Etymology of the word Panic by Kelly Knox

Do you wonder where words and sayings originated? Well, wonder no more as the extremely well read and talented Kelly Knox investigates this very thing for us all. This time round, it’s the word ‘Panic’

In a third study I explored the mythopathology revolving around the figure of Pan and the phenomenology of instinctual drives such as masturbation, rape, and panic. Through the myths of Pan’s behavior, especially in relation with retreating anima figures of reflection (Echo, Syrinx, and the Moon), we can learn much about the compulsion-inhibition patterns of human impulsiveness. [i]

When we discuss words like “panic” in a specialized context, like psychology or sociology, we are thinking of a specific type of behavior and perhaps of the consequences for an individual. When Hillman, a psychologist (specialist) examines the word, he uses specialized vocabulary, like “mythopathology” and “phenomenology.” Phenomenology is simply the study of things as they are, or as they are perceived to be. Mythopathology is a bit more daunting; it refers to a process of studying myths in relationship to behavior, in substantially a subliminal role. Myth can be used as both an informing principle for the individual, as in “I am [or am I?] enacting the myth?” or it can also be used as a diagnostic tool by the individual and her or his therapist, as they work together to understand problematic thoughts or actions.

We are focused on the origins of the word; and in our investigation, the psychological methods may be interesting, but the myths Hillman is referencing and their ability to inform our understanding of the word “panic”, are far more useful. So, before we look at the actual origins of the word “Panic” we will look at the myths of Pan, relative to (or simply involving) Echo, Syrinx and the Moon. We can surmise that the word “panic” derives from the name of the “figure” Pan.  In the last installment on ”hysteria” and Dionysos, we discovered some of the difficulties involved with trying to pin down the origins of the Greek gods; now I am going to go a step further and say that not only are the origins of Pan obscure lost in time, but there is some doubt too, about the status of the Greek gods, as gods. It’s not just a matter of the Greek gods, especially Pan, not behaving like gods—it’s even more so, that that is the point—they are not supposed to behave like “gods.”

Pan’s Labyrinth

The Egyptian word that is usually translated as “god” is ntr or neter; a better translation is ‘principle’ or ‘force’.  The Egyptians and Ancient Sumerians taught the Greeks; another way to look at it might be to say that ideas were much more fluid in the Ancient world, than we are used to believing. And people traded in ideas as well as goods, throughout the ancient world. If you’d like, we could take an excursion through the ancient alphabets of the Phoenicians, Hebrews and Greeks—chart the similarities and then discuss the permeation of ancient languages by Proto-Indo European roots and stems. But for now, let’s just think about three tiers of Greek “gods”—the kind that are discussed by mythographers. There are spirits of nature, the Olympians, the Titans and the non-categorizable. Although Pan is associated with the other three tiers—he properly belongs to the non-categorizable. The Fates, the Furies, the Gorgons and Pan—are all not part of the main narrative of any of the other tiers—but they pop up from time to time. And, uniquely among all the gods, Pan is the only god that dies—without a resurrection.[ii]

Pan is a therianthrope, half goat and half man-god, with goat’s horns and a beard. He is of course, associated with caves, rocky hills, the hunt and herding; basically, Pan is everything pastoral and rustic. He causes “irrational fear” in others—Panic–using his terrifying voice. On two occasions, specifically: He sided with the Olympian gods in their war against the Titans; and he sided with the Greeks, in their war against the Persians. An “older” more exalted version of Pan gave the gift of prophecy to Apollo; Pan also, in this grander version, gave Artemis he hunting hounds.  In his rather confused and confusing relationship with Echo, he is also associated with the sea, especially the coast.  

In his pursuit of “companionship” he is known as “unlucky Pan”. Aphrodite becomes angry with him, causes him to fall hopelessly in love with the elusive Echo. Echo is chased from her home among the rocks and hills, down to the sea, where her normally robust voice is changed to a whisper. Luckily for Echo (and for us) she escapes after a brief period of captivity in which, Pan forces her to repeat his songs. Although, in some late, Roman versions, Echo is also the mother of Lynx—allegedly by Pan. But for the Ancient Greeks there was something satisfying in this randy old goat scampering around, playing his pipes trying and failing to seduce nymph after nymph.  Some of these stories echo the story of Apollo and Daphne, where the result of the god’s unwanted advances result in the transformation of the young nymph into the laurel tree—or some other form—as her means of self-preservation.

