Arthur Machen and the awakening of the Great God Pan

The recent reprint of Arthur Machen's "folk horror" masterpiece allows us to shed light on one of the most fascinating phenomena of "pagan rebirth" in the modern West: the awakening of the Great God Pan in Victorian England, at the turn of the 800th century. and the '900.

di Marco Maculotti

“Meanwhile, Pan the Universal
He danced with Graces and Hours
The immortal Spring. "

(John Milton, "Paradise Lost")

If it is considered undisputed that HP Lovecraft [1] was the undisputed master of "cosmic horror" stricto sensu e Gustav Meyrink [2] the novelist who was best able to translate the occult and spiritualistic suggestions of Central Europe between the two centuries into a peculiar literary form, Arthur Machen (1863 - 1947) the title of spearhead novelist of the so-called vein must be recognized without a shadow of a doubt "Folk horror" British, a definition born much later and with regard to a certain English film genre, which could be summarized with the following concepts "psychogeography, hauntology, folklore, cultural rituals and custom, earth mysteries, visionary landscapism, archaic historyAs has already been said elsewhere [3].

Thus we read in the author's preface to his own debut novel The Great God Pan, published in 1894, which we will discuss in this article [4]:

"It all sprang from a lonely house that stood on the side of a hill, under a large wood and over a river, in the region where I was born [...] For some reason, or for no reason, that house that stood on the border and near the green walls of my young world he became an object of mysterious attraction to me. It became one of the many symbols of the wonder world that was offered to me. It became, so to speak, an important word in the secret language by which the mysteries were communicated. I always thought of it with a kind of awe, even fright. "

Arthur Machen's novels literally exude that dreamlike, "fairy" and "Arcadian" atmosphere, reminiscent of a rural and pastoral world that was until the time of the colonization and Christian conquest of the British archipelago., and that in many rural areas - including the Welsh Gwent, where Machen was born - remained more or less intact until the end of the nineteenth century [5]. Aforementioned almost fairytale infatuation and this "Nostalgia for the origins" of eliadian memory are not particularly evident in the writer's first work, but emerge in all their etheric wonder afterwards, with The Hill of Dreams (written from 1895 to 1897 and published only in 1907), The White People (written in 1899 and published in 1904) e A Fragment of Life (also published in 1904) [6].

Arthur Machen

For the writing of The Great God Pan, one of the major inspirations was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (published in 1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, Victorian England writer whose vision fantastic - and at the same time terrifies - of the world was not a little close to that of Machen. The latter, on his part, did not make a mystery of it, even going so far as to mention it in the preface of the novel [7]:

"I think Stevenson knew the emotions I'm trying to express ... there are certain views, certain hills and valleys and pine forests, which require a story to be written about them… The emotions aroused by these external things and reverberated in the heart are actually the truth itself, or all that matters in the story. "

Just as Stevenson wrote his well-known novel on the theme of the "double" in a dream after having "received" the idea and plot of it in a dream, in the same way also for The Great God Pan, convict was a dream that Machen had repeatedly in the months preceding the writing of the novel: a dream set in Caerlon-on-Usk, the country of the Welsh Gwent that had given birth to the writer, «an ancient place, once a fortress of the legions, the center of a Roman culture in exile in the heart of the Celtic world ... I was always accompanied by a dream of the ancient city and the rituals it had witnessed in the distant past, with the ancient hills and ancient woods surrounding it like a deep green circle. I believe these were the sources of my story " [8].

We have already pointed out elsewhere [9] as, far more often than it is legitimate to consider random, the dream experience "suggests" or literally makes suggestions and ideas spring from nothing that will then constitute some of the most fascinating stories and novels of the fantastic trend of the last centuries: think for example of the aforementioned HP Lovecraft who wrote in full the mad announcement of the coming of Nyarlathotep, the "Creeping Chaos", after having experienced the frightening vision of it in a dream, or al kubla khan by Samuel Coleridge, written frantically upon awakening from an afternoon sleep caused by the consumption of opium or sleeping pills, in 1797.

