NOW! if the world were
awe-struck at the Nativity, it was thunder-stricken at the Crucifixion.
“For three hours,” St. Matthew tells us, “there was darkness over all
the land.” And when the weary spirit of the Crucified One, with “a loud
cry,” passed into the beyond, “behold the veil of the temple was rent in
twain from top to bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
and the graves were opened; and the sleepers awoke.”
When the Jewish mob,
filled with insensate passion, cried aloud for the blood of our Lord,
and its prayer was granted, then did the Christian religion become
Then did the old gods,
tottering, fall each from his golden chair.
Then did the oracles become for ever dumb.
Then did the Pipe fall from the nerveless fingers of the dying Pan,
There is a tradition,
first mentioned by Plutarch, who wrote a few years after our Lord’s
death, recording strange happenings which he attributes to Pan’s death,
but which are supposed really to have occurred at the Crucifixion.
It would have given a too
great prominence to the small, and—from the heathen point of
view—insignificant body called Christians, to attribute any such
extraordinary events as then happened, to the death of their leader: the
heathen gods in such a case would be altogether eclipsed by the new and
as yet little known God, Christ. And so Plutarch tells the story in his
own way, with a bias towards heathendom. Can we blame him heavily for
this: for being faithful to the gods of his fathers, and to the religion
instilled into his mind by his parents from his youth upwards? To
understand the story which Plutarch tells, you have to read between the
lines, keeping St. Matthew’s narrative in view. The old order is passing
away, and this is the heathen writer’s description of an event in which
he may be said to have participated.
One day,—he tells us—a
sailor who was steering his ship through the narrow windings of the ^Egean
Sea, heard a voice commanding him in imperious fashion, to cry aloud
when he arrived at a certain place, “Pan, Great Pan, is dead!”
An eerie message to
deliver, and got in an eerie way, but the unseen voice shall be obeyed !
This brave mariner accordingly, when opposite Palodis, which was the
appointed place, stepped on to the poop of his ship, and raising his
voice, cried aloud, in stentorian accents, “Pan, Great Pan, is dead!”
And while his cry still
reverberated from shore to shore, and from rock to rock, there went up
from all nature a cry of deepest agony and distress.
“And that dismal cry rose
And sank slowly through the air;
Full of spirits melancholy
And eternity’s despair!
And they heard the words it said—
Pan is dead—great Pan is dead—
Pan, Pan is dead.”
The sorrow was real, and
the cry of anguish was the cry of a thousand breaking hearts. Pan was a
great favourite with man and beast. His music was divine. To dance to it
once was to dream of it for ever. The woodland creatures well may mourn,
for now that Pan is dead, no longer will nymphs and swains dance in the
cool of the evening to the piping of the great piper. No longer will the
birds of the air and the beasts of the field gather round to listen to
the god’s sweet music. No more will his merry strains be heard at feast
or harvesting. There is none to fill Pan’s chair.
No wonder, then, if at
such a time, sounds of universal mourning fill the grove and echo
through the vale.
The sun heard the cry in
high heaven, and fled shuddering to its rest through lowering banks of
golden cloud ; the sea was troubled and turned to blood; the air grew
dark and sulphurous.
And again, and again, and
yet again, that mournful sound as of universal weeping, and of wailing,
and of great lamentation, rose out of the darkness and swept over the
land, and sped along the deep.
The awful scenes, as
depicted in the pages of Plutarch, might well stand for a representation
of Dante’s “Inferno.” The very earth rocked on its axis.
“And the rowers from the
Fell, each shuddering- on his face—
While departing influences
Struck a cold, back through the place :
And the shadows of the ships
Reeled along the passive deep—
Pan, Pan is dead.”
In the last verse, Mrs
Browning places the tradition before us in exquisite phrase, wresting it
from its heathen setting and giving it its proper Christian
interpretation. She tells us why nature was thus convulsed : why the sun
was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain.
“’Twas the hour when One
Hung for love’s sake on a cross—
When His brow was chill with dying
And His soul was faint with loss:
When His priestly blood dropped downward,
And His kingly eyes looked throneward—
Then, Pan was dead.”
With the passing away of
the old god in such tragic fashion, much that made life worth living in
those so distant times also departed. With much that was dissolute and
false, much also that was wholesome and true, such as the Sumphonias et
chorum of St. Matthew, was swept away in the cataclysm of events
succeeding the Crucifixion, and a great blank was left in the lives and
thoughts of men, which for a time, not even the new God— Christ—could
fill. The old music of the Bagpipe, about this time retired from the
notoriety gained in town and village on the plains, to the quiet and
exclusion of the everlasting hills, and we hear little more of it for
three hundred years or more; truly,
“The old order changeth,
yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”