In Mythology, Who is Pan?

Mary McMahon

Pan is the Greek god of fields, woods, and flocks. He is also closely associated with male virility, and in many works of art and stories he is depicted in a very sexualized way. The Romans worshiped this god as Faunus. In Greece, worship of Pan was centered in Arcadia, which is said to be the place that he was born.

Pan looked after shepherds, goats, and flocks of sheep.
Pan looked after shepherds, goats, and flocks of sheep.

According to legend, Pan is the son of Hermes and a nymph, and he was particularly beloved of Dionysus. In his role as god of the fields and woods, he took special care to watch over the olive trees and the grapevines, and he was also a beekeeper. As god of the flocks, he looked after shepherds, goats, and sheep.

Pan's appearance is quite distinctive. He was born with the legs, horns, and ears of a goat, with a human torso, head, and arms. He is often depicted playing a pipe known as a syrinx, and in most accounts he is a fan of music, dancing, and merrymaking. However, he is also a highly changeable god, with violent mood swings which could make him angry or irritable in a flash, especially when he is woken from a sound sleep.

In many tales, Pan is shown chasing after various nymphs, particularly Echo, whom he was apparently in love with. He is also said to be responsible for irrational bouts of fear and distress among crowds and herd animals, along with solitary individuals. In fact, the modern English word “panic” is rooted in his name.

In Greek art, Pan is often depicted in parties and gatherings, sometimes playing his syrinx and dancing, and sometimes serving food from the fields he looks after. He is also depicted in works of art which show shepherds, as he was viewed as a sort of mentor to the shepherding community, looking after shepherds and teaching them various useful skills.

Many historians have noted that depictions of the Devil in Christian art bear some suspicious similarity to depictions of this god. In the early Christian world, undoubtedly Pan and Faunus would have been regarded as figures of evil, since they promoted sexual frolics and other behavior viewed as unsavory by the Christians. In an attempt to stamp out paganism, the Christians may well have linked Pan and the Devil, in the hopes of encouraging pagans to turn to the path of Christianity.

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Discussion Comments


The only sculpture of Pan I have seen was in Cherokee Park, Kentucky. He had goat feet and also his syrinx in his hand but he was depicted almost baby-like, not at all like an evil figure. In fact I thought it was Cupid at first glance! I guess that's how the artist had visualized Pan. After reading this article and learning what Pan represented for Greece, I would have expected a much more manly, strong and angered sculpture of him.


I wonder if the Greek's mythological god Pan was inspired by a real living person? I know that some polytheistic religions took stories about real people and presented them in mystic and religious contexts to believers. For example, Lord Krishna of Hinduism is also believed by many to have been a real person. He might have been deified after his death and worshiped by Hindus. I think the same may be true for Pan. Perhaps he was a shepherd, a farmer or a beekeeper with a short temper in ancient Greece. What do you think?

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