The cover of the new Italian edition of “Il Grande Dio Pan”, published by Tre Editori

And the Providence Dreamer is not mentioned by chance, since the recent edition of The Great God Pan published by Tre Editori in addition to the aforementioned preface by the author, it contains a review by Lovecraft ("Arthur Machen and cosmic fear") published in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) [10] as well as a very full-bodied and very welcome appendix, which includes an essay signed by Alessandro Zabini, "Notes on some sources of Arthur Machen", another entitled "The awakening of the forest" by Susan Johnston Graf e, last but not least, a "Short panic anthology" (which, to honor the merit, is anything but short) in which the main poems and literary sources in honor of the god Pan have been collected: from the Homeric hymn to the "death of Pan" narrated by Plutarch, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Giosuè Carducci's poem “A Satana”; it's still Rimbaud, MallarméRobert Browning William Butler Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Fernando Pessoa, etc.

Between ancient cults, modern science and occultism

As in the case of Stevenson's famous novel - and also in the Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and in Beyond the Wall of Sleep [11] and other stories of HPL -, ne The Great God Pan and the hybris inherent in human nature, assisted and titanically increased by the advent of modern science, to bring evil into our world. In fact, as Johnston Graf notes in her essay in the appendix to this new edition of the novel [12], "It is science, not magic, that provokes Pan's irruption into the common everyday social reality" (and here we are reminded of that Jack parsons, appears in rituals by Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard, who, in the act of sending the first space missiles into the stratosphere, used to recite the Orphic hymn to Pan) and adds that "cleverly, Machen employs two opposing forces that helped shape XNUMXth-century thought, namely occultism and science».

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It is indeed with an abominable e very modern experiment that Dr. Raymond, in the presence of Clarke, in the opening of the first chapter operates on his patient Mary (making an incision of the gray matter) to open to his eyes the Reality that hides behind the veil of the illusion of gods under, after having made his witness aware of his peculiar beliefs [13]:

“Look around you, Clarke! Look at the mountain, and the hills that follow the hills like waves upon waves [...] You see me here, beside you, and you hear my voice, nevertheless I tell you that all these things, yes, from the star that has just lit in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet, I tell you that all these things are but dreams and shadows: shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. A real world exists, but it lies beyond this enchantment and this vision […] Maybe you think this is an absurd oddity. Well, it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what it meant to lift the veil. They called it 'seeing the god Pan'.

Arnold Bôcklin, "Pan, the Syrinx-Blowing"

Shortly after the experiment, poor Mary will be hospitalized, now completely mad, in a psychiatric hospital, where she will die within a year. Nonetheless, this is not the greatest horror: what really happened during Dr. Raymond's nefarious experiment will emerge with the continuation of the story: just before he died, the unfortunate patient, Rosemary ante-literam, gave birth to a child who will turn out to be diabolical offspring of the god Pan, whose image adorned, since Roman times, the temple of Nodens adjacent to the town ("a stone head with a repugnant aspect ... of a faun or a satyr" [14]).

The "fruit" of the sinister experiment in a few decades will turn into fatal woman Helen, a young woman "of very different appearance from the villagers ... [with a] complexion of a clear and pure olive, with very marked and somewhat exotic features" [15] and who is defined as "the most beautiful woman they had ever laid eyes on, and at the same time the most repulsive" [16]; a character, as we shall now see, paradigmatic of the collective crisis that Victorian English society at the end of the century was going through in the years in which Machen wrote the novel.

