“About the Evening the Vessel was becalm’d about the Isles Ecbinades,’ whereupon their Ship drove with the Tide till it was carry’d near the Ilses of Paxes: When immediately a voice was heard by most of the passengers (who were then awake, and taking a cup after supper) calling unto one Thamus, and that with so loud a voice, as made all the company amazed, which Thamus was a Mariner of Egypt, whose Name was scarcely known in the ship.
He returned no answer to the first calls, but at the third he replied, “Here! Here ! I am the man.” Then the voice said aloud to him, “When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known, that the great God PAN is dead.”
Epitherfes told us, this voice did much astonish all that heard it, and caused much arguing, whether this voice was to be obey’d or flighted. Thamus, for his part, was resolv’d, if the wind permitted, to sail by the place without saying a word but if the wind ceas’d, and there ensu’d a calm, to speak and cry out as loud as he was able what he was enjoyn’d.
Being come to Palodes, there was no wind stirring, and the sea was as smooth as glass. Whereupon Thamus standing on the deck, with his face towards the land, uttered with a loud voice his message, saying, ‘The Great PAN is dead!’
He had no sooner said this, but they heard a dreadful noise, not only of one but of several, who, to their thinking, groan’d and lamented with a kind of astonishment. And there being many persons in the ship, an account of this was soon spread over Rome…”
– from Plutarch’s Moralia – Why the Oracles Cease to Give Answers
This famous section of Plutarch’s Morals provides a vision of the death of the ancient world. More succinctly it provides a picture of the end of a world ruled by Nature and the beginning of a world ruled by Reason and Law.
At the time of Plutarch’s writings Egypt was seen as the last great civilization, the birthplace of wisdom and mystery, and the epitome of both magic and science. By choosing the Egyptian sailor to bear the message of Pan’s death the prophetic voice is calling on a long Grecian tradition that held Egypt as the pinnacle of human achievement, adding extra weight and depth to the words.
The rules of the field, the pasture and the prairie, the laws of the deep wood, were being usurped by the civilizing forces of human Reason. Gentle pastoral moments of reflection, or the raw release of energy shown in the relations of predator and prey, fit poorly in a society organized for commerce and progress. Pan, god of panic, of nature unbound, had no place in this new world.
Now, nearly 1900 years after Plutarch’s writing, we see the long term effects of this oracle. Our visions of the world, filtered through the lenses of Law and Reason, fail to see the living mythology the surrounds us, the truths that lie undying in the depths of our stories. For many the oracles have truly ceased to give answer.
“Hear’st thou a breath hot in the wood….”
There are some, however, who hear the faint stirring of rebirth, a green face in the field, a whisper in the wind. The journalist and pulp fiction author Vince Starrett’s poem PAN is a wonderful illustration of this vision of renewal. Rejoicing in the death of that which they once feared, a group of unwary revelers is watched from the woods by an undying spirit whose presence is no so easily dismissed with words, be they issued by oracle or man.
*Special thanks to John G. Bell, Chief Librarian and Curator, of The Hermetic Library at hermetic.com for putting this poem up online and drawing attention to it. If you have some time I highly recommend checking out the rest of the wonderful jewels that lie hidden on the site. The pictures used in this piece are from Australian newspaper articles on one of the more well known 20th century devotees to Pan, the visonary artist Rosaleen Norton.
By Vincent Starrett
First Published in The International – Vol XI, Issue 11
In a dim grotto of the wood, they said,
Great Pan lies dead;
And then they flew
Laughing across the sand, but paused anew,
Clad in white chastity, upon the brink —
Shy fawns at drink,
The murmuring treetops and the water’s sigh —
Viewing the wood with half-alarmed grimace
For a strange face.
The goat-eared Pan,
They said in bravado, is not a man
But a dead god; an antique legend sung
To charm the young.
And then the sea
Robed them in living jewels lavishly;
Clasped his wet arms about them — ah, so slim! —
Drew them to him.
Beware, old sea!
Dost thou not fear Pan’s maddened jealousy?
Dost thou think, too, that Pan is dead and cold,
Deep in the gold
Dead leaves of fall,
Leaving all this to thee as seneschal?
Long since thou heard the cloven hoof resound
Upon the ground;
Since thy pale glass
Gave back his image. Ah, the years may pass
But Pan lives yet, for love is more than death.
Hear’st thou a breath
Hot in the wood,
Where in thy youth the shaggy lover stood?