The cave of Pan

There was not a moment to lose. Every delay could prove fatal to the freedom of the Athenians who were bracing for the inevitable attack by the army of the Great King on the plain of Marathon. Before setting out for the battlefield, though, the leaders of Athens dispatched a messenger, Phidippides, to Sparta to ask for assistance. Phidippides was an experienced hemerodromos (day-runner) and reached his destination on the second day out. He informed the Spartan magistrates of the Athenian supplication and immediately returned to Athens, where he delivered a most extraordinary message, not from the Lacedaemonians but from Pan, the god of the mountain wilds and flocks. Apparently, the deity appeared to Phidippides as the latter crossed Mount Parthenius near Tegea, embraced him and demanded to know why the Athenians neglected him when he had often rendered them assistance and would do so again in the future.

Pan moves into the caves

When a deity commands, mortals must obey. The Athenians were obviously too busy defeating the Persians to do something about Pan’s complaint right away, but as soon as their state of affairs allowed, they created a sanctuary for the god near the Acropolis and inaugurated annual sacrifices and torch races in his honour. The Athenians were the first who established his cult inside caves away from urban centers. The Attic countryside provided quite a few of them (twenty-eight have been securely identified), where the goat-footed god was worshipped (together with the nymphs) with fairly humble offerings: crude terracotta figurines, pottery, and organic matter or sacrifices.

The cave of Eleusis

The Eleusinians established their sanctuary of Pan in a cave on the western hill, at an altitude of 45 meters above sea level, approximately ten meters from a tower of the Hellenistic fort that stood there. The entrance was a natural chasm (ca. 0.8m wide) that led through a steep and narrow passage to the single chamber of the cave. The passage was almost ten meters long (but barely 0.7 meters wide), while the chamber had a length of five meters and a width of 0.9 meters.

The main chamber was devoid of any notable physical features. There was very little natural light but the cave was nevertheless full of offerings, dating from the Classical to the Late Roman period; terracotta figurines, lamps, small vessels, votive reliefs, and loutrophoroi. The loutrophoros was a vase used by the brides to carry the water for their bridal bath. Since nymphs were considered kourotrophoi (protectors of young people), it was customary for the bride to dedicate the loutrophoros to them.

The thieves

The entrance to the chamber was always visible but its significance was only understood in March 1955, when the quarrying of the hill for the needs of the “Titan” cement factory revealed the presence of the cave. Unfortunately, the explosives used for the quarrying destroyed the eastern part of the main chamber. The offerings inside were covered with countless stones, thrown in by children or passersby as a game or to determine the depth of the cave. When the archaeologists examined the chamber, it was evident that thieves had beaten them to the cave; the offerings were found completely mixed. It seems unlikely that they were able to remove anything precious (as we have seen, ancient offerings were usually humble), but they added to the general sense of mayhem by digging around for treasure, and they may have stolen the best vessels or figurines.

The light touch of Titan

Since access to the chamber was always extremely difficult, it seems unlikely that worshippers used it as a sanctuary of Pan. This chamber was probably a disposal site for the main cave that was located on the southern slope of the hill. The cave, only a short distance from the Frankish tower, had been adapted for use as a Christian church, which was already abandoned in the late 18th or early 19th century when the Dilettanti visited Eleusis and noted the presence of the chapel. This part of the hill was destroyed by “Titan” in 1931, so all traces of Pan’s cave disappeared. The only indication of its appearance may be found on a votive relief that was found at “some distance from the sanctuary of Demeter” in Eleusis. It depicts three Nymphs holding each other’s drapery as they dance in a line before Pan and an altar, inside their cave. It is a small but heartwarming snapshot of a time (and a hill) long gone.


In Greek: Τραυλός, Ιωάννης. «Ελευσίς (1950-1960).» Χρονικά Αρχαιολογικού Δελτίου, τόμ. 16, 1960, σελ. 43-64. In English: Dillon, Matthew (2003). Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. London: Routledge. Eidinow, Esther & Kindt, Julia (eds.) (2015), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Herodotus (2008). The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Larson, Jennifer (2007). Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide. London: Routledge. Matthews, Victor. “The Hemerodromoi: “Ultra Long-Distance Running in Antiquity.” Classical World, vol. 68 (3), 1974, pp. 161-169.

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