Syrinx was one such pretty little wood nymph, early on in Pan’s lustful career near his home in Arcadia. Boy/goat sees wood nymph; wood nymph sees boy goat—and runs like hell to get away. Pan chases her over hill and dale and stream and ford, babbling brook and yada yada yada—finally she finds her sisters, who magically turn her into some water reeds—then presumably run away. Pan finds the reeds, cuts them into 7 lengths and magically fastens them together into his famous shepherds’ pipe (properly called a Syrinx.) One of the worst career choices one could make in the Ancient Mythological world was wood nymph or any of the female-ish nature spirits that were all, apparently, turned into something else. In fact, in general, being female in most of the Greek world was no picnic. But that’s a story for another time—this is supposed to be an exercise in etymology, after all.

One, supposedly successful seduction by Pan, was related among later story tellers (the Romans—who just couldn’t stand to see a brother suffer—blue balls are blue, whether or not you are half goat, I suppose…..) Pan is supposed to have been admiring Selene (the moon); so he hid his goaty-ness with a sheep skin and called her down into a forest, where he continued to seduce her euphemistically, and no doubt repeatedly. But some versions of the story tell us this was not in fact Pan, but one of his young, human followers, a mere shepherd—who, though human, still felt compelled to dress as a sheep. I haven’t unraveled that particular story, so we should just move on. Sex for the ancient Greeks, seems almost never a joining of the principles of Anima (divine feminine) with Animus (divine masculine); sex for the ancient Greeks, seems to more a matter of conquest and domination. Among the ancient Romans, this attitude only got worse. If you want to read more (at least in summary, you can get lost for an afternoon or two in the summaries posted among various websites devoted to the matter. [iii] But take with you this warning, Greek and Roman mythology is complicated and often contradictory. You should assume that none of them are as they seem, and anyone who is trying to “simplify” them, is pulling the wool over your eyes.

I should mention too, that the various encyclopedias are not always as helpful as they might be regarding even the origins of his name. Consider this:

PAN (Pan), the great god of flocks and shepherds among the Greeks; his name is probably connected with the verb paô. Lat. [Latin] pasco, so that his name and character are perfectly in accordance with each other. Later speculations, according to which Pan is the same as to pan, or the universe, and the god the symbol of the universe, cannot be taken into consideration here.[iv]

So, the name is important enough, the symbol is important—universal in fact—but “let’s don’t talk about it.” What the authors of the encyclopedia entry may be referring to is the astrological sign of Capricorn—the goatfish. There is an older version of the Pan story that pitted Pan and Zeus against the sea monster Typhon. Pan leapt into the water after Typhon, and magically, what was above the water was goat-like; what was below the water was fish-like—ipso-facto-presto-chango—a goat fish. Now, to make things even more complicated, and to return to a point I made near the beginning of this article, Pan as the Goat Fish god may be associated with the companion of the Sumerian / Babylonian god Ea—which was represented in the form of a goat fish. Although many of the signs and figures depicted in the Babylonian Zodiac are different (Ares the Ram is, for example a Plow) Capricorn (not the Babylonian name) is the same—a Goat Fish.  Capricorn is “ruled” by Saturn—one of the Titans defeated by the Olympians, and Zeus’s father—but that’s another story. The important thing may be that the Aegipan (goat fish) form of the great god Pan is shared in song, story and starry symbolic form in the sign of Capricorn as a goat fish by both the Ancient Sumerians and the Ancient Greeks—and eventually every astrologer working today on the sidewalk near Venice Beach (California.)[v]

Let us turn then, finally to the OED,[vi] and we will find the following entry for “Panic”: The first meaning given is the alternate name for Italian millet, largely cultivated in southern Europe as a cereal grain. This is interesting, but not to our point. As we understand it, the word comes into French, English and Italian in almost unaltered form the Greek panikos or πανικός or panikon (two forms, slightly different functions in Greek.)  The French, panique, Italian panico and English, pannick—all beginning to drift into these languages about the 15th Century, at least in those (almost completely unaltered) forms. [vii] Panic in any form or language, describes an irrational fear so terrifying, it must be caused by a very powerful god.

Thanks, as always, to the uniquely talented and enviably intelligent Kelly Knox for this magnificent blog piece on the word ‘panic. Keep your eyes peeled for more!


[i] Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology . Harper & Row, 1977, (102).

[ii] Albeit, not until about the reign of Tiberius—and mostly because later poets latched onto the idea of the “Death of Pan”….but that is another story.

[iii] Like this one https://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Pan.html

[iv] From the same site.  https://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Pan.html

[v] Which reminds me, Saturn just came out of retrograde—do you feel it? I don’t either, my life still sucks.

[vi] , that other sacred text the Oxford English Dictionary, font of wisdom, giver of hernias… The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1971. (2065) for reference 423.

[vii] Now you see why I told the stories about the word, rather than just giving the etymology…. Boring: it was a word in Greek—now everyone has it, the end.

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