Plutarch: Extract from "On the Decline of Oracles" |
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Ancient Greece

Plutarch: Extract from “On the Decline of Oracles”


Sections 419B-420A (or 17-18).

Great Pan is dead.

This dialogue is set in Delphi in about 83 A.D. A group of learned men are discussing how oracular prophecy works, and why oracles have become less vocal and important than in the classical past. The conversation has turned to “daimones” (divine spirits, spoken of by Hesiod and Plato, as intermediaries between gods and men); the question whether divine beings can die elicits from a historian called Philip the haunting story of the death of Pan. Because the events described took place during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D.), Christian legend was later able to claim that they coincided in time with the crucifixion of Jesus, and therefore that they represented the demise of paganism.

The story, and the general theme of the dialogue, have had considerable literary influence. John Milton wrote in his “Hymn: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:

“The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roofs in words deceiving.”

And Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “The Dead Pan” (1844) reworked Plutarch thus:

“And that dismal cry rose slowly
And sank slowly through the air,
Full of spirit’s melancholy
And eternity’s despair!
And they heard the words it said –
Pan is dead – Great Pan is dead –
Pan is dead.”

In the final part of the passage the contribution of the grammarian Demetrius, who is on his way home from Britain to Tarsus, throws light on the exploration of the British Isles during the governorship of Agricola (77-85 A.D.)

The text of this extract from Plutarch’s “De defectu oraculorum”, and this introductory prologue, are taken from “A Greek Anthology”, JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

But concerning the death of such beings I have heard the report of a man (who was) not foolish or deceitful. For he was Epitherses, the father of Aemilianus the orator whom some of you have even listened to, my fellow-citizen and a teacher of grammar. This man said that once, (while) sailing to Italy, he embarked upon a ship carrying commercial goods and many passengers. And in due course at evening time the wind dropped around the Echinades islands and the drifting ship came near to (the islands) of Paxi; and most of the passengers were awake, and many also still drinking after dinner (lit. having dined). And suddenly a voice was heard from (one) of the islands of the Paxi, of someone calling Thamus so loudly that they were amazed. Now Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, but not known by name to many on board. And so, having been called twice, he was silent, but the third time he answered the person calling (him). And that person, raising his voice, said, “When you come opposite to the Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.” Epitherses said that all who heard this were astounded, holding a discussion among themselves as to whether it was best to do what had been commanded or not to meddle and to let (things) alone, (but) Thamus decided thus, that, if there were wind, to sail past keeping a quiet stillness, but that, (if there were) a calm around the place, to announce what he had heard. And so, when they came to the Palodes, there being neither wind nor wave, Thamus, looking from the stern to the land, said (the words) as he heard (them) that Great Pan was dead. No sooner had he stopped (speaking) than a mighty groaning, mixed at the same time with (exclamations of) amazement, occurred, not from one person but from many people. And, as is natural with many being present, the word soon spread throughout Rome, and Thamus, having been sent for, came to be sent for by Tiberius Caesar. And Tiberius believed his word to such an extent that he made enquiry and investigated about Pan. And the scholars around him, who were (lit. being) many, conjectured that he had been born of Hermes and Penelope.

Moreover, Philip had some of those present as witnesses (who were) scholars of old Aemilianus.

And Demetrius reported that many of the islands around Britain (i.e. the Scillies) were desolate (and) scattered, of which some were named after divine beings and heroes. And he himself sailed at the command of the emperor for the purpose of enquiry and observation to the nearest lying of the desolate (islands), having not many inhabitants, all being revered and unharmed by the Britons. And he, having just arrived, there occurred a mighty tumult in the air and many portents, and winds swept down and lightning-flashes fell; and, when this abated, the islanders said that the passing of one of the mightier (souls) had happened. “For, as a lamp (when) lit,” they said, “does nothing terrible, but (when) extinguished is distressing to many, so these great souls give forth a gentle and inoffensive light, but the passing and dissolution of them often, as indeed now, foster winds and storms, and often infect the air with pestilential conditions.” However, there was one island there, in which Cronus was confined, guarded by Briareus while he sleeps (lit. sleeping); for they had devised sleep as a bondage for him, and there were about him many daemonic attendants and servants.

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