The Unseen Enemy: Pandemic Mythology

“By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

She always wins.

Mankind has learnt this the hard way.

Ever since early empires began connecting their domains by networks of trade routes pandemics have been an inevitability. From the Antonine plague that killed around 5 million in the reign of Marcus Aurelius; the black death, topping 200 million including 30-50% of Europe’s population; to the current fight against the Coronavirus (Covid-19). The cyclical and seemingly inescapable nature of pandemic outbreaks has caused a varied and wild superstition to surround them. Even today it is impossible to escape the spread of mistruths that have lead to both unnecessary panic and stockpiling as well as ignorance of scientific advice.

A foe you can meet on the battlefield is a threat, but at least it is one we can perceive, plan against, and with our gods on our side, defeat. But how can we fight the air? How can we wage war on boils and blisters? How can we conquer infection? These are the questions that plagued (sorry!) the minds of those unfortunate enough to live through the multitude of pandemics through history.

The dominion of science has led to an understanding of microbiology that allowed us to finally take the fight back to the microscopic world, but before the scientific revolution mankind was clueless. As with all other natural disasters, the terrible all-consuming fear of the unknown has driven cultures from every corner of the earth to develop mythologies about pestilence and plague. Deities who spread them as punishment, monsters that embodied all that we fear about the sick, and superstitious cures and potions.


In the wake of another of Mother Nature’s purges, the primal fear of the unknown is bound to rear its head in our combined subconscious. Even with our accumulated knowledge the fight or flight instinct still gnaws at the back of our minds. Can you imagine what that fear would have felt like to our ancestors who knew nothing of science, medicine, and hygiene?

[Featured Image] Kill The Rat!… The Most Destructive and Dangerous of Animal Pests… Poison Rats! Trap Rats! Never let one go!…; 1917 – ca. 1919; Records of the U.S. Food Administration, Record Group 4. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/kill-the-rat-the-most-destructive-and-dangerous-of-animal-pests-poison-rats-trap-rats-never-let-one-go, March 20, 2020]

2 comments

  1. Hi Chris, what an interesting and beautiful website / blog. You have put such care, such thoughtfulness into this for our benefit (the unknown readers out there!!). thank you. I shall slowly read more of your pages in due course. from Anne in Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Anne! Your kind words mean more than I can possibly express. I am so grateful you took the time to share your thoughts.

      I publish only once a week on Saturday which gives me time to make sure what I share is of a standard I’d want to read myself. I hope to see you around in the future!

      Thank you again, stay safe and take care ❤️🌍

      Like

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