In addition to those Greek and Roman deities who formed the core team on Olympus, there were many others, even local variants, who attracted devotees. Among the best-known of the non-Olympian gods is Pan (Greek Πάν), known to the Romans as Faunus, the god of wild nature, shepherds and their flocks, and master of the Pan pipes. He’s a faun or satyr, human (ish) from the groin upwards, but with the hindquarters of a goat, and its horns. As the only really distinctive attribute of Pan the god is his set of pipes, it can be hard to decide whether a figure is intended to be just another faun or satyr, or the god himself.
Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of Pan and Psyche from 1872-74 shows a delicate figure, with pointed ears suggestive of an intermediate between a man and goat. He’s young, a bit hoary in the legs, but tender with Psyche. The artist painted this shortly after his return to Britain from Italy.
A decade later, Burne-Jones painted The Garden of Pan (1886-87) with a similar approach. This had originally been intended to be far more ambitious, showing Pan and Echo at the beginning of the world, together with sylvan gods and centaurs. Its landscape became less mountainous to the point of being pastoral, and the couple with Pan are simply a shepherd and shepherdess. Burne-Jones also preferred that Pan’s pipes should be double rather than multiple. There’s a brilliant blue kingfisher and some dragonflies, all of which have paused to listen to the music of Pan.
Pan is more commonly portrayed as a hoary old satyr, though.
Mikhail Vrubel’s Pan from 1899 clutches his pipes, and is partly dressed in animal skins, with a brilliantly aged left hand. A waning crescent moon hangs just above the horizon.
Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan from 1636 contrasts with Burne-Jones’ treatment in its unbridled Bacchic revelry. The red-faced term at the back, who is perhaps Pan, is apparently being brought to life by the caress of the central Maenad in blue. None of these figures is part-goat, although another Maenad wearing blue is riding one.
Pan also appears in several mythic narratives, of which the best-known must be the story of King Midas, retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This has similarities with the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, but thankfully lacks its gruesome ending.
It starts when King Midas had developed a real loathing for riches as everything that he touched turned to gold. He then led an outdoor life in Pan’s company, but unfortunately continued to do stupid things. Pan sang and played his pipes, making music which he claimed was even better than that of the god Apollo – a boast which resulted in a contest between them, with Tmolus as the judge.
Pan played first, then Apollo, and Tmolus gave his verdict in favour of Apollo’s lyre, to everyone’s pleasure, apart from Midas who considered that unjust. In return, Apollo transformed Midas’ ears into those of an ass.
Domenichino included The Judgement of Midas as part of the superb frescoes he and his workshop painted in the Villa Aldobrandini in 1616-18. Midas stands proud in his folly, his ass’s ears plain to see, with Apollo and Pan on each side. Amazingly, seven chalk drawings made for this have survived, and are in the British Royal Collection.
This jewel of a painting by Hendrick de Clerck, showing The Contest Between Apollo and Pan and painted in about 1620, just after Domenichino’s frescoes, is truly beautiful. Pan holds his pipes and dances at the right, and Apollo is seen bowing an early form of violin just to the left of centre. Between them are Tmolus, the judge next to Apollo, and Midas, with his ass’s ears. Seven Graces are also present, and Minerva is talking to Apollo.
Just a few years after that, Nicolas Poussin painted his version of Midas and Bacchus (1629-30), in which he shows a rather different group. The centre trio are, from the left, Apollo, Pan (with his pipes), and King Midas, with fairly normal ears. At the far left, Dionysus has nodded off at the table, presumably from his customary excess of wine. In front could be Aphrodite, perhaps, and there are sundry figures scattered, including two putti who are wrestling with a black and white goat. I’m not sure of a coherent explanation for them all.
After this flurry of interest in the story, it seems to have slipped back into obscurity until the late nineteenth century.
Émile Lévy’s painting of The Judgement of Midas was completed in 1870, and is clean and uncluttered. Apollo stands in disdain, in a position which would appear seriously homoerotic. Seated, with his ass’s ears and a facile smile all over his face is King Midas, who is passing a gold laurel crown – a reference to his earlier golden touch – to Pan, who holds his pipes aloft in victory.
The mythical origin of Pan’s pipes isn’t such a gently humorous story, though, involving the god’s attempted rape of the chaste Naiad Syrinx. This is the tale used by Hermes to lull Argus to sleep when the latter is keeping watch over Io, who has been transformed into a cow. Pan lusts after the beautiful Syrinx so chases her. Just as he has almost caught her, she implores her sisters to transform her, and changes into reeds which make music in the breeze. Hence the row of cut reeds of different lengths was named the syrinx in her memory, and became Pan’s musical instrument.
The story of Pan and Syrinx has also proved quite popular. François Boucher seems to have painted it many times, and his Pan and Syrinx from 1743 is probably his finest version, even though it alludes to Syrinx’s transformation rather than showing it.
Rubens’ late oil sketch of Pan and Syrinx (c 1636) is one of the few paintings which attempts to show Syrinx undergoing metamorphosis, and he makes Pan appear thoroughly lecherous, a very far cry from those paintings by Burne-Jones.