The "coming of Pan" in Victorian England

In fact, with the passing of the chapters, a trail of bizarre suicides by high-ranking men of Victorian society begins to emerge more and more clearly, who all seem, in one way or another, to have known Helen. The latter, right from her name (think of the Hellenic Helen, casus belli of the Trojan War) embodies the chaotic element, precisely panic, which once introduced into the bigoted and respectable Victorian London leads the "respectable" gentlemen to madness and death. In this regard, Johnston Graf suggests that [17]:

“If one interprets the tale as a critique of late XNUMXth century sexual mores, one understands that Machen shows Helen's victims as being shattered by the conditioning of Victorian bigotry. When they open up to the Pan current, that is, to a free expression of sexual energy, which is life energy, Helen's lovers destroy themselves because social repression has stifled their natural impulses. "

If the reading of Johnston Graf turns out to be correct, Arthur Machen should be credited with having been ahead of his time: our thoughts go first of all to Freudian theory of libido and to the studies of Wilhelm Reich, and again to the known Essay on Pan by James Hillman, a pupil of CG Jung. Perhaps Machen, the author adds, “she considered Pan as a divinity capable of overthrowing the Victorian sensibility» [18], and in his opinion it is no coincidence that the writer was later initiated in 1899, under insistent pressure from his friend Arthur Edward Waite, to the occult order of Golden Dawn, whose members recognized sexual energy as one of the "most frightening and secret forces that lie at the bottom of all things."» [19].

Arnold_Böcklin _-_ Sleeping_Diana_Watched_by_Two_Fauns _-_ Googl
Arnold_Böcklin, “Sleeping Diana Watched by Two Fauns”, 1877

And in this regard we can quote Hillman himself, who hypothesized that "when the dominant view that holds a period of culture together cracks, consciousness regresses into more ancient containers, looking for sources of survival that also offer sources of rebirth " [20]; adding further (which seems to us extraordinarily in line with the disastrous consequences of the "meeting with Pan" in Machen's debut novel) [21]:

« We can [...] conclude that Pan is still alive, even if we only experience it through psychopathological disorders, since his other ways of manifesting have been lost in our culture […] The repressed Gods return as the archetypal nucleus of symptomatic complexes. "

Helen's action on her chosen "victims" is never made explicit, although it implicitly alludes to an unregulated sexuality bordering on the diabolical - obviously, based on the dictates of late nineteenth-century Victorian society. But above all she puts the emphasis on knowledge by Helen of certain "ancient mysteries" in the presence of which the common man could not help but lose the reasoning, which are assumed to be naturally transmitted through his father. These are typically Lovecraftian passages: think for example of the testimony of a certain Herbert, who later took his own life with an extreme gesture [22]:

«He told things that even now I would not dare to whisper in the blackest night of a wild land […] You, Villiers, do you think you know life, and London, and what happens, day and night, in this terrible city. As far as I know, you may have listened to the speeches of the most abject individuals, but I tell you that you have no idea what I am aware of [...] I saw the incredible, such horrors that sometimes I stop in the middle of the street and wonder if it is possible for a man to contemplate such things and survive. »

1280px-Arnold_Böcklin _-_ Spring_Evening _-_ Google_Art_Project
Arnold_Böcklin, "Spring Evening"

Return to the Origin

«In every grain of wheat lies the soul of a star! " [23]

The panic experience, to which Helen subjects her sacrificial victims, has something to do with the "return to the pre-formal ”, to the primeval Chaos, seen in sharp contrast with the iron moralistic structure on which Victorian society is founded; on the other hand, the very name "Pan" in ancient Greek meant "All", and the Orphics considered it esoterically to be the Universe considered as a "living whole", composed of spirit, soul and body. In the Mysteries he was the primal god Phanes Protogonos ("First born") e Erikepaios ("Life giver") [24], identical to the Eros of the Theogony Hesiod and exoterically connected to fertility deities such as Priapus [25].

