Richard Hodges: The Death of Pan

13 mins read
David Hernandez and Richard Hodges investigate a deity’s demise.
A bronze statuette of Pan
Pan, as depicted on the bronze statuette found as a gun battery was being constructed on Mount Mile in 1981. The god is shown with a bearded human face, discreet horns, and goat-legs. He is pouring oil from an alabastron. Mount Mile overlooked the ancient city of Butrint, which features in the story surrounding the god’s demise. [All images: B F Archive, unless otherwise stated]

A true science of myth should begin with a study of archaeology.
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, p.21

The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was obsessed with defending his ‘paradise on earth’. He feared invasion by NATO troops using a combination of amphibious landings and parachutists. As a result, he covered the country with thousands of mushroom-like bunkers, concealed trenches, and anti-aircraft guns. From the sea to the mountains, Albania became a fortress. This extraordinary martial investment had one unexpected outcome. During construction of an anti-aircraft installation close to Fshati i Vjetër, ‘The Old Village’ high on Mount Mile, overlooking Butrint, ancient Buthrotum, and the Straits of Corfu, an exquisite bronze statuette of the god, Pan, came to light in 1981.

Reportedly, as the gun battery was made, ruins of some ancient building and pottery were also found. These suggest, in view of the pastoral setting, that a sanctuary of Pan had stood there in antiquity. Now this chance find has come to possess more meaning, as new research shows another sanctuary dedicated to Pan existed in Butrint itself. The significance of this lost urban sanctuary brings to mind a celebrated passage in the Greek writer Plutarch’s Moralia, written around the later 1st century AD, that, while reporting Pan’s death, indirectly mentions Butrint.

The Mount Mile statuette

To celebrate the discovery of the statuette of Pan, an Albanian national stamp bearing its image was issued in 1986.

The Mount Mile statuette was immediately exhibited in the National Museum in Tirana, Albania’s capital. Shortly afterwards, it graced an Albanian postage stamp. Above all, it is a striking but small work of art, standing to a height of 17cm. Broken just below the knee, the statuette is otherwise well preserved. Pan is depicted as a mature bearded man with slightly coarsened features, a strong, muscular body, rough hair, pointed animal ears, and dewlaps hanging from either side of his chin. His eyes are wide and staring and his mouth slightly open. His face is shown with human features; the horns are discreetly rendered and the ears small.

From the waist up, he is essentially human; from the waist down, he has the characteristic goat-legs, which would have ended in cloven hooves had they been preserved. He is shown naked, ithyphallic, and wearing the pelt of a wild cat (identified as a lynx in the Homeric Hymn that describes him), knotted at his right shoulder and slung over his left arm. His torso is twisted slightly, with his left leg in front of his right, giving the figure movement and grace, and the smooth musculature of his upper body is complemented and contrasted by the swirls on his goat-legs and on his lynx pelt, both of which possess the same patterning.

The statuette is cleverly modelled, with a noble expression and harmonious proportions and movements. In his left arm, Pan is carrying a lagabolon, a shepherd’s crook and throwing stick. Pan, the lagabolon tells us, was simultaneously a shepherd (and hence a protector of animals) and a hunter. His right arm is raised and in his hand he holds an alabastron, from which he is pouring oil onto his erect phallus, a pose far more commonly adopted by another fertility god, Priapus, with whom Pan is sometimes depicted. As a nature god, Pan was always associated with orgiastic rituals and was a hedonistic participant in the feasts associated with the Dionysian Mysteries, serving to ensure the fertility of the herds and the harvest.

On the basis of style, the Mount Mile Pan appears to be an early Hellenistic original, probably of the 3rd century BC, although the possibility that it was an early Roman copy cannot be ruled out. The statuette dates to the time, it seems, that Butrint was emerging as a small walled Mediterranean port with sacred springs.

Pan in Greek myth

Pan has an especially colourful story. He also happens to be the only Greek god to die. The worship of Pan (Πάν) was thought to have originated in the mountainous lands of Arcadia in the Peloponnese, in a pastoral landscape similar to that of Epirus in north-western Greece and southern Albania. His name comes from the Arcadian Doric Πάων, which in turn derives from an early Greek (Mycenaean) word for ‘shepherd’. Pan was, above all, a god of nature in all its forms, a god who lived in beautiful and wild countryside, who inhabited the shadows of woods and forests, and haunted the pastures and the uplands of hills and mountains. He was, in essence, a personification of the life led by the human and mythical dwellers in such a landscape, and lived among them, with nymphs, herdsmen, and flocks as his constant companions. Although shrines were sometimes built to him in cities, his sanctuaries were more often to be found in wild and isolated places, on mountainsides like Mount Mile, in grottos, and in caves.

