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Classical Mythology

The Good-Time God: Pan

Half-goat, half-god, Pan—sometimes called Aegipan (although some storytellers insist these two were distinct characters)—was a god of shepherds, forests, wildlife, and fertility. Pan was the son of Hermes and a fair-haired daughter of Dryops, one of Apollo's sons. (Some storytellers, however, claim that his father was Zeus and his mother was either a nymph or a goat.)

When she first saw that her baby had the horns, ears, tail, and legs of a goat, Pan's mother was horrified. Although even as a newborn Pan was laughing and full of life, both his mother and his nurse ran away to escape his monstrous appearance. Hermes, however, could not have been happier. Filled with joy at the birth of his son, Hermes whisked his baby to Olympus and proudly introduced him to the other immortals.

A mountain dweller, Pan roamed the ranges in the company of nymphs. He hunted mountain wildlife and pursued quite a wild life himself: Pan lived to dance, sing, play his pipes, and chase after nymphs (playful god though he was, Pan could also be lewd and lecherous).

Once while hunting, Pan spotted a beautiful nymph named Syrinx. When he attempted to seduce her, she ran away, for she admired and emulated Artemis, the virgin huntress. In her flight, she came to a river and found herself unable to cross. So Syrinx begged the river nymphs to change her into marsh reeds—and they gladly accommodated her.

Just then, Pan caught up with her, but as he reached out to embrace her, he saw and felt nothing but reeds. His sigh of disappointment was echoed by a breeze blowing through the reeds. The sound enchanted Pan, who quickly tied several of the reeds together to fashion his first syrinx, or Pan pipes.

Hemi-Demi-Semi-Deities

Not quite deities, but not quite human either, were the creatures that inhabited the natural worlds of the forests, mountains, and waters of Greece. These included the satyrs, the silens, and the nymphs.

Woodland spirits who took the form of men, the satyrs had decidedly animalistic features as well. Most looked similar to Pan—with a goat's legs, a horse's tail, and horns or pointed ears. In addition, most satyrs sported exceedingly large genitals.

Like Pan, the satyrs were revelers who sang, danced, got drunk, and ran after nymphs and other females. Frequent followers of Dionysus (see Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Dionysus), the satyrs represent the untamable fertility of the forests.

The silens were physically similar to the satyrs, but were generally regarded as somewhat older, somewhat wiser, more powerful—and much more prone to drunkenness. They were experts in the arts of both music and prophecy. Gods of the forest, the silens followed Pan and later Dionysus.

Minor female divinities, the nymphs often served as attendants to greater gods: Hermes, Dionysus, Pan, Artemis, Apollo, and Poseidon all enjoyed the company of nymphs. And why not? Nymphs are typically described as beautiful, eternally youthful, and amorous.

What a Life!

The satyrs and silens would often serve their master Dionysus by initiating drunken revels. In the sixth-century B.C.E. playwriting contests at the Great Dionysia, each dramatist would submit not just three tragedies, but a satyr play as well. The chorus of these farces usually consisted of satyrs and silens, often in service to Dionysus, engaging in their wild pursuits.

These “nature spirits” usually resided in a particular place or within a particular object. Nymphs seldom traveled far, for each was confined to a localized tree, mountain, or spring. Some of the many different kinds of nymphs were:

  • Dryads. Nymphs of the wood who lived in trees
  • Hamadryads. Nymphs who inhabited oak trees
  • Meliae. Nymphs who lived in ash trees
  • Naiads. Water nymphs who might be found in springs, rivers, lakes, fountains, or brooks
  • Oreads. Nymphs who lived on mountains and in grottoes

In addition to these, some call the Oceanids—the 3,000 daughters of Oceanus and Tethys—sea nymphs, though they roam throughout the sea, demonstrating much more mobility than other types of nymphs. For this reason, the Oceanids might more properly be called sea deities. The term “sea nymphs,” however, does suit their nieces, the Nereids—the 50 daughters of Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea) and Doris (an Oceanid).

All in all, thousands of nymphs, satyrs, and silens inhabited the natural world of classical mythology. And though a few might be considered dangerous, most of these spirits of nature were friendly, playful, and fun-loving hedonists.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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