The god Pan was a significant deity of nature in ancient Greece, dwelling in meadows and mountains. Portrayed as half-man and half-goat, with horns and hooves similar to satyrs, he was the god of the wild, shepherds, flocks, fields, and forests.

He was particularly revered in Arcadia, where it was believed he was born. The ancient Greeks regarded Arcadia as an idyllic rural realm, fitting for this rustic god of fields and flocks. The cries of Pan could instill sudden fear in travelers disturbing his rest in Arcadia, hence the origin of the term “panic”.

First mentioned in literature in an ode by the poet Pindar, Pan, being a rustic god, had no temples and was not worshiped in grand buildings but always in natural settings, such as caves or grottoes. One such cave still exists on the north slope of the Acropolis at Athens. There are only two exceptions: a temple in the gorge of the Neda River, southeast of the Peloponnese, whose ruins are still visible; and another in ancient Apollonopolis Magna (Edfu, Egypt).

His cult spread throughout Greece, and during the Hellenistic period he became associated with mystery cults. In the Roman world, he was confused with Faunus, a god of nature and forests, one of the oldest Roman deities.

But Pan is also the only god in Greek mythology whose death is attested in historical sources.

As recounted by the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch in his work “On the Decline of Oracles”, written between 90 and 117 AD, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD, an Egyptian sailor named Thamus was sailing near the Equinades Islands (in the Ionian Sea, at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth) when a mysterious voice called out to him. The voice said, “Thamus, when you reach Palodes, announce that the great god Pan is dead.”

When he reached Palodes and announced, “The great god Pan is dead!” cries and lamentations were heard, and the news spread, causing shock and mourning among Pan’s worshippers throughout the Roman Empire.

Regarding the death of such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was neither foolish nor deceitful. The father of the orator Emilianus, whom some of you have heard, was Epiterses, who lived in our city and was my grammar teacher. He recounted that on a trip to Italy, he boarded a ship carrying cargo and many passengers. It was already night when, near the Equinades Islands, the wind died down, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everyone was awake, and many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly, from the island of Paxi, the voice of someone calling Thamus was heard loudly, astonishing everyone. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, unknown even to many on board. He was called twice and did not respond, but on the third time, he answered. The caller, raising his voice, said, “When you reach Palodes, announce that the Great Pan is dead.” Upon hearing this, everyone, as Epiterses said, was stupefied and reasoned among themselves whether it was better to obey the command or refuse to interfere and let the matter pass. Given the circumstances, Thamus decided that if a breeze blew, he would sail on silently, but if there was no wind and the sea was calm, he would announce what he had heard. So, when he reached Palodes, and there was neither wind nor waves, Thamus, from the stern, looking toward land, spoke the words as he had heard them: “The Great Pan is dead.” Even before he had finished, a great cry of lamentation was heard, not from one person but from many, mixed with exclamations of astonishment. As there were many people on the ship, the story quickly spread throughout Rome, and Thamus was summoned by Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was so convinced of the truth of the story that he ordered inquiries and investigations into Pan, and the scholars, numerous in his court, speculated that Pan was the son born of Hermes and Penelope.

Plutarch, On the Decline of Oracles, 17

There are several theories attempting to explain this story about Pan’s death, as unfortunately, Plutarch provides no explanation about the circumstances, and it is the only ancient source that mentions it.

The Christian apologists, including Eusebius of Caesarea, seized upon the story to argue that all pagan gods had died. This was based on the fact that the word “Pan” also means “all” in Greek, and therefore, the news was not that the god Pan had died, but that all gods had died.

In this sense, it represented the victory of Christian monotheism over ancient pagan deities like Pan. Others argue that it symbolizes the decline of traditional values in the countryside in the face of the growth of cities in the Roman Empire.

Another theory is that the story reflects the end of the Heroic Age of Greek mythology, ushering in a new chapter in history. Pan’s death might have meant that Greek gods were losing their relevance in the face of new philosophies and religions.

Pan’s sanctuary on the Pnyx hill in Athens | Photo by C messier on Wikimedia Commons

Rabelais, in the fourth book of the series on Gargantua and Pantagruel published in 1552, recalls Plutarch’s story, interpreting it as the announcement of Jesus’s death, also occurring around the same time toward the end of Tiberius’s reign. This interpretation was also based on the fact that in Greek, “Pan” also means “everything” and for Christians, Jesus was everything. Scholars like Guillaume Postel shared this opinion in the mid-16th century.

G.K. Chesterton believed, on the contrary, that Pan died precisely because Christ was born. Meanwhile, Robert Graves in his work “The Greek Myths”, following a suggestion by Salomon Reinach expanded by James S. Van Teslaar, explained that what the sailors had actually heard were the enthusiastic cries of the worshippers of Tammuz (a shepherd and fertility god, called Adonis by the Phoenicians), mistakenly interpreting them as a message directed to an Egyptian named Thamus.

In any case, when the geographer Pausanias traveled through Greece from around 150 AD, almost a century after Plutarch, he found that the sanctuaries, caves, and sacred mountains of Pan were still very frequented, especially in Arcadia.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 8, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Pan, el único dios griego cuya muerte está atestiguada en las fuentes históricas


M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth | Smith, William, Sir, ed., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology | Pan (Encyclopaedia Britannica) | Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum | Borgeaud, Philippe, “The Death of the Great Pan: The Problem of Interpretation.” History of Religions, vol. 22, no. 3, 1983, pp. 254–83. JSTOR, | Wikipedia

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