The Great God Nodens

    In his classic horror tale, The Great God Pan (1894),  Arthur Machen strongly hints that the identity of the god is actually the ancient  British god Nodens.  In the final chapter, an informant from the border of Wales tells of finding an inscription on a pillar in an ancient roman ruin near where Helen Vaughn lived.

 On the side of the Pillar was an inscription, of which I took a note.  Some of the letters had been defaced, but I do not think there can be any doubt as to those which I supply.  The inscription reads as follows:
"To the great good Nodens (the god of the Great Deep or abyss) Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of the marriage which he saw beneath the shade"
Although it is clear that the mental model was the Roman ruin at Caermaen, which war near the home where Machen grew up in in southeast Wales, he probably was also inspired by findings at Lydney Park, just across the border in Glouschestershire.  Machen's fictional inscription seems to be a sinister parody of the kind of inscriptions which were found during the excavation of an extensive temple complex dedicated to Nodens located there.
An inscription from the Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, which reads "To the God Nodens, Silvianus has lost a ring: he hereby gives half of it (i.e. half of its value to Nodens  Among those who are called Senicianius, not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens." (Mortimer Wheeler, and T.V. Wheeler, Report on the Excaviation of the Prehistoric Roman and Post-Roman site in Lydney Park, Glouschestershire  (1932),  p. 100.)

Machen probably became familiar with Nodens and his cult through  William Hiley Bathhurst and C. W. King's Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park published in 1879, which included a number of similar obscure inscriptions to the mysterious god.  Most significantly he would have noticed that Bathurst and King translated Nodens as Noddyns as the "god of the abbyss," a phrase which occurs in Machen's fictional inscription.

    More telling is Machen's use of Flavius Senilis as the author of the fictional inscrpition.  Flavius Senilis is also the author of a famous inscription found by Bathurst and King on a mosaic floor at the temple at Lydney park (above) which reads, "D(eo) N(oenti) T(itus) Flavious Senilis, pr(aepositus) rel(oqiatopmo), ex stipibus possuit o [pus cur]ante Victorio inter[pret]e.   'The god Nodens, Titus Flavious Senilis, officer in charge of the supply-depot of the fleet, laid this pavement out of money offerings; the work being in charge of Victorious, interpreter of the Governor's staff.'"(Wheeler and Wheeler, p. 103; who reproduce Bathurst and King's drawing of the inscription).   This suggests that this real artifact may have been the inspiration for the "marriage in the shade" inscription in The Great God Pan.
    Several Machen authorities, including  Adrian Eckersley (who maintains the Friends of the Arthur Machen Website), have expressed doubt to me as to whether  Machen ever visited Lydney Park, but I suggest that Machen did not have to visit Lydney Park in order to read Bathurst and King's work.  In the late 1880s,  Machen catalogued books for several publishers and booksellers who specialized in material of an antiquarian and occult nature, and it is not difficult to imagine him coming in contact with the work in that way.  In fact, it seems to me highly unlikely that Machen wouldn't have been familiar with the work given his deep facination with all thing ancient British and Welsh.
    Machen was certainly familiar with the work of the Sir John Rhys, who gave the discoveries of Bathurst and King a full summary in his Lectures on the Origins of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom (1888).   This book was one of the "bibles" of the "Celtic Revival" of the late 19th Century and could hardly be ignored by the dedicated student of Welsh lore.   In his second lecture, "The Zeus of the Insular Celts" Rhys  linked Nodens to the Irish god Nuada of the Silver Hand.  This was a significant identification because there was a large body of myth and lore associated with the Nuada, while Nodens was barely more than a name.  Rhys wrote, "Nodens, the Celitc Zeus was not simply a Neptune or a Posidon, in his connections with the sea; he was also a Mars, as his inscriptions at Lydney testify: (p 130, my emphasis)..

Nodens is not simply to be compared with the classic Zeus, but with the pre-classical Zeus, was Zeus, Posidon and Pluto all in one; who also discharged the functions of his classical so-called sons.  Greek Literature usually represents Greek theology in a highly departmental state; but traces are not lacking of a previous state.  We have a well-known instance in Pluto, who was always a Zeus, with his realm in the deep earth as far below its surface as the sky above it.  This is born out by the orphic myth of the union of Persephone of Zeus in the form of a snake, but still as father Zeus; and by the Pontic cult which did not did not disting Zeus Upatos and Zeus Chthonios, not to mention how near the ideas of Pluto, or Pluton, as a god associated with wealth, comes to that of Zeus  Plousious  (Celtic Heathendom,  p. 131).
The words given above in boldface were originally spelled out in Greek, but would have hardly caused Machen, the dedicated translator of classic literature, a moments hesitation.
    This quotations may provide a clue to how a Celtic god could come to be identified with the classical god Pan.  The word "Pan" in Greek means "all", and in later hellenistic syncretistic mysteries Pan evolved from a woodland and goat god to a diety who emcompases all gods,.   Rhys's "pre-classical Zeus" represents a similar idea.
Pan, or Jupiter:

From Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiancus (1652-4).
  "The god's attributes as described in the Orphic Writings, are:
A  a ruddy face;The power of heat in the world
B  the tower of the heavenly rays upon sublunary nature
C masculine elements
D the power of the periodic return of the year and of all its revolutions
E everything is maintained by its virility
F the power in the firmament or the sphere of the fixed stars
G earth (the feminine element) bristling with plants, seeds and trees
H springs of water (of femine elements), fertilizing the earth by irrigation
i fields, crops, and various forms of vegetable life
K the harmonies of the seven planets
L the mountains show  rough and uneven places
M the power of fecundity
M the firm foundation
O the force of the winds and their speed when agitated"
Translation: Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher (1979),  p. 59.