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On the other hand, it is established that Machen, for the drafting of The Great God Pan, has fished with both hands also from the sage of Richard Payne Knight A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1865), whose basic theses are well summarized by Johnston Graf in her rich commentary in the appendix to this new edition [26]:

«In this essay Pan is identified with Bacchus, with Priapus and with Love, the creator deity of Orphism, considered by the author to be the most ancient Greek religion. Origin and source of all things, formless spirit that pervades everything and animates matter by infusing it with movement, life and generation, Pan is divine and human, human and animal, animate and inanimate, light which is also darkness, darkness which is also light, male and female, active and passive […] His worshipers dance because he creates and directs the dance of the gods, and they play flutes and cymbals because the music symbolizes the universal harmony of which he is personification. "

Note on the other hand how aforementioned "Return to the undifferentiated", to the chaotic hazy world of the origins of the world, in the novel it is shown clearly and in a much more prosaic way about the corpse of Mary herself, that Pan's progeny gave birth, by virtue of Dr. Raymond's reckless experiment: thus, in the report on autopsy drawn up by Dr. Matheson, we read that suddenly [27]:

«… The whole process that had led to the creation of the human being was repeated before my eyes. I have seen the form sway from sex to sex, split and then recompose. I have seen the body descend to the beasts from which it had ascended, and that which was at the top fall into the depths, even into the abyss of the whole being. The principle of life that creates the organism remained, while the external form changed. The light inside the room has turned into darkness, but not the darkness of the night, in which objects can be seen indistinctly, because I could see clearly and without difficulty. Yet it was the negation of light […] for an instant I saw a Form modeled in the semi-darkness before me that I do not intend to describe further. However the symbol of this shape can be seen in the ancient sculptures and in the paintings that have survived, buried by lava, too obscene to be talked about […] a horrible thing, neither human nor bestial, has changed into human form, then finally death has come. "

In another topical passage of the novel, the ambivalent and terrifying power of the Great God Pan is described in these terms [28]:

'Yes, it's horrible, but it's an old thing after all, an ancient mystery celebrated in our day, and in the dark streets of London rather than among the vineyards and olive groves. We know what happened to those who happened to encounter the Great Pan, and the sages know that all symbols, far from being empty simulacra, always represent something. And Pan was the wonderful symbol with which in ancient times men veiled the knowledge of the most frightening and secret forces that lie at the bottom of all things, forces before which souls wither and die and become black, as their bodies are reduced by the electric current. Such forces cannot be named, cannot be described or discussed, nor imagined, unless hidden by a veil and a symbol., a symbol that appears to most as an eccentric poetic fantasy, and to others as a meaningless story. But you and I have learned something of the terror that can lurk in the secret of life, and that has manifested itself in the flesh; the formless taking a form. »

Mask of Pan, Roman period, Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum of Cordoba, Spain

Pan and the "Little People"

To what has been explained so far, a further thematic perspective must be added that emerges from the novel under consideration here, as well as from Machen's subsequent books: the new coming of the Great God Pan is in some way connected, in the author's vision, to the imminent return to vogue, so palpable between the two centuries, of the pre-Christian cults; cults that to some extent the Golden Dawn - of which he was a member - brought back into vogue, albeit in a very selected and intimate initiatory context. This is how Alessandro Zabini expresses himself in his essay in the appendix [29]:

"Machen links the survival of the unmentionable primitive cult to that of the primitive people who inhabited the Gwent and the British Isles before the arrival of the Celts and the Romans, or the Little People, the Fairies of popular tradition, which appear in his tales following The great god Pan. "

The same Nodens temple, among the ruins of which the characters of the novel notice a "faun's head", really exists, north of Caerwent, on the ridge of the so-called "Hill of the Dwarves", "A wooded hill with steep slopes ... so called because it was believed that the ruins belonged to a construction of the fairies" [30]. It should be added that "Deus Nodens" appears to be Romanized British, deriving from the original DEUS Noddyns, literally "The God of the Abyss": and note that "in the ancient Celtic myths the Underworld where supernatural beings dwell is found in the depths of the earth and waters, similar to each other" [31].