The ancients depicted him typically in two distinct ways. One was more bestial, with goat-legs, large horns, cloven hooves, hairy body, thick beard, and goat-like face. The other, as represented in the Pan statuette from Mount Mile, was more human, with goat-legs and small horns to identify him. It is possible that the differences in type reflect diverse aspects of his character and worship. He was typically portrayed hunting, dancing, playing music, or in pursuit of sex. In some cases, he was depicted (like Priapus) ithyphallic, as the protector of shepherds and herds – a symbol of fertility and the robustness of the natural world. As a symbol of rural rather than urban life, Pan was closely associated with the hedonistic Dionysus and was often shown among his retinue. The Roman Dionysian wall paintings of the 1st century BC in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii are a celebrated example of this. This conception of Pan is found in the earliest references to the god. In the Homeric Hymn dedicated to him (7th-6th centuries BC), Dionysus is said to have given Pan his name, as a pun on the word ‘all’ (πάντες) because the newborn infant was a delight to all the gods.

From Pan’s Arcadian heartland, his worship spread to Athens and Attica in the early 5th century BC. Herodotus recounts that the Athenian messenger Phidippides, who had been sent to Sparta to ask for help against the first Persian invasion, informed the Athenians on his return that he met Pan on Mount Parthenion above Tegea. Pan reportedly asked Phidippides why the Athenians paid him no attention, since he supported them. According to Herodotus, ‘the Athenians believed that these things were true’. After the victory at Marathon, the Athenians built a shrine to Pan in a cave on the north-western slopes of the acropolis in Athens, and held animal sacrifices and torch-races every year in his honour. This cave was identified in 1896-1897, and the excavations found a fine rock-cut relief of Pan playing his pipes (syrinx) to nymphs. Pan was thought to have aided the Athenians in their victory, and a statue was erected to him at Marathon. Once his worship had taken root among the Athenians, it spread quickly to other areas of Greece.

Pan’s demise

Gods did not die, so Pan’s death has had an enduring fascination. News of a divine revelation – the death of Great Pan – spread to Rome during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37). The matter was taken seriously. The emperor convened scholars, summoned witnesses, and ordered an investigation. The announcement of this unprecedented death of a god was said to have occurred at Butrint. Plutarch, soon after, describes the affair:

The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time, in making a voyage to Italy, he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly, from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it was better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances, Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished, there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelope.

The geography of this celebrated passage is now clear. The ominous event reportedly began near the Echinades Islands (known today as the Ionian Islands), off the coast of western Greece. One of the major islands in this group is Ithaca, the legendary home of Odysseus and Penelope. As noted by Tiberius’ scholars, Penelope was considered to be the mother of Pan, and the god was thought to have been born on Ithaca, an opinion held by Herodotus among others. The ship’s captain Thamus and the passengers on board heard the mysterious voice as the ship drifted to Paxi (Paxos), which is the smallest of the Ionian Islands, located immediately south of Corfu, opposite Epirus. In describing the coastline of Epirus in his Geography, Strabo, who was a contemporary of Tiberius, remarks that the seaport of Buthrotum was known to sailors as Pelodes, the ‘clay harbour’ on the Ionian Sea. These geographical markers represent the typical route sailors took from Greece, before crossing the Strait of Otranto to Italy. Plutarch’s later account suggests that the pronouncement of Pan’s death was directed to what must have been a well-known sanctuary to the god at Butrint, where his devotees lamented his fate. Now, as a result of recent excavations and detective work in the archives of Albania’s Institute of Archaeology, a seaport counterpoint to the Mount Mile sanctuary has come to light.

Pan’s sanctuary at Butrint

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint has been the subject of excavations since 1928, when the Italian Archaeological Mission led by Luigi Maria Ugolini began its investigations. Research continued after the war, spearheaded by the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, and then in recent times by the Butrint Foundation and the University of Notre Dame. Nearly a century of excavations has contributed to making this one of the best-studied ancient sites in the Mediterranean. And yet, new discoveries continue to be made, often as not in the archives of earlier digs.

A black-and-white photo of the excavation team
The Albanian archaeological team in 1966, showing Dhimosten Budina (back row, second from the left), as well as Damian Komata (left of Budina), Aleksandra Mano (woman on the right), and Kosta Lako (bottom row, second from the left).

In 1964-1966, excavations in the ancient Roman forum of Butrint, under the direction of the late Dhimosten Budina, unearthed an intact stone base bearing a Greek inscription. Dating to the 1st century BC, the text records a dedication to Pan by a Roman named Cassianus (Cassius), who is described as the head priest of the mystery cult of the god. This dedication served as a rough boundary stone in a sanctuary to Pan. This was not the first evidence of Pan to be found in Butrint. In the late 1920s, Ugolini unearthed a small stone pedestal that bore another Greek inscription. This revealed it was dedicated to Pasa (Πᾶσα), the female consort of Pan, made by the same Cassianus. The pedestal originally would have supported a statue of Pasa and represents another offering by the head priest of the mystery cult.

An inscribed stele or boundary stone from the sanctuary of Pan, which was discovered during excavations in the 1960s. [Image: David Hernandez]

The findspot of the boundary stone dedicated by Cassianus indicates that the sanctuary of Pan was situated somewhere in the west courtyard, part of the Roman forum. The courtyard’s most-prominent building was dedicated to the imperial cult (W Building). This featured in front of its doors a monumental three-line inscription in gilded bronze letters on the pavement of the courtyard. Dating between 27 BC and 7 BC, the inscription names two freedman, Quintus Caecilius Eumanius and Gnaeus Domitius Eros, from Butrint’s leading families in the Augustan colony. These grandees held the title Augustales (priests of Augustus), members of the wealthy associations that emerged in Rome’s western provinces in the time of Augustus. The two benefactors paid for the pavement and probably the imperial cult building as their honorary gift to gain admission into the association of the Augustales.

