Not long ago I rediscovered what I believe to be the first short story I ever wrote, when I was fourteen. The inspiration came from something I read in Charles Mill Gayley's Classic Myths in English Literature and Art (1893). In the discussion of Pan, the nature god, Gayley mentions that "according to an early Christian tradition, when the heavenly host announced to the shepherds the birth of Christ, a deep groan, heard through the isles of Greece, told that great Pan was dead, that the dynasty of Olympus was dethroned, and the several deities sent wandering in cold and darkness" (p. 181). The Greek philosopher Plutarch (AD 46–120) reports on sailors hearing news of Pan's death in §17 of his De Oraculorum Defectu ("On the Obsolescence of Oracles"), though he does not associate the occurrence with the birth of Jesus! Evidently, though, the story got around the Roman empire and was so convincing that Emperor Tiberius had the matter investigated, the timing of which no doubt prompted later Christians to draw the natural inference.
I am certainly not the first person to be intrigued by this idea. Gayley notes several poets who took up the theme, whether to mourn or to rejoice. For example, in "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629), John Milton works through a whole catalogue of defanged powers: "th' old Dragon," oracles, Apollo, "nimphs," Baalim, Ashtaroth, and Osiris. I'm happiest to see the last of Moloch, myself:
And sullen Moloch fled,
Hath left in shadows dred.
His burning Idol all of blackest hue,
In vain with Cymbals ring,
They call the grisly king,
In dismall dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis hast.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave the topic the best treatment in her "The Dead Pan," though she places the dethronement at the moment of Jesus' crucifixion rather than his birth. It is an eerie poem, full of loss—the right kind of loss, the pain of giving up something lesser for something better. But it doesn't deny the loss.
Gods bereavéd, gods belated,
With your purples rent asunder!
Gods discrowned and desecrated,
Disinherited of thunder!
Now, the goats may climb and crop
The soft grass on Ida’s top—
Now, Pan is dead.
Here's my version. It's exactly as I wrote it in 1990, with one exception: I originally gave it the title "Long Live the King," which has nothing to do with the story itself. So, taking a cue from Browning, I've renamed it "Dismissed from Service to the Discrowned."
I am nothing special.
I am a poor, insignificant shepherd. All my life I have been a gods-fearing man, but if I had never been born the sun would go round the world the same. Yet I have seen a marvelous thing that I must wrote so my children and my children’s children may know this.
I once lived with my mother in Rome. I was an educated man, and earned bread to feed her, as her husband died after I was born. My sisters were priestesses in the temple of Venus, and daily I would bring a tenth of my meat to the temple of Mars.
Rome, at this time, prospered under the leadership of Caesar Augustus, but I was thrown from my work with no money. My mother was ill and dying, so I murdered a rich man; I hoped his gold would get a worthy physician from the temple of Phoebus Apollo.
However, I was caught, and as punishment I was sent among the Jews in Judea to a tiny town near Jerusalem called Bethlehem. There I was taken in by a kind man in return for watching his sheep with several other shepherds. There have I been on the hills for nearly two years, and if not for this great miracle, I would still be lost and alone.
It was during Tebeth, the tenth month on the Jewish calendar, when the nights are bitter and cause a man to tremble when the wind passes through. I was brooding over my lot, what I had lost, and oft wondered why; a man like me who worked so for the glory of the gods was punished with such a fate as mine.
Suddenly, another shepherd, Solomon, who had befriended me at my first arrival, grabbed my arm while his own shook.
“What troubles thee?” I asked him.
With awe in his eyes he pointed up toward the heavens. There, sparkling magnificently, shone a star, gold, and larger a star than I had ever seen. It was close, and beautiful, as if it was an omen of great goodness. We turned to see, much to our surprise, the sheep awake, and huddled together, despite this late hour.
And then from behind the hill there came a multitude of glory, of white-robed creatures that were the purest and most wonderful things I had ever seen.
“What may these creatures be?” I whispered to Solomon.
“I have heard,” said he, “of things of beauty, and white, and gold, that were servants of the Lord, called angels. I never believed, though, that I might see one.”
Angrily, but in fright as well, I cried, “They must be gods, not… not what you call angels! It is disloyalty to speak against the gods! They will punish you!”
Quietly, Solomon replied, “My God led me out of Egypt. My God is kind, and loving, and merciful.”
That moment, for me, was the most critical moment in all my life. It meant a choice between all I had known and worshiped, or… for a god I knew not, but would still care for me back. But I was no fool. I knew the gods lived. I knew it. I never had any doubt. In confoundment, I said to Solomon, “Your god is good and righteous, and surely I would like him for mine… but I know the gods still live, and they will somehow avenge me for my disloyalty. I am but a poor Gentile. How can your god accept me?”
There was no time for a reply. Silence dispersed, and I heard sublime melodic voices accompanied by harmonizing trumpets. Light filled the night sky in fantastic splendor, and to amaze us the sun rose early. It was all the glory I wanted from Jupiter and his company, but Jove hides his glories. This god shows them.
In fright, Solomon and I began to run, tripping over the sheep that remained so calm, perfectly docile. We hid behind the outcropping of a rock.
And I shall never forget what was to come. Loudly, an angel began to sing word that are imprinted upon my mind forever: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
“And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
Then all the angels joined hands, and sang in a voice more beautiful than Venus herself, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
From somewhere behind there rose the startling sound of a loud groan, nearly as loud as these angels. It was a great noise, of a god or man, filled with agony and pain. My very blood flowed cold at the sound.
Where I found the courage I shall never know, but as the angels dispersed, I cried out, “O great one! I beg thee a question!”
The beautiful creature heard my humble words, and approached me.
I froze in terror and fell on my knees as the angel came unto me. He spoke in a deep, thick, rich voice, like wine made in the temple of Bacchus. “Call me not great, for only the Lord himself is great.”
I stuttered momentarily, taken aback by his knowledgeable words. I said, “I am of Rome. I believe in the lords of Olympus—they are real, true… but you are not of them… Who, then, are you? And who are they?”
The angel as a kind gesture laid a hand upon my shoulder. It caused my arm to tingle. Said he, “Servant, you are dismissed of your honor to the gods. For tonight has been born the Son of Man, who will save all people.”
From curiosity and wonder, I began to whisper, “And the groan?”
But I was cut off by the angel, who seemed to read my very thoughts. “The agonized cry was that of your god Pan, for he is dead, Pan is dead. The birth of our Savior has caused all your mighty gods to be thrown from Olympus, to wander the earth, eternally rejected. But now, my son, you are taken into the service of the Lord, for your faith is of the holiest kind: of acceptance, not learning. You shall be a man of much good among those who love you.”
With that, the angel left.
Silence fell upon Solomon and me as other shepherds drew near. It seemed as though there was an unnatural bond between all of us, for what we had seen side by side. One of them, Samuel, said finally, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us.”
Solomon was the first to notice the star we had seen earlier was always before us. “I believe we are following its path,” he said.
“Nay,” replied another, “it is leading us.”
Quietly we continued, until we came upon a small inn, and the keeper told us a woman due with child was in a stable in the back. We all tiptoed respectfully out there, and when we arrived, the star stopped.
Inside the stable, among the oxen and hay, were two very young people—oh, they were so young it made my heart ache. They said their names were Mary and Joseph, and they had come to Bethlehem in order to pay the taxes Caesar Augustus had issued. For hours, or so it seemed, we gazed upon the small, pink infant that lay in a manger of rough hay. The other shepherds fell to their knees to worship him, and I felt obliged to do so also. I never ceased to marvel that a vulnerable infant of lowlier birth than I could redeem me, love me, accept me, be my king. After some time we left Mary and Joseph to their peace.
This is how I became a Jew.
But never have I met someone new, without wondering if he truly was a man, or a god wandering across the land.