Every now and then, someone sends me one of those email lists of general factoids, most of which turn out to be wrong. One of them I paused on was the origin of the word “panic.” Now, I don’t intend for this to be an etymology post, especially since I am suspicious of the purported origin of this word, but come along with me.
As the factoid list (and many dictionaries) has it, the word “panic” has its origins in the name of the Greek god Pan. Supposedly, rude, simple-minded Greeks would pass through dark forests and be startled by some sound or movement and run terrified for their little lives. They attributed the unseen evil to the mischief of Pan as they quakingly told the tale of their narrow escape to credulous family members around the security of the hearth fire.
In my experience with rural people, not a one is afraid of anything out in the dark forest. There is no sound or sudden movement in the shadows that can’t be easily explained or comfortably dismissed. Rural folk know their environment, they know what is in the woods and fields, and they’re not simpletons — at least not the ones I know. When I was in the Scouts, one of our greatest ambitions was to rise in the middle of the night (after the adults were snoring in their tents) and go rambling off into the dark forest for hours of nothing much at all. One thing we were not was afraid. In fact, there really is nothing that could threaten an adult human in the Ozark forest. (Okay, I’ll concede that black bears, which are slowly returning to Missouri, could pose a problem. And maybe the mountain lions that the Conservation Department has only reluctantly admitted might still be in Missouri. And various rabid mammals. But I think my general point still stands.)
There are plenty of night sounds in a healthy forest, and as someone once told me, the time to be afraid is when you don’t hear sounds in the forest. (Presumably, the predator is very near then.)
And thus I think that the tying of the word “panic” to the god Pan seems too facile. Pan, in fact, was sometimes written about (by E.M. Forster, for example) as a device for liberating stuffy Englishmen from their conventional ways, and at least one short story of his ends with a picnic site dotted with deer-like hoof prints after the stuffy protagonist reached some sort of liberating epiphany. (Pan having the legs and cloven hooves of a goat — which says something about the god’s sexual appetite and the poor wood nymphs he pestered relentlessly.)
However, Pablo will make one concession to this dubious etymological contention. Perhaps the panic that features so strongly in this word history was not in the humans — even rustic Greek shepherds must have known their woods and fields as well as any modern Ozarker — but in their flocks. If sheep are as dumb as I am told, then I suppose their flock minds could be easily induced to a panicked stampede. And since, in some accounts, Pan is a god of shepherds, then I guess I could see the connection.
The woods at Roundrock are lovely, dark, and deep, but tripping over a log is about the only night-time peril anyone will encounter there.
(Alas, our last full day in Oregon!)