Steven King called Arthur Machin’s The Great God Pan ‘one of the greatest horror stories ever written’.
The 1890 novella influenced H.P. Lovecraft, whose dark tales of magical rituals opening portals to the realms of chthonic gods – gods of the underworld – are still found in science fiction and horror; most famously Hellboy.
Machin’s contemporaries were not so generous. They described the tale as degenerate and horrific; too morbid for a healthy mind.
The story opens with a scientist who performs experimental brain surgery on a 17-year old girl in an effort to strip away society’s blinkers and open the human mind to the infinite – symbolised by the Great God Pan. The operation is successful, but leaves the girl a vacant husk.
Years later, the narrator learns of a mysterious woman, of monstrous power and depraved sexuality (in Victorian terms that is) who is the daughter of Pan and the girl.
Pan makes a surprise appearance in Kenneth Graham’s 1908 ‘Wind in the Willows’ in ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. Pan was the original god of music. His pan pipes were made of hollow reeds plucked from the riverbank. Even in a children’s book, Pan was portrayed as an awesome deity. After helping Rattie and Mole, he casts a spell of forgetfulness so that ‘the awful remembrance (does not) grow, and overshadow (their) mirth and pleasure.’
Pan, depicted as man with the legs and horns of a goat, survived the coming of the Olympians in Ancient Greece largely due to the fact he was too powerful to ignore. He embodied the wildness of nature. His name meant ‘All’ or ‘Everything’. His angry cry heard in the desolate wilderness evoked panic. So it is no surprise the Greeks prayed to him before battle to induce pandemonium (all terror) in the enemy.
He was also fertility, which is the tame aspect of unbridled sexual abandon. This is why Pan is often show shown with a huge phallus; although this more properly belongs to the god Priapus.
Pan was an embarrassment to the Greeks and never made it into their Pantheon – ‘all the gods’. As newcomers to civilisation, the Greeks were only too painfully aware Pan was worshipped in orgiastic fertility rites when their ancestors were naught but farmers and shepherds scratching a living from the poor mountainous land.
By the time of Rome, the educated considered Pan little more than a joke, a comic figure symbolising the lechery of ignorant peasants. So it is not surprising they recorded his death sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (14–37 A.D.).
The story went about that an Egyptian called Thamus heard a voice cry from the west coast of Greece as he was sailing to Italy. ‘Thamus, are you there? When you reach port, take care to proclaim: All hear and weep for the Great God Pan is dead.’
When he relayed his news to the crowds gathered on the quayside, their groans and lamentations echoed through the nation.
Some claim Thamus misheard the words, which were no more than the ritual chant of the priests of Tammuz, a Barley god who died at each harvest and was mourned for a whole month before being reborn in spring. This would certainly account for the wailing that greeted his news.
There is no evidence Pan’s popularity waned after his reported death. His shrines were popular as ever with rural people. Indeed, Pan went on to outlive the Olympian gods, for as the ‘old horned one’ he is revered as a witch god throughout Christian Europe.
Arthur Machin’s The Great God Pan is available for download online.
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