The Gates of Hell and the Death of Pan

St. Peter proclaimed a profound truth at Banias: The authority of the false gods was no more

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), “Christ’s Commission to St. Peter”
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), “Christ’s Commission to St. Peter” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Reports came through at the end of 2020 of new archaeological discoveries near the biblical town of Caesarea Philippi. It was reported that archaeologists had unearthed an ancient Christian church, seemingly built upon the remains of a pagan shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan.

In the Classical World the principal shrine to Pan was to be found at the base of Mount Hermon, known as Caesarea Paneas — or, as known more familiarly to us from the Bible, as Caesarea Philippi. It was there, into a cliff above the city, that people built shrines and temples to Pan. At the base of the cliff, there was a cave from which spring water flowed. These waters, so the worshippers of Pan believed, led to a further cave that was a gateway to the underworld used annually by fertility gods. This was the center of Pan worship in the area and was known as the Gates of Hell. Perhaps not surprisingly, that gateway and the neighboring city of Caesarea Philippi gained a reputation for prostitution and other depraved practices, no doubt all linked to the god who was worshipped there.

Originally an Arcadian deity, Pan was a Greek fertility deity whose name is a Doric contraction of paon (“pasturer”) but more commonly etymologized in antiquity as deriving from pan (“all”). In mythology, he was a son of Hermes who in turn was son of Zeus, the king of the gods. Yet today, for many of us, Pan’s half-man, half-goat appearance looks less divine than diabolic. Perhaps it is not so surprising then that, among other things, Pan was noted as the cause of sudden or groundless fear, especially coming upon travelers in remote places. From this source we derive the word “panic,” and to this we might connect another word, maybe one more pertinent to our times, “pandemic.”

While browsing in the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, there is an intriguing entry of a reported historical event that took place just as the world moved from BC to AD. The historian Plutarch relates how, during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14 to 37), a ship carrying passengers was being driven along the coastline off the Greek isles of Paxi. Suddenly, a loud voice was heard calling out. It spoke of the Great God Pan, who, the voice said, was now dead. So disturbing and strange were these events that they were reported to Rome.  The emperor ordered an inquiry. When that concluded however, no satisfactory determination was drawn. Subsequently, no doubt, the matter was discreetly dropped.

Of that “voice” G.K. Chesterton was to comment: “It is said truly, in a sense, that Pan died because Christ was born. It is almost as true in another sense that men knew that Christ was born because Pan was already dead. A void was made by the vanishing world of the whole mythology of mankind, which would have asphyxiated like a vacuum if it had not been filled with theology.”

During the time of Tiberius, when that (perhaps heavenly) voice declared Pan dead, another voice posed a question in the vicinity of the defunct god’s shrine — namely, “Who do people say I am?” Peter, the leader of those to whom it was addressed, replied that the Questioner was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Is it any coincidence that such a question and such a reply sounded against the walls of one of the most important temples dedicated to a pagan deity — Pan, the so-called son of the herald of the gods? 

The profound truth that Peter proclaimed here was that the authority of the false gods was no more, and that it had been superseded by reign of the true God Incarnate, an announcement that did not induce panic or fear but instead welcomed the reign of the Prince of Peace. And, what is more, against his Kingdom not even the Gates of Hell could prevail.