The Pipes of Pan

The Pipes of Pan (A Greek Legend)

Long ago, in the mountains of Arcadia, a god known as Pan haunted the slopes and watched over shepherds and goatherds. Pan’s mother was frightened of her child, for he was born with the head and body of a man but the hairy ears, the cloven hooves and the horizontal eyes of a goat. To protect his child, Pan’s father, Hermes, wrapped him in the pelt of a hare. The other gods loved him and gave him the name Pan, which meant “all,” because he made them all happy.

For years, Pan roamed the mountains, running and jumping with the ease of a goat. One day he fell in love with a beautiful young nymph named Syrinx, but she ran from him, afraid of his strange face. Pan chased her across streams, over hills, down valleys, and at last, at the edge of a river, he nearly caught her. Terrified, Syrinx changed herself into a reed, and as the wind whispered through the reeds, Pan heard her sweet voice.

So that he would never lose her, Pan fashioned a musical instrument out of wax and different lengths of a reed. This he called Syrinx, in honor of his beloved. Afterward, Pan would play upon his reed instrument, and all who wandered through the Arcadian woods knew the sound of Pan’s pipes.

Pan played his tunes all year long, protecting the shepherd’s flocks from intruders, but his special season was high summer. When the sun beat down upon the slopes of Arcadia, when the grass grew high and the rocky clefts were thick with wildflowers, Pan hid in the shade of the trees and played his pipes. The shepherds, lazy from the heat, rested in the tall grass, listening to the clanking of the sheep bells, to the barking dogs, to the flapping of the kestrels’ wings, and they drifted to sleep, sure that Pan would watch over all the creatures of the mountains.

The shepherds often heard Pan’s pipes, and sometimes they could hear the click of his goat hooves as he roamed the mountaintops. But few ever saw the god, and fewer still cared to search for him, for they had heard tales from shepherds who had encountered Pan. Some they knew had slipped into a shady glen to take a nap and had spotted Pan’s pointed ears as he dashed from sight.

Those who had seen him told of his fury. He would shout, and his voice would pierce the summer air, and every hair on his body would stand on end. After that, the shepherd would be blinded by the angry god’s powers. And so the shepherds did their best to let Pan have his solitude and were comforted by the sound of his beautiful pipes.

As humankind grew older, the gods grew weaker, and some vanished. During the first century, a ship’s pilot named Thamus, an Egyptian sailed from his own land toward Rome. As he sailed past the shores of Peloponnesus, the sea grew suddenly calm, and the sailors shivered at the sudden change. They knew that without the wind, they could not sail.

The sailors heard a voice calling out to them. “Thamus!” the voice called. “Thamus, hear me.”

So far from home, Thamus was startled to hear his own name. He squinted toward shore, searching to see who called him but saw no one. Then, once more, he heard his name. “Thamus,” the voice called.

“I hear you,” Thamus answered, still searching the shore.

“Tell the world that the great god Pan is dead,” the voice said, and then there was complete silence.

Thamus’ crew pulled out their oars, and soon they were moving toward shore. These men did not worship the gods of Greece, but they did not want to offend the powers, and so, when the ship landed, Thamus stepped onto the shore, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted out as loudly as he could, “Pan is dead.” Again and again, he called out the message.

Then the men boarded their ship, and as they did, the wind rose again, and the ship skimmed away from the cliffs. Behind them, they heard the wail of the people of Arcadia weeping for the death of their goat god.

Later some people said that Thamus had misheard the voice, that the enemies of the gods had invented a tale of Pan’s death, but Thamus always swore he had heard the words clearly. “I would never invent such a sad tale,” Thamus said, for though some feared the goat god, Pan, everyone loved his music.

The shepherds say Thamus spoke the truth, for, in the mountains of Arcadia, the pipes of Pan were silent after that day, though sometimes, when the wind blows among the pines and cedars in just the right way, they hear a ghostly melody, and they remember their beloved god.