Jesus and the Green Man – Part 5 of 6: Pan

This figure is perhaps the most completely developed of the figures we’ve discussed so far in this series. Space only permits highlights of the development of Pan into a Green Man figure and again I’d point you to Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon for a whole chapter’s worth of the development of this intriguing character.

Roman Pan – no goat legs or horns

Nowadays we under the impression of Pan being an omnipresent being, especially present in the woods. Unfortunately this is because of a misunderstanding of the Greek prefix, “pan” which is used to mean “all”. The Greek god Pan originally was the god of shepherds, a trickster in the Greek pantheon (or as one commentator says, “a 2CV in the Green Pantheon” – apologies to any 2CV owners out there) and was certainly not attributed with omnipresence. Certainly, Pan was a big deity in a few areas of the Greek world, but he wasn’t the favourite deity of all Greek people as some modern writers attempt to portray. When the ancient writer Plutarch announced the “death of Pan”, one opportunistic early Christian writer, Eusebius, took it upon himself to build a polemic against all other gods based on the homonym pan meaning “all”, imagining that all the other gods were demons (and thus confusing the Greek word daemon meaning “helper” spirit (believed to be more noble spirits) with demonic evil – another blog post for another day). Thus, by taking complex, multivalent words “pan” and “demon” and flattening them out, extruding them in the direction of negativity and evil, Eusebius created what would become the typical medieval depiction of the Devil as horned, half goat / human[1].

Medieval portrayal of the Devil

We now must fast forward over a thousand years to see any further development of the character of Pan…

Pan playing his pipes.

Before 1830, the in-fashion god amongst the early Romantics was Apollo, patron of poetry and male sovereign of the natural world – the solar deity. However, as the C19 rolled on, Apollo’s popularity waned as a new god came to town – Pan. His characteristics were remodelled by Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly, Hunt, and Hazlitt to become the quintessential god of the English countryside. It was this green god in whose woods and fields it was always a sunny summer (remember Robin Hood’s greenwood – always May?), whose hedgerows and lanes one could roam along, where the agricultural workforce was invisible and one was able to relax in sheer luxurious pleasure. All the positive aspects the Romantics had imbued the natural world with were encompassed in the character of Pan: the sublime, the mysterious, the awe-inspiring, benevolence, comfort and redemption from the urban / industrial ways of living. “Come rest awhile and recharge” would be the motto of this version of Pan.


The Wind in the Willows – There if you seek him.

And then we come to my favourite depiction of Pan in Kenneth Graham’s wonderful The Wind in the Willows, with its central chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, an odd chapter which has absolutely nothing to contribute to the plot of the book, but whose central figure gives the book its title – this creature really is the Wind in the Willows! If you don’t know, it’s a story of a variety of animals, and in this chapter, young Portly (a baby otter who can’t swim very well) has been missing for a while, and Rat and Mole find themselves itching to do something which might just be able to find young Portly again. And so they set off in a boat down the river as the moon rises, and sets, whereupon something “other” happens… They hear haunting music through the landscape and follow it…

And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still. ‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’ Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew. Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. ‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet and yet- O, Mole, I am afraid!’ Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

This passage is written in such a way that this Pan being is the Christ figure of the world of animals – the Christ of the Green? A narrow interpretation of the good news of Jesus would see Jesus only interested in saving human beings from destructive ways, but the Bible talks about the whole of creation being renewed through the work Jesus done has and still does.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Romans 8:18-25

Most Christians would shy away from any character with goat legs and horns, declaring them the Devil himself. As we’ve seen though, this predominantly stems from the polemic of Eusebius. However the great fantasy writer and Christian theologian, CS Lewis, had such characters as fawns/satyrs playing lead roles at times – Mr Tumnus in the Narnia Chronicles. Sadly his use of fantasy (and hopeful inclusivism in The Last Battle”) has led to charges of Lewis not being a “real Christian” and of being in league with the Devil. Nevertheless, Lewis’s writings inspire and teach many Christians deep truths, and reveal Deep and even Deeper Magic within them, using the same method Jesus himself used – storytelling. Lewis was not afraid to engage with that which is “other” to ourselves, and teaches us the same through his use of figures that go against the inbuilt desire to demonise.

Lucy & Mr Tumnus, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe

“But how many people really can
Hear the pipes of Pan?
As they sound across this sacred land of old?”

Pipes of Pan, Damn the Bard

Today’s “Anglicised” /Pagan Pan has many qualities that are similar to the person of Jesus:

  • A deep love and reverence for all creation
  • A joyful playfulness and lightening of burdens to those who engage with him
  • Encourages us to follow into a kingdom of peace and security
  • Beckons us to take time out to simply be amidst the hectic schedules of modern life
  • A Comforter, Friend and Helper
  • Can be found if one deeply listens to his music and seeks.
  • A fecund character celebrating life in all its fullness.

In the final part, we will explore the person of Jesus who I call The Deepest Green Man.

[1] Coggan, Sharon Lynn, “Pandaemonia: A study of Eusebius’ recasting of Plutarch’s story of the “Death of Great Pan”” (1992). Religion – Dissertations. 45

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