Some ancient religions had gods who lived and died. In Norse mythology, for example, nearly all the gods would die at Ragnarok.
The Greek gods, however, were immortal. While they could go to the Underworld, they never truly died.
One story maintained, however, that one of Greek mythology’s most iconic gods had, in fact, truly died. A story that originated in the 1st century AD claimed that Pan had met his end.
The story of exactly how Pan died was never told, although some later ideas were put forth. One of the ancient world’s most well-known writers instead told the story of how Pan’s death was announced by an unlikely herald.
Did a sailor named Thamus really tell the world that the great god Pan was dead, or is there more to this story than Plutarch knew?
To the Greeks, it was a given that the gods would not die. While some minor deities, like certain nymphs, could be killed, most of the gods were thought of as immortal.
Despite this, one unusual story circulated about Pan. It claimed that Pan was, in fact, dead.
Pan was one of the foremost rustic gods, the less noble and refined deities that lived in the countryside. The goat-footed deity was the god of shepherds, mountain forests, and hunters.
Most historians believe that Pan and the rustic gods, like the satyrs and Silenus, were worshiped before the gods of Olympus. But one Greek historian also claimed that Pan had died during the lifetime of the Olympians.
The famous Greek historian Plutarch was born in the middle of the first century AD. In one of his works, he explained that Pan had supposedly died in the decades shortly before his own birth.
According to Plutarch, An Egyptian sailor named Thamus was sailing to Italy. As he passed by the Greek islands, he heard a divine voice call to him from across the water.
The voice addressed Thamus by name and told him, “The great god Pan is dead!” The sailor announced this news when he reached port and the story of Pan’s death quickly spread.
While the manner of Pan’s death was not addressed in Plutarch’s writing, the story became a popular one.
Writers of the early Christian era spread the story, believing that the divine voice in Plutarch’s story was that of their own god.
Thamus had supposedly received word of Pan’s death during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, who had ruled at the time of Christ. Reading Plutarch, later followers of Christ believed that the story related to the coming of their savior.
The image of Pan greatly influenced that of Satan in Christian art and literature. The goat-legged, pipe-playing god became the image of the devil.
In addition, Pan’s name could have additional meaning. The Greek word for “all,” pan, led to an interpretation that Pan’s death had been that of all the pre-Christian demons.
Interpretations of the death of Pan in Greek mythology continued for hundreds of years. It became a symbol of the end of the old pagan religions and the shift to Christian monotheism.
Outside of Plutarch’s work, however, there was no indication that Pan had ever died. In fact, when Pausanias toured Greece a century after Plutarch’s time, he described shrines and sacred caves devoted to Pan that were still the sites of pilgrimage and rituals.
So if ancient worshippers still believed that their god heard their prayers, why did Plutarch believe that he had died?
Some modern historians have offered an interpretation of the story of Pan’s death that contradicts that of their Greek ancestor. They believe that Thamus’s tale was the result of an error in translation rather than the belief that a god had died.
In Greek, the phrase Thamous Pan ‘o megas tethneke would translate as “Thamus, Great Pan is dead.” Some scholars think that this might not have been what Greek sailors heard, however.
Instead, they could have heard Thamus Panmegas tethneke, or “The All-Great Tammuz is dead.” The words would have sounded very similar, especially from a distance.
So who was Tammuz?
Tammuz, also known as Dumuzid, was a god of ancient Mesopotamia. He was the consort of Inanna, the goddess of love.
If Greek sailors heard a reference to Tammuz as they traveled near Egypt, they likely would have been unfamiliar with the foreign god. It would have been easy for them to interpret his name as the more Greek-sounding Thamus instead.
Like Pan, Tammuz was a god of the countryside and shepherds. He was also similarly associated with fertility.
Unlike Pan, however, it was genuinely believed that Tammuz had died.
According to Sumerian poems, Inanna had been taken to the Underworld. Her husband eventually took her place so that she could be freed.
When Tammuz went to the Underworld, however, his sister fell into a deep mourning. Inanna joined her and they searched tirelessly for Tammuz.
When they located him in the Underworld, Inanna wanted to allow him to return to the surface to be with his sister. Because he had been bound to the Underworld, however, he could not return forever.
In a story that was similar to the Greek myth of Persephone, Tammuz was allowed to return to the living world for part of the year. Like the Greek story, this Sumerian myth explained the cycle of the seasons and the return of the land’s fertility in the spring.
Historians believe that the legend of Pan’s death was directly inspired by the mythology of Tammuz. A shepherd god of fertility’s death could have been misinterpreted by Greek travelers who were ignorant of Mesopotamian religion.
Announcements of the death of Tammuz may have been made during a religious festival at the changing of the seasons. Not knowing the name of the fertility god that was being celebrated, the Greeks misinterpreted the “all-great” god as “great Pan.”
Although the Greek gods were immortal, the ancient historian Plutarch claimed that Pan’s death had once been announced to the world.
According to his account, an Egyptian sailor named Thamus was told “The great god Pan is dead,” by a divine voice as he traveled toward Italy. He spread the news through the port, to the dismay of those who heard it.
Medieval writers seized on this story. Because it supposedly took place during the life of Christ, they saw it as a sign that the old pagan gods, which they thought of as demons, had been destroyed by Christianity.
Modern historians have offered a different theory, however. They believe that the story of Pan’s death may have been the result of mistranslation.
Rather than “Thamus, the great god Pan is dead,” the phrase may have been “The all-great god Tammuz is dead,” which would have sounded very similar in Greek.
Tammuz was a Mesopotamian god of shepherds and fertility who, much like Persephone, spent part of the year in the Underworld. Announcements of his death may have been part of a seasonal ritual that was misconstrued by Greek travelers.