An adroit savaging

Peter Green’s review of David Wills, The Mirror of Antiquity: 20th Century British Travellers in Greece (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.08 is absolutely a must read. I haven’t enjoyed a review so much in a long time. The buggy whip is in the hand of a master.

Peter Green, Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics in the University of Texas at Austin and currently Adjunct Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Iowa, is the sharp-witted and exceedingly urbane author of, among other things, the magnificent Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (University of California Press, 1990/1993). The review reminded me to place an order for Green’s From Ikaria to the Stars: Classical Mythification Ancient and Modern (University of Texas Press, 2004), a collection of his articles. From the above-linked Amazon page, Professor Alan Boegehold is quoted as saying of this collection, “Green presents to historians, philosophers, and students of literature generally the reflections of a robust, generous, wonderfully learned, opinionated, personally involved, unfailingly interesting monitor of western civilization past and present.” He is certainly correct in his characterization of Green; such flattery is entirely earned.

The Silencing of the Oracles

Now moderation, adequacy, excess in nothing, and complete self-sufficiency are above all else the essential characteristics of everything done by the gods; and if anyone should take this fact as a starting-point, and assert that Greece has far more than its share in the general depopulation which the earlier discords and wars have wrought throughout practically the whole inhabited earth, and that to-day the whole of Greece would hardly muster three thousand men-at-arms, which is the number that the one city of the Megarians sent forth to Plataeae (for the god’s abandoning of many oracles is nothing other than his way of substantiating the desolation of Greece), in this way such a man would give some accurate evidence of his keenness in reasoning. For who would profit if there were an oracle in Tegyrae, as there used to be, or at Ptoüm, where during some part of the day one might possibly meet a human being pasturing his flocks? And regarding the oracle here at Delphi, the most ancient in time and the most famous in repute, men record that for a long time it was made desolate and unapproachable by a fierce creature, a serpent; they do not, however, put the correct interpretation upon its lying idle, but quite the reverse; for it was the desolation that attracted the creature rather than that the creature caused the desolation. But when Greece, since God so willed, had grown strong in cities and the place was thronged with people, they used to employ two prophetic priestesses who were sent down in turn; and a third was appointed to be held in reserve. But to-day there is one priestess and we do not complain, for she meets every need. There is no reason, therefore, to blame the god; the exercise of the prophetic art which continues at the present day is sufficient for all, and sends away all with their desires fulfilled. Agammemnon, for example, used nine heralds and, even so, had difficulty in keeping the assembly in order because of the vast numbers; but here in Delphi, a few days hence, in the theatre you will see that one voice reaches all. In the same way, in those days, prophecy employed more voices to speak to more people, but to-day, quite the reverse, we should needs be surprised at the god if he allowed his prophecies to run to waste, like water, or to echo like the rocks with the voices of shepherds and flocks in waste places.

Plutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles, 413F-414C
Translation by Frank Cole Babbitt, LCL 306

The above is the core of Plutarch’s explanation for the various oracles of the Greek world having fallen silent in the late first and early second centuries AD: there weren’t enough people for them to be necessary. In a way, he may be right, in that votive donations will have steeply declined in the drastic depopulation in the Greek territories. Of course, this was also the time of the explosive growth of Christianity in precisely those territories, a development that Plutarch never mentions, but which certainly played a role in redirecting worship and funding. Further affecting the situation would be the elimination of the city-state democracies, and thereby the Amphictyonic League which supported Delphi, particularly with the advent of the Roman Principate. That is, with the possibility of patronage being limited by the Emperor and a small elite controlling the economy, Delphi and other formerly prestigious sites will have vied for the attention of the few funds available, with the bigger names winning out. Everyone knew Delphi and Dodona, but who in Rome knew Tegyrae or Ptoüm? Most likely, a combination of all of the above-mentioned points was responsible for the silencing of the oracles.

Even Delphi went silent in the late fourth century with the closing of pagan temples by Emperor Theodosius. This was, in a sense, a very real triumph of the Nazarene over the Delian.

When daemons die

As to the question whether daemons can die, I have heard a story from a man who was neither a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus, the professor of rhetoric whose students some of you have been, was called Epiterses; he was a school teacher and lived in the same town I did. He told me that he once made a trip to Italy and embarked on a ship that carried commercial goods and a large number of passengers. It was already evening; they were near the Echinades Islands. The wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi.

Many of the passengers were awake, and some were still drinking after having finished their dinner. Suddenly a voice was heard from Paxi loudly calling ‘Thamus! Thamus!’ Everybody was astonished. Thamus happened to be our pilot, an Egyptian, but he was not known by name even to many of us onboard. The voice called twice, and he remained silent, but the third time, he answered. The caller, raising his voice, now said: ‘When you get across to Palodes, announce that the Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, Epitherses said, everybody was amazed, and they argued among themselves whether it might be better to do what they were told or not to get involved in something and let the matter go. So Thamus decided that if there should be a breeze he would sail past and say nothing, but with no wind and a smooth sea all around he would announce what he had been told. When he came near Palodes, and there was no wind, no wave, Thamus looked from the stern toward the land and said the words as he had heard them: ‘The Great Pan is dead.’ He had not yet finished when there was much wailing, not just from one person, but from many, mingled with shouts of amazement. Since there were many persons on board, the story soon spread in all of Rome, and Thamus was sent for by the emperor Tiberius. Tiberius became so convinced that the story was true that he ordered a thorough investigation concerning Pan; the scholars at his court—and there were many of them—guessed that he was the son of Hermes and Penelope.

Plutarch, On the Cessation of the Oracles, 418E—419E