For Machen, therefore, from a psycho-geographical point of view Pan asserts to Genius Loci, demon-god of the ancient inhabitants of Great Britain, and by this Machen means the "Little People" of legends, the FairiesSiddhe, or in Old Gaelic Tylwyth Teg, according to the different definitions that folklore has given them over the centuries. Helen, daughter of Pan, shows her descent from her physiognomic aspect, similar to another character in a later novel by the Welsh writer, the Lucian Taylor protagonist of The hill of dreams, which is expressly described as "similar to a faun", and "descendant of the" little people "" [32].

On the other hand, the genetic makeup of the modern Welsh presents a considerable percentage, compared to the more negligible one of the modern English, of "residual genetic elements" of this ancient Proto-Indo-European lineage, which according to historians occupied Wales as early as 29.000 BC and which became extinct within a few centuries (2.500 - 1.900) under the colonizing forces of populations of proto-Celtic origin ("culture of the bell jar"). And it is precisely of this little ancient world that Arthur Machen felt contemporary, though physically he lived in London between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

But there is more. There is reason to believe that Machen's visionary imagination has influenced not only the literary and psychoanalytic sphere but also that of anthropological and ethnological studies: it is in fact impossible not to notice the significant coincidence between the thesis, apparently only fictional, advocated by the Welsh writer regarding the "Little People" and the ancient cults of fertility and the hypothesis supported by the Anglo-Indian anthropologist Margaret Murray in his two best known works, The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933) [33] (although the latter reduced the controversy mythology of the "Little People" in the historical and empirical context only, unlike Machen who, in accordance with folkloric traditions, considered the fairies as creatures other with respect to humanity proper, entities belonging to the past history of mankind but, above all, to one dimension for several centuries thin and precisely feral). At this point, therefore, the influence of the literary genius of Arthur Machen on his contemporaries and successors was pushed.

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Witch-Cult_in_Western_Europe_ (1921) .djvu
First page of the first edition of “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”, by Margaret Alice Murray

But even greater - and here we are moving to the conclusion of our article - was the fascination for the Great God Pan in England between the 800th and 900th centuries. In this regard, we want to conclude with an excerpt from the poetic composition of William Butler Yeats, another excellent British (in this case Irish) scholar with a passion for (pre-) Celtic mythology and folklore, simply titled "Pan", which seems to us to best summarize the issues dealt with here [34]:

"I sing Pan and his sweet flute,
King of shadow and sunlight
Dancing in the flames of wheat.
I sing the leaping dew
From the imprint of the sure-footed,
I sing about loneliness,
The adorned temple of Pan
From the lineage of mysterious priests,
Which the great god saw in the face,
And of Pan, their melodious ruler,
They heard the soft talk in the leaves
They heard the streams sing the tale
Of a lineage of angels who lived on earth
With the generous Pan as Sovereign.
But a new god arose hostile to mankind;
And they perished, and their shadows possess the earth,
And the munificent Pan fled into the woods.
And he threw oblivion over everything
Because he loved and pitied mankind
However, he called some to follow him
And in this temple of perfect beauty
Reveal to them wonderful and strange things
And teach them to divine
And prepares them for the prophecy ... »


[1] See S. Fusco, Lovecraft, or the inconsistency of the real and A. Scarabelli, Beasts, men or gods: HP Lovecraft's alien cults, on AXIS mundi.

[2] See M. Maculotti, Gustav Meyrink at the frontiers of the occult, on AXIS mundi.

[3] See M. Maculotti, “Penda's Fen”: the sacred daimon of ungovernability, on AXIS mundi.

[4] A.Machen, The great god Pan, Tre Editori, Rome, 2016, author's preface, p. 11.

[5] See M. Maculotti, From Pan to the Devil: the 'demonization' and the removal of ancient European cults, on AXIS mundi. Also add what James Hillman says (Essay on Pan, Adelphi, Milan, 1977, p. 18): «it has been said that the great God Pan died when Christ became the absolute ruler. Theological legends describe them in irreconcilable opposition, and the conflict continues to this day, since the figure of the Devil is none other than Pan seen through the Christian imagination ».

