Stephen Arnell Investigates: Painswick, Pan-worshipping and The Wicker Man cover

Stephen Arnell Investigates: Painswick, Pan-worshipping and The Wicker Man

Painswick's intriguing Pan-centric history left an indelible mark on this quaint Cotswolds town that foreshadowed 'The Wicker Man.'
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Tony Randall in The 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964)

Painswick – The Wyck of Pan?

Map of The Cotswolds

In the 18th century, wealthy merchant scion Benjamin Hyett (1708-62) introduced a pagan festival (an imitation of the Roman festival of Lupercalia?) in the picturesque town of Painswick, honouring the god Pan whose statue was carried in the parade.  Locals would cry out, "Highgates! Highgates!" (possibly a corruption of 'aig aitis' meaning 'goat lover'), followed by (alleged) Dionysian revels.

The Wicker Man (1973)

‘Feast Sunday’

In 1787, a later account of the festivities was given by Robert Raikes, the Gloucester founder of the Sunday School movement, stating that it ‘would have disgraced the most heathen nations. Drunkenness and every species of clamour, riot and disorder formerly filled the town on this occasion.’ Revulsion at what he saw was said to have inspired his creation of the Sunday School movement. Even before the Hyett family took up residency in the town, each spring the people of Painswick held a ‘Feast Sunday’.

Painswick’s Pagan Heritage

There is a suggestion that the burg was long associated with the cloven-hoofed deity, the clue being in its name.

In 2000, lecturer Andy Collins wrote, ‘Sceptics of Painswick’s pagan heritage suggest that its connections with Pan derive from the Hyett’s fanciful love of neo-paganism and their liberal interpretation of the town place-name as ‘Panswyck’, which falsely honoured Pan. It is pointed out that Painswick takes its name from a Norman lord of the manor named Payne Fitz John. However, it was not until 100 years after his death in 1137 that the town gained the name ‘Wyke Pagani’.

Even if the town did gain its name from a Norman landowner, there is irony in the fact that the personal name Payne, or Pain, derives from the word Latin paganus, meaning ‘the pagan’. The suffix ‘wick’, from the Old English wic, meaning a ‘land with special usage’, implying that the true translation of the name Painswick, is the ‘pagan land’, a description that anyone would admit befits it very well indeed.

The presence of the nearby ‘Devil’s Stack’ gives some veracity to the tale, as Old Nick bears more than a passing resemblance to Pan, part of the Christian attempt to blacken the god’s reputation and image.

The Devil's Chimney. A rock pinnacle on the edge of the Cotswold Escarpment. Tradition has it that this is the home of Old Nick himself (Wikimedia Commons)

Pre-eighteenth century place-names in and around Painswick, could well shed some light on the town’s supposed pagan past. An old farm named ‘Bacchus’ is north-west of the town, mentioned in connection with a clash during the Civil War.

Paganhill is at the southern end of the Painswick Valley. Nearby is Puckshole. Puck, of course, was the naughty imp-like being of folklore, considered by some an English equivalent of Pan- the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill (1906), although Pan is mentioned separately in the book.

And Jack’s Green, on the other side of the Painswick Valley: Jack-in-the-Green being a character that led the merry dance and chased young girls in May Day festivals throughout England.


Hyett and companions would also indulge in carnal adventures with 'vulgar orange sellers' in his since demolished Pan lodge and its open air plunge bath, overlooked by the leering statue of the god.

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By the 1830s, the tradition had supposedly ended, but in 1885, the new Vicar W.H. Seddon revived the festival, and had Pan's statue moved to an alcove outside his church of St Mary's. Seddon believed the rites of Pan had been going on in the area since Roman times, possibly an idea also borne from the presence of the remaining pagan mosaics at the nearby Roman villa at Ifold.

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Painswick: Ifold Roman Villa

In 1950, the practice was abandoned by incoming Reverend Reginald Jackson and the statue buried. It has since been dug up and installed in the grounds of Hyett's former Painswick House estate.

Statue of Pan in Painswick, Gloucestershire

Clypping Ceremony tradition

Painswick also has tradition of a festive 'Clypping Ceremony' when children surround the church in a pagan 'embrace' of the building, followed by consumption of 'Puppy-Dog Pie' with 'Bow Wow Wow' sauce, neither thankfully derived from actual canines, although during classical times dogs were apparently sacrificed to Pan.

The sacred circle of pagan worshippers is broken with horrific results in the TV series Children of the Stones (ITV, 1977):

Writing in January 2023, ‘otherworld antiquarian’ MJ Wayland said:

For many years I have received many reports of supposed occult activity occurring in and around Painswick. Local churchyards have been the scene of vandalism in its most obscurest, strange people have been witnessed on nearby land performing rituals but strangely, the general consensus is that the villagers know who are behind these deeds.

The Blessing of Pan

Painswick was the inspiration for The Blessing of Pan (1927) by Edward John Moreton Drax-Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, where 17-year-old local lad Tommy Duffin finds and plays Pan’s pipes, thence transforming his strait-laced English village of Wolding into a ‘lively’ Pagan community.

I confess to have long been fascinated by Pan; I named my TV/Film production company after him, and even have a tattoo-brand of the god on my right arm.

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“The worship of Pan never has died out,” said Mortimer. “Other newer Gods have drawn aside his votaries from time to time, but he is the native god to whom all must come back at last…”

Saki’s The Music on the Hill (1911)

The 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964)

Hymn To Pan (1919) by Aleister Crowley

Stephen Arnell’s novel, The Great One is available on Amazon Kindle now:

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The First Triumvirate of the Roman Republic (L to R) Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gaius Julius Caesar (Wikimedia Commons)

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