Did you know… the origin of the word “panic”?

     There is a wonderfully expressive colloquialism in French that goes: “Je me coucherai moins bête ce soir!” which literally translates as “I’ll be going to bed less stupid tonight!”, i.e. I’ve learned something since waking up this morning. Two nights ago, while leafing through my Dictionary of Greek Gods and Heroes (one of my all-time favourite reads!), I came across the entry for the god Pan, and at the bottom of the page, a footnote briefly stated that the word panic was derived from the god’s name. “Huh!” I thought. And then, coming swiftly on the tail of the first reaction: “Why?”

     Yesterday afternoon, I had a bit of spare time between a university conference and shopping for a dinner party, so I decided to investigate.

     The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition of the word panic:

Noun: sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behaviour.

Origin: early 17th century: from French “panique”, from modern Latin “panicus”, from Greek “panikos”, from the name of the god Pan, noted for causing terror, to whom woodland noises were attributed.

     Of course, I immediately looked up Pan in the hopes of gleaning more information, but the entry in the OED was disappointingly short:

Pan: figure of Greek mythology. A god of flocks and herds, typically represented with the horns, ears, and legs of a goat on a man’s body. His sudden appearance was supposed to cause terror similar to that of a frightened and stampeding herd, and the word panic is derived from his name. 

     But WHY did Pan cause such terror in the breasts of those who saw him?? My own vision of Pan up till then had been of a happy faun, gambolling about the woods of Arcadia, playing his reed pipes, and occasionally joining in the local shepherds’ games. A bit too reminiscent of pretty painted china figurines, apparently.

     Was it his appearance that frightened people so? According to some versions of the myth, when he was born he was so hairy and loathsome to look at that his mother fled in horror. But surely, in a world peopled by fauns and satyrs, his half-goat, half-human body was nothing extraordinary. There were far more monstrous creatures about – he was no Minotaur, demanding an annual sacrifice of seven youths and seven maidens (to do what with, exactly, one wonders?), or Medusa, growing hissing snakes instead of hair and turning to stone with a single look. Neither was he like the Hydra, that gigantic sea-monster with the body of a dog and a hundred foul-breathing serpents’ heads, which would sprout two more for every one Hercules chopped off. Compared to creatures like that, Pan seems almost tame! In fact, in many other versions, he is portrayed as a handsome youth, with long curly hair and ruddy cheeks.

     Was it his prodigious sexual appetite, then, that caused alarm? Pan reportedly boasted that he had slept with every Maenad that ever was. Certainly he is frequently depicted leering from behind the bushes at some sleeping maiden, or chasing after some reluctant Nymph – indeed, two of them were so desperate to escape his importunate attentions that the gods took pity on them: Pitys was changed into a pine tree (which later became one of the trees sacred to Pan) and Syrinx into a clump of reeds (out of which Pan fashioned the plaintive-sounding pipes he liked to play). It is obviously not for nothing that we use the expression “to be as randy as a goat”!

     It was the Classic Encyclopaedia that afforded me my first real clue: as an infant, Pan was taken to Mount Olympus, where he became a favourite of Dionysus, the god of the grape-harvest, of wine-making and wine, and of ritual madness and ecstasy. As a nature god, Pan was in any case associated with Dionysus, and it is possible that the wine god’s reputation for intoxication and wild behaviour rubbed off onto his younger companion.

     Most illuminating of all was a passage in the New World Encyclopaedia: “[…] Pan and the natural habitat in which he was said to live became a metaphor for the pastoral as it exists in contrast to the urban. Pan’s dual nature as both divine and animal plays upon the tenuous balance between disorder and harmony, the primal and the cultivated.” The source of Pan’s ability to cause terror therefore resides in his power to make his victims (for want of a better word) forget civilization and revert to a state in which more bestial instincts predominate. His music expresses the duality of the god’s personality, in that it is capable of arousing inspiration (thus linking Pan to Apollo and the arts), lust, or panic, depending on the god’s intentions.

     The savage aspect of Pan’s nature comes to the fore in a most sinister manner in the tale of the nymph Echo, whose vow of chastity Pan considered an insult to his virility. Out of revenge, he ordered his followers to have her torn to pieces and her body scattered about the mountains and fields.

     This element of horror reappears in the 1894 novella The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen, one of many writers inspired by the revival of interest in Greek mythology in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In Machen’s novella, Dr Raymond destroys the mind of a young Welsh girl named Mary, in his attempts to make her see the god Pan. Years later, the beautiful but sinister Helen Vaughan makes her appearance in London society, disturbing many young men and even causing several of them to commit suicide. It is eventually revealed that she is the fruit of Mary and Pan’s union. The novella’s decadent style and strong sexual content caused a scandal when it was first published, but Machen was far from being the only one at the time to focus on Pan as a symbol of the power of nature and paganism.

© Florence Berlioz 2011

About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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10 Responses to Did you know… the origin of the word “panic”?

  1. Cécile says:

    A great way of learning new things about words you wouldn’t necessarily think of looking up in the dictionary : very interesting! “I’ll be going to sleep less stupid tonight!”..

  2. Hey, I’m touched: you actually came to have a look! I’m glad the threat of camomile didn’t keep you away permanently 🙂
    I know what you mean about not looking up words like “panic” in the dictionary: they’re so much a part of our daily vocabulary that we don’t even stop to think about them. That’s why I was so interested when I came across the reference. Completely random – and completely fascinating!

  3. Cécile says:

    Perhaps completely random ..but I think you should write more about things like that!
    It’s fun, and original and interesting..and nice to read! I like!

  4. Ok, I will! I’ve created a category called “Did you know?” especially for posts like that…

  5. limr says:

    Words are the windows to our souls, not eyes! I love how a simple word that we take for granted can actually help us understand more about our fragile grasp of our own civility, which makes us fear the primitive that much more. It’s the original Lord of the Flies!

    Really enjoyed the post!

  6. Thank you so much!
    I must admit, though, that I find William Golding’s children FAR more frightening than Pan, for all his tearing nymphs to pieces. Gods are always doing things like that – but children should know better!

  7. Megha says:

    Can you please write about how the word panic spread to other countries and the current usage. I need it for a project and my teacher said I couldn’t write anything that I know, I had to have resources. Sadly, I can’t find the answers to my questions. I have been looking for days, but it’s useless!! Please, can you do it ASAP?

    • Hello Megha!
      I’m afraid I don’t know all the answers! I recommend the Encyclopedia Britannica if you need more detailed information – I’m sure they have interesting things. Or else a dictionary of etymology… Good luck with the project!

  8. Pingback: The Nightwood, by Robin Muller (1991) | Miss Darcy's Library

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