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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXVI — An Old Tradition

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 firmly established.

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 slowly,
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 benches
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 in Sion
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.”

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