    Machen's Pan is not the simple goat god of the mythology handboks, but one created in the orientalized syncretistic religious decadence of of the late Roman Empire.    Machen's image of Pan is most likely the product of more esoteric reading, which could include the Hermetic Books, Gnosticism and Alchemy, and some more scandalous early studies such as Richard Payne Knight's Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, (1786),  which were sold to later day Victorian as a kind of antiquarian pornography.   This Pan was always closely associated with the cult of Dionysus, and often was his double.
Plate VIII; Celtic Temple and Greek Medals

From Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, by Richard Payne Night (p. 108). This 1786 work was reprinted in 1868 by John Camden Hotten, a publisher of "respectable erotica."  Note how the plate yokes ancient Celtic monument with Greek religions and magical metals together in the mind of the reader.

Why Machen would choose to identify this sometimes monstrous looking diety, surrounded by snakes and the mysterious zodiac, who appear on later magical gems and amulets a Celtic god of the sea may seem a little strange, but the truth is that Nodens himself is a product of the same syncretistic forces which which produced the Great God Pan.  Nodens may have begun as the Irish Nuada of the Silver Hand, or  as Nudd or Ludd in the British/Welsh pantheon.  But his Roman British counterpart had taken on paralles with Mars, the god of war, Neptune, the god of the sea, Asklepion, a god of healing, and Silvanus, a Roman god of the woods similiar to the original Greek pan.  To all this, already heavy load was also added connections to Apollo and Dionysus.  It is not difficult to see how Machen might make a connection between the British Nodens and the later "Great God Pan" of the mysteries.
The Fishing Nodens:

"Celtic fisher-god, hooking a Salmon; on an engraved bronze frontlet for decorating a headdress." 

Reproduced in Robert Eisler, Orpheus -- The Fisher (1920), plate xiii, to face p. 23. Eisler caption: "Found in the sanctuary of Nodon, the Celtic "God of the Abyss" (Noddyns), the extant mosaic pavement of which is decorated with a pattern of salmon and sea monsters." Eisler's reference: "Reproduced from Bathurst and C. W. King, Roman Antiquities at Lydney Park (London), Longmans, Green, 1879, pl.xiii., fig.2; cp. Pp. 39f."

  This leads to another curious question concerning the artwork designed by Aubrey Beardsley for first edition of The Great God Pan.  The design used on the front board of the book (shown at the head of this page), both in its British and American editions, show a Pan clearly based on classical represtentations of the god.  Beardley's illustration may be many things but it does not evoke the monstrous qualities of Machen's god, or any of the complex marriage of ideas implied by the god Nodens. It is certainly not,

...a Form, shaped in dimless before men, which I will not further describe.  But the symbol of the form may be seen in ancient scuptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lavo, to foul to be spoken of horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast has changed into human form...
It is simply one of many prancing androgynous fauns or pans which Beardsley often adorned his work.
    For a long time I suspected that Beardsley had never read Machen's novel, or even had any idea of its content, but an ilustration (shown below), which dates from 1895, made me change my mind.  At one point a young man from the Welsh village accidentally spys Helen Vaugn and her playmate,  the "man in the wood" :
He was suddenly awakend, as he stated, by a peculiar noise, a sort of singing he called it, and peeping through the branches he saw Helen V. playing on the grass with a strange naked man," whom he seemed unable to describe more fully."
This made me wonder if this unused cover design by Beardsley might have been originally drawn to represent this scene from The Great God Pan.  This might suggest that Beardley actually read the book, but failed to realize that Helen's companion was something much more sinister that a wood faun.

-----R. T. Gault
Cover Design for Yellow Book Prospectus for Vol. V. 1895. Not used in Vol. V. Design was adapted for Smithers Catalogue of Rare Books (Taken from The Best of Beardsley, Collected and Edited by R. A. Walker, The Bodley Head,1948, Great Britain). 

There exists an alternate production sketch for Beardsley's design for The Great God Pan, which greatly differs from the one used on the book and shown on the head of this page.  The only copy I have seen was too small and indistinct to tell much about it.  If anyone knows more about it, or better yet has a nice gif or jpg of this sketch, please get in touch with me.  -----  R. T. G.

This page created 17 November 1999. Revised 17 December 1999.

Back to OTS Page.

Arthur Machen Gallery
Golden Dawn Gallery
Introduction to The Three Impostors by Machen
Introduction to The Three Impostors by Lin Carter.
The Order of the Twilight Star, by Machen
Arthur Machen on the Kabbalah
The Black Fool's Speech by W.B. Yeats.
Reader Feedback about Arthur Machen