[6] All three of these novels / short stories have recently been reprinted in Italian: The hill of dreams from Il Palindromo-The three deserted seats (2017) and the pairing A fragment of life / The white people from Hypnos Editions (2018).

[7] Machen, op. cit., author's preface, p. 12.

[8] Ivi, p. 13.

[9] See M. Maculotti, “Oniricon”: HP Lovecraft, the Dream and the Elsewhere, on AXIS mundi.

[10] Published in Italy with the title Horror theory, Bietti, Milan, 2011.

[11] See R. Giorgetti, HP Lovecraft, the "doors of perception" and the "cracks in the Great Wall", on AXIS mundi.

[12] S. Johnston Graf, “The awakening of the forest”, appendix to Machen, op. cit., p. 137.

[13] Machen, op. cit., p. 28.

[14] Ivi, p. 43.

[15] Ivi, p. 40.

[16] Ivi, p. 56.

[17] Johnston Graf, op. cit., p. 142.

[18] Ivi, p. 145.

[19] Ivi, p. 143.

[20] J. Hillman, op. cit., p. 11.

[21] Ivi, p. 47.

[22] Machen, op. cit., p. 50.

[23] Ivi, p. 32.

[24] About Phanes, Cfr. M. Maculotti, The primordial and triple god: esoteric and iconographic correspondences in ancient traditions, on AXIS mundi.

[25] On Priapus, cf. A. MB., Priapus "unveiled" in an ancient Molise tradition, on AXIS mundi.

[26] Johnston Graf, op. cit., pp. 120-121.

[27] Machen, op. cit., pp. 96-97.

[28] Ibid, pp. 90-91.

[29] A. Zabini, “Notes on some sources of Arthur Machen”, appendix to Machen, op. cit., p. 126.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, p. 128. See also J. Markale, Jean Markale: the Other World in Druidism and Celtic Christianity, on AXIS mundi.

[32] Ivi, p. 129.

[33] According to Murray's hypothesis, «Fairies and elves ... were the descendants of the first peoples who inhabited northern Europe; they were dedicated to pastoralism but were not nomads; they lived in the non-wooded areas of the country where there were good pastures for their herds, they used stone in the Neolithic period and metal in the Bronze Age to make tools and weapons ... they were pagan peoples whose customs and religion made them completely refractory to the teachings of Christian priests. " (The god of witches, Astrolabio-Ubaldini, Rome, 1972, pp. 49-53). HP Lovecraft himself summarized this hypothesis in the essay "On fairies" in Supernatural Horror in Literature (ed. it .: Horror theory, op. cit.).

[34] WB Yeats, “Pan” (1880 - 1889), quoted in the appendix to Machen, op. cit., p. 217.

Bibliography cited in this article:

  • S. Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”, in The ballad of the old sailor / Kubla Khan, Feltrinelli, Milan 2016
  • J. Hillman, Essay on Pan, Adelphi, Milan 1977
  • HP Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”, in All the tales 1897-1922, Mondadori, Milan 1989
  • HP Lovecraft, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, in All the tales 1897-1922, Mondadori, Milan 1989
  • HP Lovecraft, Horror theory, edited by G. de Turris, Bietti, Milan 2011
  • M. Murray, The god of witches, Astrolabio-Ubaldini, Rome 1972
  • A.Machen, The hill of dreams, the Palindromo, Palermo 2017
  • A.Machen, A fragment of life / The white people, Hypnos, Milan 2018
  • A.Machen, The Great God Pan, Tre Editori, Rome 2016
  • J. Milton, lost paradise, Mondadori, Milan 2016
  • R. Payne Knight, The cult of Priapus, Melita Brothers Book Club, La Spezia 1988
  • M. Shelley, Frankenstein, Feltrinelli, Milan 2013
  • RL Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, BUR.-Rizzoli, Milan 1988
  • WB Yeats, “Pan”, 1880 - 1889.

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