Monday, March 16, 2009


The Survival of Pan

Plutarch, On the Cessation of Oracles 17 (tr. C.W. King):
Thereupon, whilst Heracleon was considering something with himself in silence, Cleombrotus continued, "Nay, but not only Empedocles has bequeathed to us evil daemons that be evil by nature, but Plato, too, has done the same, as well as Xenocrates and Chrysippus; besides, Democritus, when he prays that 'he may meet with auspicious idola' (apparitions), shows plainly that he knows of others that have morose and mischievous dispositions and inclinations.

But with respect to the mortality of beings of the kind, I have heard a tale from a man who is neither a fool nor an idle talker—from that Aemilian the rhetorician, whom some of you know well; Epitherses was his father, a townsman of mine, and a teacher of grammar. This man (the latter) said, that once upon a time he made a voyage to Italy, and embarked on board a ship conveying merchandise and several passengers. When it was now evening, off the Echinad Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship, carried by the current, was come near Paxi; most of the passengers were awake, and many were still drinking, after having had supper. All of a sudden, a voice was heard from the Isle of Paxi, of some one calling 'Thamus' with so loud a cry as to fill them with amazement. This Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, known by name to many of those on board. Called twice, he kept silence; but on the third summons he replied to the caller, and the latter, raising yet higher his voice, said, 'When thou comest over against Palodes, announce that the great Pan is dead.'

All, upon hearing this, said Epitherses, were filled with consternation, and debated with themselves whether it were better to do as ordered, or not to make themselves too busy, and to let it alone. So Thamus decided that if there should be a wind he would sail past and hold his tongue; but should there fall a calm and smooth sea off the island, he would proclaim what he had heard. When, therefore, they were come over against Palodes, there being neither wind nor swell of sea, Thamus, looking out from the stern, called out to the land what he had heard, namely, 'That the great Pan is dead:' and hardly had he finished speaking than there was a mighty cry, not of one, but of many voices mingled together in wondrous manner.

And inasmuch as many persons were then present, the story got spread about in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar; and Tiberius gave so much credence to the tale that he made inquiry and research concerning this Pan; and that the learned men about him, who were numerous, conjectured he was the one that was born from Hermes and Penelope."

Now, Philip found amongst those present witnesses to the truth of the story, who had heard it from the aged Aemilian.
But were the reports of Pan's death greatly exaggerated? See Robert Frost, Pan with Us:
Pan came out of the woods one day,—
His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray,
The gray of the moss of walls were they,—
  And stood in the sun and looked his fill
  At wooded valley and wooded hill.

He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand,
On a height of naked pasture land;
In all the country he did command
  He saw no smoke and he saw no roof.
  That was well! and he stamped a hoof.

His heart knew peace, for none came here
To this lean feeding save once a year
Someone to salt the half-wild steer,
  Or homespun children with clicking pails
  Who see so little they tell no tales.

He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach
A new-world song, far out of reach,
For a sylvan sign that the blue jay's screech
  And the whimper of hawks beside the sun
  Were music enough for him, for one.

Times were changed from what they were:
Such pipes kept less of power to stir
The fruited bough of the juniper
  And the fragile bluets clustered there
  Than the merest aimless breath of air.

They were pipes of pagan mirth,
And the world had found new terms of worth.
He laid him down on the sun-burned earth
  And raveled a flower and looked away—
  Play? Play?—What should he play?
Frost also juxtaposes bluets and juniper in his poem The Vantage Point, which seems to recall the same landscape, except that where Pan saw no smoke and no roof, Frost saw far off the homes of men:
If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
  Well I know where to hie me—in the dawn,
  To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid lolling juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
  Far off the homes of men, and farther still,
  The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these,
  I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
  The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
  I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant,
  I look into the crater of the ant.

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