Pan: a wayward god in animal form

written by Julia Schellenberg on March 9, 2016 in Content with 4 comments

Meet Pan – god of the forest and fields and patron of shepherds. If you’re startled by his ugly fur-coated appearance, with horns sprouting from his head and goat-like legs, you’re not alone – these always send those who dare disturb him into a panic. Despite his off-putting appearance, Pan is also known as the eternally lustful god, a companion of playful nymphs who takes pleasure in music, dance and merriment.

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Reclining Pan with a bunch of grapes, Signorum Veterum Icones II by Jan de Bisschop, c. 1664. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

According to a myth, one day Pan came across an enchanting nymph called Syrinx, widely known for her beauty. Pan immediately fell in love with her, and competed for her with the vehemence of a god. Hairy all over his body like an animal, with his horns and goat legs, he terrified the delicate nymph. As a result, Pan pursued her with even more fervour.

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Pan and Syrinx by Caesar Boëtius van Everdingen, c. 1637 – c. 1640.  Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

Syrinx escaped to get away from Pan until blocked by a river. The nymph could not swim and there was no way to cross the water. Pan was about to overpower her – all that was left for her to was to ask for help. All of a sudden, she was transformed into a reed.

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Pan and Syrinx, Ovidius’ Metamorfosen by Hendrick Goltzius, 1589. Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

By the time Pan reaches her, all he can grab hold of are the reeds standing in her place. When the wind blows, plaintive sounds emerge – knowing he wanted to keep this sound, Pan breaks the reeds and makes a panpipe. With this, he hears the tender sounds of Syrinx forever more. 

If these illustrations have made you curious to see more depictions of nymphs from mythological tales, you can explore our dedicated Pinterest board.