OR A TRUE RELATION OF STRANGE PROCEEDINGS IN A SOMERSETSHIRE LOFT

Sunday, 10 June 2012

THE GREAT GOD PAN


After seeing Alfront's delightful statue of Pan 
 http://alfront-wardiariesofalittleenglander.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/i-am-seeker.html that resides in his garden I was moved to write up what I know about this deity, primarily as an exercise to massage my grey matter and get some practice doing a bit of research before starting a degree in October.  I too have a statue of Pan in the garden which I purchased about 25 years ago in Bradford on Avon,


 and it is interesting to see that such an ancient and marginalised deity is still very much alive in the 21st century in what is nominally a Christian Country.

I am by no means a classicist and to be frank my knowledge of the classics is limited, so I will drift over the Gods origins briefly before looking at his renaissance starting in the eighteenth century. Pan seems to begin his journey in the region of ancient Greece known as Arcadia, where there seems to have been a trend for theriomorphic gods. In Arcadia a rural and bucolic region, Pan’s duties were linked with the pastoral world. He was the god of shepherds protecting them and their flocks, but also a god of the hunt, presiding over smaller game such as hares (he is often depicted wielding a lagobolon, a device for catching hares) and birds whilst Artemis dealt with the larger animals. On returning from a hunt empty handed, young hunters might beat a statue of Pan in an attempt to stimulate the Gods fecundity into the animal realm.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pan is also a soldiers God, worshipped by those stationed in out of the way garrisons or soldiers on patrol in lonely rural places. During the Persian Wars (490-479BC) Pan also took a hand in military affairs by helping the Athenians (who re payed him by establishing his cult in Athens) and spreading panic (panikon) in the ranks of the enemy.

The name Pan seems to derive from pa(s) meaning guardian of the flocks, but was also later connected to the word pan meaning ‘all’, and from this we can perhaps determine that he was considered an all encompassing and universal god by the end of the classical period.  Plutarch’s well known story (brought to my attention by the Waterboys in their song ‘The Return of Pan’) of a mariner hearing the death of Pan announced by a mysterious voice, has been taken to mean the death of the old God (as an equal rival) and the rise of the new panacea, Christianity.

We next encounter Pan again some sixteen hundred years later, as he emerges blinking into the age of enlightenment, with an Arcadian revival in eighteenth century England. The accession of the Hanoverians was regarded as the start of a new Augustan age and classical allegory and the recreation of Arcadia in the English landscape became the pastime of the fashion conscious bourgeoisie and aristocracy , a gardening elite guided by the likes of Alexander Pope and William Kent among others.
Although Venus is the classical deity most commonly found adorning eighteenth century gardens, Pan certainly makes several startling appearances not only as the God of Arcadian beauty and shepherds, but also as a lustful and priapic spirit lurking in the shrubbery.

 At  William Kent’s masterpiece, Rousham Gardens in Oxfordshire, a powerful lead statue of Pan by Jan van Nost pays court (attended by a sinister satyr) to a retiring Venus in the secluded and magical Venus Vale.
 Pan steps away from the goddess, glancing over his shoulder whist the waiting satyr lurks in the wings awaiting his moment, a lustful leer on his face. Possibly the most beautiful  Arcadian landscape gardens in existence, they are charged with a latent eroticism quite palpable even after almost three centuries which emphasises their pleasure seeking function. After cavorting in the Venus Vale, visitors could then run along a winding woodland path to an icy plunge bath to quench their ardour.

At Rousham, Pan is just one of several classical deities and personalities that make an appearance, but at Painswick Gardens in Gloucestershire he reigns supreme, and alone presides over a private valley garden built specifically to host gentlemanly revels in his honour. The gardens were created by a wealthy Gloucester merchant, Benjamin Hyett, in the style that later became known as rococo (from the words rocaille-rocks and coquille-shells), and we are fortunate that they were recorded in detail in several paintings by the artist Thomas Robins (known as the limner of Bath). In two of these paintings Pan makes an appearance himself. Firstly in a view towards the village of Painswick and Hyetts House, Pan gestures with a raised arm to show onlookers the extent of his realm and in the other he watches a group of cavorting satyrs (possibly representing Hyett and his cronies) whilst a drunken Silenus lolls nearby, the scene being framed by an adornment of owls and other creatures on the night.

 Here it is necessary to quote the garden historian Tim Mole that “M R James in his Ghost stories of an Antiquary never invented an artefact more suggestive of Sylvan evil.”  In the first picture Robins has spelt Painswick,  Panswyke, i.e. The Village of Pan, and it seems clear that at this time there was a burgeoning cult of Pan in the area, headed by Hyett himself.

It is not possible to know if the cult existed as an excuse for drunken or orgiastic revelries (in the style of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Monks of Medmenham at Medmenham Abbey and West Wycombe)or as a serious attempt to pursue the worship of a Greek deity, but in the gardens a sinister and compelling statue of Pan (again by van Nost) was the centrepiece, placed so the god could see and be seen from all the garden buildings, and sited above a cold plunge bath where Hyett and his chums would engage in Sylvan revelries “with vulgar orange sellers”. (the statue is now placed nearer the house for security reasons).