The courtyard was a sacred space, built beside the Asklepieion, the Shrine of Asklepios, with the commanding Hellenistic-period theatre in its north-eastern corner. The worship of Pan may have centred around a small building in the courtyard that functioned as a compitum, a crossroads shrine built on the western side of the Shrine of Asklepios, at the intersection where the street through the Asklepieion Gate met a colonnaded walkway to the Roman forum. The compitum consists of two symmetrical cellae or shrines, which were approached by two steps. A limestone column in situ and circular attachment holes for others show that a single pronaos (porch) fronted the two cellae. An elevated platform on the western side of the shrines provided side-access to the pronaos. Two dedicatory monuments, forming part of the compitum, remain in situ; both are integrated into the southern wall of the platform facing the courtyard.

Aerial photograph of the W Courtyard and Theatre at Butrint. A shrine of Asklepios is visible just beyond the theatre, at the point where the seating terminates at the entrance. The compitum, round altar and pedestal of Aulus Granius, honorific bench, and water basin can be made out directly beyond the shrine, where standing water is visible in the photograph. [Image: Alket Islami/B F Archive]

On the western side is a large marble drum bearing a Latin inscription. This identifies it as an altar dedicated by Aulus Granius, the magister vici, to the Lares Compitales, which were the old ancestral neighborhood deities from Republican Rome. Magistri vici oversaw the cult of the Lares Compitales.

The second monument, on the eastern side, is a rectangular pedestal. The same magister vici, Aulus Granius, dedicated this, together with a statue, to the titular deity of Stata Mater, who served ‘to put a stop’ to urban fires. The pedestal would have supported a statue of the goddess. (A similar pedestal is found in the forum in Rome.) A semi-circular limestone base in situ is located in front of Granius’ two monuments. This was the base of an honorific bench where the magister vici presided annually over the compitalia, in which sacrifices were made to the Lares Compitales at the crossroads. A brick water-basin lies between this bench and the steps leading up to the shrines. The basin, built on to the two steps, has the form of a small aedicula with a rear niche. All these structures form part of the Compital shrine.

Piecing this evidence together, it is now clear that the epigraphic evidence and architecture bear a striking similarity to the compitum in the Piazza dei Lari at Ostia. Ostia’s compitum consists of a round marble altar adjacent to a basin and a building with two shrines. The round altar bears a Latin inscription, which reveals that it is of Julio-Claudian date and was dedicated by the magister vici from his own money to the Lares Compitales at the crossroads. It features a relief that shows Hercules with a sacrificial pig and Pan leading the Lar Vicinalis to an altar. A thyrsus, the pine-tipped staff of Dionysus, leans against a tree nearby. In this scene, the three youngest gods mentioned by Herodotus – Hercules, Dionysus, and Pan – are represented together at the crossroads shrine at Ostia. In similar fashion, the compitum of Buthrotum was probably dedicated to Hercules and Pan as well, under the umbra of Dionysus in the adjacent theatre.

A marble altar in the compitum at Ostia, showing Pan. [Image: courtesy of Camelia Boban: https://commons.wikimedia.org]

Two sanctuaries

Plutarch’s story is all the more intriguing because Tiberius is also known to have received the news of the death of another figure widely considered a god: Christ in Judea. The parallelism between Pan and Christ in this account did not go unnoticed by early Christians, who thought that Pan’s name was a metaphor for all pagan gods. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 265-339), who recorded Constantine’s account of his Christian vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, interpreted the death of Pan as the death of all pagan gods at the hands of Christ, whose death brought about the salvation of the world. In time, Pan became the prototype for the devil.

Devil or pastoral sprite and mischief-maker, Pan’s presence in the form of the lost sanctuary on Mount Mile, with its Hellenistic statuette and its grand Roman urban counterpoint in colonial Butrint, lends a new dimension to the god’s story. Plutarch’s account, we can now deduce, makes an indirect reference to the sanctuary of Pan at Butrint. Incited by a divine voice, a sea-captain was said to have announced the god’s death from his ship across from Palodes, and to have received an instant reply of lamentation and bewilderment, evidently from Pan’s devotees in the urban sanctuary – an echo that surely found its way to the high pastures of Mount Mile. What, one wonders, would Enver Hoxha, in his martial isolation, have made of this timeless story that situates Butrint and its hinterland at the heart of a great Mediterranean myth?

Further reading
This article is a version of a longer chapter in David Hernandez and Richard Hodges (2020) Butrint 7: Beyond Butrint – Kalivo, Mursi, Çuka e Aitoit, Diaporit and the Vrina Plain: Surveys and Excavations in the Pavllas River Valley, Albania, 1928-2015 (Oxford: Oxbow Books).

This article featured in issue 104 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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