the faint wandering eddies bring

The phantom echoes of a phantom spring."

—Fiona Macleod.