Pan, Mikhail Vrubel, 1900From UNI lecturer Steiner looks to the future of futurity By Eric McHenry
Entitled A Passage from Plutarch, or The Sleep of Oracles, Steiner's lecture began, fittingly, with a passage from Plutarch. In it, the great first-century Greek chronicler recalls the death of the god Pan, and its proclamation from the island of Paxi to travelers on a passing ship.
"And the caller, raising his voice, said, 'When you have come opposite to Palodes, announce that great Pan is dead,' " Steiner quoted. "'So when we came opposite to Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thanus from the stern looked toward the land and said the words as he had heard them. "Great Pan is dead." Even before he had finished, there was a great cry of lamentation not of one person, but of many.'"
Steiner called Plutarch's description of that disembodied cry in the night "one of the most haunting passages in Western literature.
"Its grip on the imagination has never lessened," he said, "and there is gathered around it centuries of commentary." For scholars, thinkers, and artists from François Rabelais to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he observed, the death of Pan has signified the end of paganism.
From De Defectu Oraculorum (Περὶ τῶν Ἐκλελοιπότων Χρηστηρίων) by Plutarch as published in Vol. V of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936
"As for death among such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, 'When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.' On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: 'Great Pan is dead.' Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelopê."