(A version of this appeared in my “Scrapings, Etc” newsletter)
I’ve been in a cryptoid state of mind recently, especially concerning some of my personal favorites, the Dover Demon, the Jersey Devil, and Mothman. There’s something so weird about the implications of these beings, balanced against the dopey culture of those obsessed against them. In a way, cryptoid creatures are reminiscent of a faint sort of genetic memory we might have, a memory of an older era when we were constantly afraid of everything that was around us, because it could affect us in some way. It’s a reminder of our true place in the food chain. Sure, we’re a species with civilization and weapons and fire, but there are still beings out there that can trigger a reminder in us that we aren’t necessarily the alpha predators of the cycle of life we claim to be.
I know that cryptid and cryptozoology subculture can be serious stuff, but there’s also the “weirdo” elements of it that I enjoy, tied into these sort of circles of belief of things that are outside of the circles of learning. We can’t really learn much about them, because there isn’t a lot out there on them outside of weird information the we can’t either verify or expound on because it’s mostly nonsense.
At the same time though, there’s more here than just looking at weird stuff that crackpots post online or self-publish as pamphlets. There’s a sad elegance there, like it’s a look into an ancient world that isn’t there anymore, either dying out, or closing itself off.
Arthur Machen wrote and published “The Great God Pan” (which you can read at the link) in 1890, though the slightly longer novella version was released in 1894. Despite being critically savaged as basically pornographic, it’s developed its place in the horror canon. HP Lovecraft loved it, and “The Dunwich Horror” is basically an extended homage to the story. Stephen King’s “N” is also a tribute to the story. Machen’s attachment to the supernatural and the idea of there being some level of “unseen” world is part of the reason, incidentally, that he’s credited with the idea of the “Angels of Mons,” a myth about a cadre of angels fighting alongside and protecting British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, a WW1 battle.
It’s basically about the horrific effects of a late-night experiment revolving around being aware of the supernatural world. The central focus, ultimately, of the story is about a young woman who ends up being more than she seems, and who is ultimately revealed to in fact, be partially supernatural. Furthermore, she’s supernatural to the point of being that kind of “alpha predator” that you’d associate with being a cryptoid-type being, something that we’d consider myth but knew enough of to fear.
There’s also a heavy element of taboo and unnatural sexuality to the story, with implications of non-Christian pagan magic powered by occult sex (“orgies” comes up in the story, to be precise, which always seem to be the root of any weirdo sex magic myth). Considering the story’s era of publication and the ideas of unnatural sexuality being seen as a the fearful “other” to ostracize, it makes sense. And really, fear is at the root of it, isn’t it? I mean, the reason that Lovecraft loved this story and then used it as an influence on his story, which is explicitly about the dangers of ancient and unknown knowledge. Machen’s implication here in the story is that older religions are in fact representations of actual existing things and beings, and that to be aware of them draws you into something shouldn’t be recognized as existing, not just because it’s dangerous, but because it’s a reminder of an era of history that we fought our way out of.
The title of the story is (spoiler alert, again) a reference to the Greek supernatural/mythological creature Pan, who encompasses several facets of life worshipped by the ancient Hellenics. We all know Pan as the satyr, an image that art has traditionally assigned to a character or person that represents pagan wanton sexuality. It didn’t come from there only, a lot of early Hellenic depictions of Pan (or satyrs in general) as being sexual demons (metaphorically). Hell, tons of Greek mythology is rooted in sex, sexual violence, and fear of sexual violence. It was seen (and still is, arguably) as a sign of savagery, of a lack of civilization and modernity.
Pan was the god (or demigod, depending on what you’ve read) of travelers (or maybe that’s his father, either the god Dionysus, or maybe the god Hermes?), the god of the woods (in particular, the uncharted parts of forests), and more importantly, the god of madness. His exact origins are unclear, either through being an older pre-Pantheonic Greek god, or either because a lack of interest has made any sort of documentation of him by ancient writers not the priority others like Zeus or Athena were.
Pan’s cry (or maybe it’s a blast from his musical instrument, the “pan pipes”) can cause madness among those who don’t respect him, causing people to run blindly into the woods until they either die from the shock, or come to their senses and slowly die of starvation deep in the forests, far from roads, crops, and home. The sight of him could drive men mad as well, as well, because he’s occasionally depicted as being not only half-animal, but also impossibly well-endowed sexually, another sign of his savagery. He’s got a penis like an animal, not a man (look into the historical reasons behind all those small dicks on classic statues for more on that one).
I read about Pan when I was a kid for the first time in The Lion in the Gateway by Mary Renault (my favorite telling of the Persian War) as well as an ancient old paperback collection of Greek mythology I’d inherited from my dad. In Renault’s book, she tells a version of the story of the Athenian Pheidippides, who incurred Pan’s favor by giving tribute during his run, inspiring the godling to fight against the invading Persians at the battle of Marathon. Again, depending on the translation of the story of Marathon you read, Pan (or sometimes, Pan alongside the ghost of Theseus, which is what Renault’s book claims) fights the Persians to rally the Athenians.
Pan’s role there is very clear. He is an ancient and semi-forgotten god, a bestial one that is implied to have been forgotten because he’s a representation of pre-civilization. Pan lives in the woods, where men no longer dwell. We’d moved on to the cities and the towns, and no longer feared the madness of being lost in the woods. In the same way, Machen uses Pan as a representation of that pre-civilization fear, of non-“enlightened” man. Pan is forgotten in all but name in the story, but is, in a way, brought back as a horrific power thanks to the ill-thought experiments that start off the story.
In a way, cryptid beasts are Pan, sort of. They’re a representation of a fear we used to have, and in a way they’re the last type of old gods we used to create to fill in voids in knowledge and understanding of the world. The Dover Demon or Bigfoot are the new “older” gods, forgotten things we used to worship and fear. Our lack of understanding of what they really are, which has faded for whatever reasons, causes us to create these stories and treat them as bizarre things we can’t understand, or that they’re aliens, or mutants, or whatever.
What if they’re like Pan? What if they’re something that has always been there and we were actively aware of, but over time, the horror of not being at the top of the food chain made us work hard to actively forget them? Lovecraft was drawn to this story because it tied in so deeply to his overall themes of the power of forbidden knowledge. His old gods, Ancient Ones, had influenced the world ages ago but had been forgotten for good reason. They were literal gods on Earth that caused madness to just look on them. “The Call of Cthulu” is literally about how men go mad gazing upon a hiding, slumbering god’s semi-submerged ziggurat and the behemoth inside, something lost to the Pacific millennia ago.
If we ever do find those cryptid beasts, will we go mad too? Are they like Pan, sucking and leeching our sanity from us with an inhuman scream? Are they from the non-Euclidian R’lyeh of Lovecraft? Or are we just going to take some more blurry photographs to post online?