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The Independent Online
"BEEF warning sparks panic", said the Guardian. "Too soon to panic over BSE" said a Telegraph leader. That Telegraph headline looked a bit odd somehow. The writer, Matt Ridley, was saying that we couldn't know for sure whether it really was dangerous to eat beef, but that it probably wasn't. The headline seemed to be saying that we should start panicking only if it was.

But by then it would be too late for panic. People panic when they don't know what's happening, not when they do. It's what dictionaries call a groundless alarm or unreasoning terror; and it got its name from the great god Pan, the one who was thought to be responsible for those disturbing noises down in the reeds by the river, and for other apparently inexplicable sounds of Nature. The owl that hooted suddenly in the dark wood, making travellers jump out of their skins, was certainly prompted by Pan.

It could be argued that the dictionaries in question are out of date, as dictionaries sometimes are, and that people who panic when the cinema catches fire, for example, know perfectly well what is happening and why they are frightened. But they also know that there is no point in crushing each other to death in a rush for the exits - or they would do, if Pan hadn't been up to his tricks again.

One keeps on being reminded that we live in a rational age, but the ancient gods, or the planets named after them, still haunt our language. We go to jovial parties where we shun saturnine people, we avoid catching venereal disease and we may study the martial arts. Some gods have done better than others. Saturn has a bad name because of medieval astrology; Vulcan, the powerful god of fire and iron, has been demoted and works in a tyre factory. Pan, on the other hand, seems to be as busy as ever.

Nicholas Bagnall