Across the valley from the gardens, Hyett erected Pan’s lodge as a secluded bower to hold more private lupercalian festivities, away from prying eyes. He seems to have involved the entire village in his enthusiasm for his new found God, and established an annual Pan procession in which the villagers would parade through the streets chanting “Highgates! Highgates!”  This could be a corruption of “Hyetts! Hyetts!” or “aig aitis” meaning goat lover. It is interesting to note that in the classical period, young dogs were sacrificied to Pan, and a local dish served in Painswick was called Puppy-Dog pie, leading observers to think that actual canines were being consumed.  The procession lasted into the 1830’s, but was resurrected, perhaps surprisingly by the vicar of the village in the 1890’s. The Reverend W H Seddon, and enthusiastic scholar of folklore mistakenly believed that it was an ancient custom dating from antiquity, and even placed a statue of Pan by the church wall where the revellers would gather, which was still in place until the 1950’s.

From the time of the Reverend Seddon’s revival of the Pan cult at Painswick, to the start of the Great War, Pan reached his zenith in popularity in England, perhaps his most celebrated appearance (although he is not named) being in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

 Here Pan is revealed as a saviour of the animal and natural world in much the same way Jesus behaves towards humans and civilisation. His appearances in literature of the time are far too numerous to mention, but time and again he appears to rescue the seemingly staid and restrained English from the shackles of the Victorian era. In The Blessing of Pan by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, a child finds and plays Pan’s pipes and transforms his staid and pious village into a joyous Pagan community. In Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham the author states that at this time “… God went out…Pan came in. In a hundred novels his cloven hoof left it’s imprint on the sward.”

It should be noted however, that the God’s bestial and priapic nature was not far below the veneer applied by the eco-idealism of the Edwardians. As well as deflowering Maugham’s “nymphs of the industrial age” he was depicted in being diverse in his sexuality in a number of stories and poems, the most famous of which A Hymn to Pan was penned by the arch occultist Alistair Crowley in reply to an explicit poem from his male lover.  In Arthur Machen’s chilling novella The Great God Pan (described on publication in 1894 as “an incoherent nightmare of sex”) he begets a demonic child on a captive woman, the child then going on to wreck vengeance on the male sex.

By the 1930’s however Pan’s popularity seemed to be in decline. Many of his champions were dead on the battlefields of Flanders (eg. Saki) or simply dying of old age at home, and the Arcadian idyll of the Edwardian era ruled by Pan and recorded by the likes of Kipling and Dunsany was fading fast. In 1950, the new incumbent of Painswick church took a dim view of Pan worship among his flock and removed the statue at his church and buried it. The situation did not look good for Pan, and Kipling’s Wayland from Puck of Pooks Hill springs to mind as he dwindles away from a powerful god to a mere wayside spirit.  



However Pan was rescued from this fate in the 1950’s by Gerald Brosseau Gardner,


 a Malay plantation owner recently returned to England.  Gardner sowed the seeds of a new religion, Wicca, which he claimed was a continuation of the secret religion practiced by European witches in the middle ages and early modern period.  Gardner was basing the supposedly ancient origins of his religion on two controversial books by Dr. Margaret Murray The witch cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1932) in which she claimed that the Christian Devil, was in fact a much older pre-christian deity, the Horned God called Cernunnos or Janicot in Europe and Pan in the Classical Medditeranean world.  Although most scholars (and indeed many adherents to Wicca) now accept this claim as misleading, the religion has grown in popularity, helped by it’s lack of dogma and it’s emphasis on green issues and care of the natural world. Wicca has two main deities, a Goddess and a God,  the latter almost invariably depicted with horns or antlers and often with the hind quarters of a goat, and is referred to not only as The Horned God, but often by one of his other names, Herne, Cernunnos or Pan.
carving by Bel Bucca


  Thus we see Pan is still at large in England, albeit through a form of symbiosis , but how else does a God survive?

Perhaps the best way to end this little study is with the words of two twentieth century followers of Pan

“The worship of Pan never has died out” said Mortimer “other newer Gods have drawn aside his votaries from time to time, but he is the native god to whom all must come back at last…” Saki
The Music on the Hill (1911)

From the olden days and up through all the years
From Arcadia to the stone fields of Inisheer
Some say the old gods are just a myth
But guess who I’ve been dancing with?
The Great God Pan is alive.

The Waterboys The Return of Pan (1993)




It should be noted that in writing this piece, I heavily plagiarised Professor Ronald Hutton's superb study of Wicca The Triumph of the Moon  and also drew heavily of Professor Tim Mole's studies of Painswick Gardens and Beacon House Painswick.


3 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post - many thanks indeed. A little unnerving too - my residual Anglicanism kicked in. Now I'm going to ask about 'Wayland'. The thing that comes to mind is the megalith (is that the right word?) on the Ridgeway, known as Wayland's Smithy, which was ancient when the (pagan) Anglo-Saxons named it. So what/who was Wayland?

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  2. Yes it's a fascinating subject the study of the journey of Pagan gods and beliefs through the ages. I think that the free thinkers of the Edwardian era had it worked out (although we are of course looking back through the lens of a hundred years or so) and many were quite comfortable to research and respect the old Gods while maintaining their Anglican or Catholic faith, which of course shows how enlightened they were (I suggest reading The Avalonians by Patrick Benham for a good study of these fascinating and free thinking individuals). Now Wayland... another post will be forthcoming soon, like Pan he has a place close to my heart, although he is altogether more English, and in my view perhaps the most enigmatic of the Germanic Gods and spirits to inhabit our blessed isle.

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  3. Thanks for this! I already have a copy of The Avalonians thanks to it appearing on your blog earlier in the year. It was a real find for me, as it contains information about the Allen family that I'm sure I would never have come across otherwise. Just goes to show - self-pollination isn't necessarily the best way!

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