When it comes round to February and most Witches are thinking of Imbolc and ewes and Brigit, my thoughts turn to Pan. Not that I don’t love all those candles, but consistently it is Pan that returns to me at this time of year.
Pan meant an enormous amount to me when I was younger, and was de facto the god of my devotions as a young Thelemite. I was I think the recipient of a tradition of Pan veneration which weaved its way through the aesthetics and esotericism of a time running from Romanticism through the Decadents and Symbolists, through the time of rebels such as DH Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, through to the mid twentieth century. Pan trailed not just a nascent promise of neopaganism with him, but the aura of censored artists, persecuted sexuality, forbidden magic, the excluded and the “mad”. He was a devil of a god, whose shadow reared up to heavens emptied of the bible’s One Deity, and led down to whispered mysteries. His reputation was not just pastoral and natural, but also dangerous and very personal.
I was probably about 11 or 12 when I first saw a picture of Pan, and I was mesmerized by this half goat, half man god. He came to represent all that I searched for in the magical mysteries of “the Pagan”, all that I swore ran through my blood and my pre-teen sexuality, as it led down into adolescence. Any depiction of a satyr in a museum would become an icon and a little place of pilgrimage for me.
In esoteric hearsay, stories of Pan’s invocation were accompanied with cautionary tales, supposed immorality, foolhardiness, and magicians left gibbering and naked in the morning. I wonder if that still gets trotted out nowadays? I didn’t really consider Pan in quite that light, he was my favourite after all, but there was a coldness and a darkness that could accompany the goat foot god, both a loneliness and its answer, along with experiences which might get stereotyped as “enchanting” and “ecstatic”. For one period of time in my twenties I would get hurled out of sleep, like out of deep water, in a state of terror. My sister swore, years later, that she had once awoken to hear a large animal on the landing outside our bedrooms, breathing heavily in the middle of the night. It was quite an extreme time in some ways, though very creative.
One of his myths has him rejected at birth by his mother, on account of his ugliness. He was anything but ugly to me, but that theme touches something I don’t hear often with respect to Pan. That rift, that ostracism, that exclusion. The combination of his creative and inspiring nature with his conventional vilification (in stories he often repels those he pursues) also I think make of him a stand in for the daemon, the individual genius which is so often misunderstood or feared. He seemed to be the dark, hairy, libidinous underground, lit with an invisible electricity, where we would find the True Will. He was, in a lot of ways for me, The Beast in my young Thelema. He did indeed seem to have a special place with Crowley. “Into my loneliness come the sound of a flute” begins one of my favourite short pieces by Crowley, and it was Pan that Crowley and Victor Neuburg invoked into the latter in the North African desert in their sexual magick.
Of all the gods, it is probably Pan who was taken as a model of The Horned God by the creators of the early twentieth century Witch Cult in England. His place really was pre-eminent at a certain time in our recent history, romantically speaking. Doreen Valiente, in talking about the pentagram, refers to the “two points up” version as emblematic of the goat face of the Horned God, and of spirit buried within matter, but this brings in another theme.
The picture of the goat face within the pentagram has become emblematic of Satanism (and some kinds of heavy metal), having been launched into mass awareness by Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan in 1966. He did not invent this image though, for as far as I can tell it originates with the 19th century French poet and Rosicrucian, Stanislas de Guaita. The image wasn’t meant to depict Pan explicitly, and probably referred to an imagined “black magic” or “Satanism”.
design published by de Guaita – image in public domain
The goat image even gets slapped on the wrong animal, such is the attachment to this beast as a carrier of a condemned message. “The Goat of Mendes”, beloved of old fashioned occult, pot boiler authors, was actually a ram, and needless to say, a legitimate religious symbol, just not a monotheistic one.
Pan arrives in our time, a very long way from Arcadia, having picked up some unusual tailoring along the way. Having shut him, and all he represents, away in the cellar of a Christian and then rationalist subconscious, he has emerged in poetry and art and magic, modern folk lore and counterculture.
Why, I wondered, would he come back for me in February? Well, always in the sign of Aquarius it seems, a sign ruled by both Saturn and Uranus. Uranus has some kind of association with him, though not an at first obvious one. It is the exclusion, the shock and the reaction, the tendency to absorb a blackened image and just burn brighter all the same, the origination of creativity, and also the absolutism. Pan is the lunge for wholeness that propels us beyond reason and sense, beyond self preservation. He haunts the root of our individual godhood. Thanks to the journey he has taken, he also carries a healing for the excluded. We need to understand him if we are going to understand ourselves.
If you want a ride, he can give you a ride. I look on him with gratitude and love, and a wonder which I still feel.
Idyll (Pan Amidst Columns) by Arnold Böcklin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons