The origins of the latest book lie partly in the research I did for 2020’s Nymphology, but also in my wider reading of fantasy writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. As some readers will already know, Machen himself wrote a story called The Great God Pan; the title wasn’t his, it comes from ancient legend, so I felt entitled to use it too!
The new book, Great God Pan, is a study of the development of the cult of Pan, tracing its origins from ancient Greece and following the faith through the Renaissance to late Victorian times, when it had a major revival. This period is the main focus of the book, with reference to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and others.
Now, you’d be entitled to think that the goat god Pan hasn’t got a lot to do with fairies, but the situation’s rather more complex than we might expect. Let’s start towards the end…
In 1878 Walter Besant published the short story Titania’s Farewell. As the title tells us, the story’s focus is the departure of the fairies from British shores, something witnessed by a human who finds himself surrounded by the fairies late one night in the New Forest. Reflecting the next day on his enchanted experience, the narrator asks himself:
“Reality! Ideal! Why, which is which? The old nature worship goes on as ever. Great God Pan never dies.”
He seems to be very clear in his own mind that fairies are nature spirits and that they are intimately linked by this to Pan himself. The fairies of the story, in fact, don’t quite see it as simply as this. Addressing his court, King Oberon says that the fairies can’t flee from Britain to either Greece or Italy. This is because those places are:
“haunted by beings far different from ourselves- Bacchus and his noisy crew. You would not like to associate with him. Satyrs there are- monsters of most uncomely appearance and their manners are detestable. Dryads there are in the woods, and Naiads by their fountains; but you would not like them. They drowned fair young Hylas. When did we drown fair youth?”
The British fairies can’t go to these Mediterranean lands, then; they are ‘Teutonic elves’ as Oberon says. But they can’t go to Germany either, because there the woods are full of goblins and they’ve filled up their buildings with “clumsy plaster casts of the Fauns of the Latin hills.”
All of this leaves Oberon sounding very much like a jingoistic Victorian English gentleman, for whom all foreigners are simply frightful, with their beastly artistic pretensions and artistic temperaments.
In truth, British faery folk weren’t always seen as being so very different from classical beings, as I described a long time ago in a post on the impact of the Renaissance on the British fairy faith. For example, in The Faithful Shepherdess of 1609, John Fletcher described ‘fairy ground’ where the fairies dance in these terms:
“No Shepherd’s way lies here; ‘tis hallowed ground;
No maid seeks here her strayed cow or sheep,
Fairies, fawns and satyrs do it keep.”
The influence of Greek and Latin legend actually dates much earlier than that.
We can, in fact, go right back as early as St Augustine’s City of God, of the early fifth century. He briefly discusses some Gaulish fairies called dusii, whom he treated as being identical with “Silvans and Pans, commonly called incubi, [who] often misbehave towards women and succeed in accomplishing their lustful desires to have intercourse with them.” These are beings who seduce human women, usually coming to them when they are asleep at night, and in their highly sexed nature they link backwards to Pan, inveterate pursuer of nymphs in the groves of Arcady, and forward to the faery lovers of more modern times.
St Augustine’s ‘pans’ might also be called fauns or wood sprites. In about 1000, Bishop Burchard of Worms laid down a penance for any country people who expressed belief in the existence of such ‘sylvans’ or satyrs or who made offerings to them. A later English version of this same text, dating from the 13th century, repeated the same warnings, but called them fauns.
In the twelfth century Thomas of Monmouth described how a young virgin living in Dunwich in Suffolk was assaulted at night by a spirit in the form of a handsome young man who appeared in her bedroom and sought to tempt and seduce her. He’s called “one of those beings whom they call fairies and incubi [faunos dicunt et incubi.]” As this shows, faun and fairy were interchangeable words.
These country spirits may have Latin names, but they are very plainly what we’d call fairies, as is the case with John Lydgate’s Troy Book, written during the fifteenth century and first published in 1513. He refers to the:
“diverse goddis of þe wodis grene [who]
Appere þere, called Satiry,
Bycornys eke [too], fawny and incubi,
þat causen ofte men to falle in rage.”
The ‘rage’ to which Lydgate refers is, of course, the panic that Pan can induce in flocks, herds and people. The Troy Book was based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (A History of the fall of Troy), from which Lydgate inherited his “multos satiros faunosque bicornes” (many satyrs and two horned fauns).
These fauns/ fairies of the Middle Ages behaved in all the ways that remain familiar to us today. As well as trying to seduce suitable boys and girls, they offered rich goods that were only glamour, they liked to play tricks on humans and they also took children and left changelings.
Into early modern times, the terminology remained interchangeable. As I’ve discussed before, Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)made a list of supernatural beings that included “satyrs, pans, fauns… nymphs… incubuses;” William Prynne in Histrio-Matrix of 1633, a Puritan attack on the theatre, complained of people dressing up as “Satyres, Silvanes, Muses, Nymphes, Furies, Hobgoblins, Fairies, Fates… which Christians should not name, much less resemble.”
As these last examples remind us, fairies and nymphs were consistently conflated or confused, as I’ve discussed before in postings and in Nymphology. These associations further embed into British faerylore the conjunction of fairies with girlish sexuality- something which can also be seen in much of the art associated with pan and the satyrs.
The intermingling of classical and native beings continues even to this day. For example, in his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, Brian Froud included Pan in the good half and a ‘Small Pan or Slight Panic,’ in the bad section. The former, ‘Poetic Pan,’ can materialise in many different places and, if humans come into contact with him, will arouse in them erotic impulses, abandonment to poetic emotions and intense feelings of spiritual connection to nature. Froud warns us, however, to take care, “for his influence is overwhelming.” In the second half of the book, the small Pan is the “irresistible child of the great Pan himself [who] hides himself away in secret nooks and crannies, ready to leap out in pursuit of the unwary (especially pretty young girls and attractive goats). His presence causes minor pandemonium and slight panic, so be cautious of things that pop out suddenly from hidden places.”
I am also posting articles related to this book one of my other WordPress blogs, John Kruse blog.