Around the time of Jesus Christ in the countryside outside the ancient Galilean city of Hippos-Sussita, adherents of the Greek goat-legged god Pan may have gathered at times to worship. Followers of Pan and other wild gods sometimes practiced their orgiastic rites outside cities because they included drinking alcohol, nudity and having sex.
Researchers said they unearthed a large bronze mask of the Greek god of forests and shepherds outside the ancient Israeli city of Hippos-Sussita. The archaeologists said they were unaware of any other bronze masks of a Greek god, and contacts with museums around the world confirmed this. It may be the only mask of its kind.
Nymphs and Satyr, an 1873 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikimedia Commons)
University of Haifa archaeologists excavating a catapult armory found the mask and speculated that perhaps it dates to the Pax Romana, a time of peace in the Roman Empire. They thought maybe the armory, used to store ballistae projectiles, was converted to a temple to Pan when hostilities ended.
“The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘Why here, beyond the city limits?” Michael Eisenberg, the project director, said to Haifa University’s news service. “After all, the mask is so heavy it could not have just rolled away. The mask was found nearby the remains of a basalt structure with thick walls and very solid masonry work, which suggested a large structure from the Roman period. A Pan altar on the main road to the city, beyond its limits, is quite likely. After all, Pan was worshipped not only in the city temples but also in caves and in nature. The ancient city of Paneas, north of Hippos-Sussita, had one of the most famous worshipping compounds to the god Pan inside a cave. Because they included drinking, sacrificing and ecstatic worship that sometimes included nudity and sex, rituals for rustic gods were often held outside of the city.”
Most of the masks of the time are the size of theater masks or miniature masks and are made of terracotta or stone. So the mask of Pan is rare or even unique in its composition (bronze) and size. Eisenberg said Hippos-Sussita can’t compare to cultural centers of the Roman Empire, so finding the mask there was amazing.
A theater mask of Pan from the first century from an archaeology museum in Cordoba, Spain. Note it is made of terracotta or stone, not bronze. (Photo by Viator Imperi/Wikimedia Commons)
“I contacted the curators of some of the world's greatest museums, and even they said that they were not familiar with the type of bronze mask that we found at Hippos,” Eisenberg said.
Sussita/Hippos is on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD, Hippos was a Greco-Roman city. (Photo by Akos Nagy/Wikimedia Commons)
Stories of Pan’s pursuit of unwilling nymphs seem to be his trademark. Echo fled his advances and all that remained of her was her voice repeating what he said. Syrinx ran into a stream and was transformed into reeds, which Pan made into the Pan flute. Pitys turned into a pine tree. In other places, though, Pan is called Nymph Leader and “darling of the Naiades.” He was raised by nymphs, in fact. (For a collection of many ancients texts about Pan, see this theoi.com page.)
Pan saved the day a couple of times, once helping Cadmus retrieve Zeus’s sinews that were stolen by Typhoeus, enabling Zeus to escape, throw his lightning bolts and prevail against the monster. Pausanius, writing in Descriptions of Greece in the second century AD, tells another tale about how Pan saved the world:
The account of the people of Thelpousa about the mating of Poseidon and Demeter . . . Afterwards, they say, angry with Poseidon and grieved at the rape of Persephone, she [Demeter] put on black apparel and shut herself up in this cavern for a long time. But when the fruits of the earth were perishing, and the human race dying yet more through famine, no god, it seemed, knew where Demeter was hiding, until Pan, they say, visited Arkadia. Roaming from mountain to mountain as he hunted, he came at last to Mount Elaios (Elaeus) and spied Demeter, the state she was in and the clothes she wore. So Zeus learnt this from Pan, and sent the Moirai (Fates) to Demeter, who listened to the Moirai and laid aside her wrath, moderating her grief as well.
Featured image: A University of Haifa researcher holds the unique bronze mask of the god Pan (Photo by the University of Haifa)
By Mark Miller