The Unseen Enemy: Pandemic Mythology

The Sources

Punishment of the Gods

In many polytheistic religions, a deity exists whose domain is pestilence, plagues, famine and illness. The first record of a god inflicting disease upon man is in Homer’s Iliad. Apollo, in defence of his priest whose daughter was captured by the Greeks, unleashes a storm of invisible arrows upon the Greek camps. In Greek mythology, Apollo is the God of both sickness and healing. This is a common theme among pantheons across the world. If a gods wrath is thought to bring about sickness, then by logic, surely appeasing that god is the way to find the cure.

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Homer’s Illiad translated by Samuel Butler

There is too little evidence remaining to separate fiction from fact in regards to the details of the Iliad. The work was written around 700BCE an age that was considered semi-mythological even by Plato and his contemporaries a mere 300 years later. Clearly, the account is a fictional retelling as it involves the Gods fighting alongside men. However, we have no way of knowing how much of the rest of the epic poem was based on real events in the Trojan war. But yet, from it we can see the first known interpretations of disease as a punishment from the Gods.

The Seventh Plague, By John Martin 1823

In monotheistic religions, plagues and pestilences are still thought of as divine retribution. No tale better encapsulates this than the 12 plagues of Egypt. The sequence the plagues are presented can be interpreted as a metaphor for the debilitating effects of war upon a conquered nation and further the means by which plague spreads from the conditions left in its wake. Just as Rameses and the Egyptians had conquered the Jewish people, so would the Hebrew God inflict conquest upon them.

Pesta Fares The Land Around, Theodor Kittelsen (1857 – 1914)

In other regions pestilence is attributed to strange unearthly creatures, evil spirits or curses. In Norway, the Pesta was the embodiment of the Black Death. A female spirit dressed all in black that travelled the midnight roads from town to town. The Greeks had the Nosoi, the Romans the Morbi; plague spirits birthed of similar pagan superstition. Punishment is often still a common theme, even when Gods are not involved. No matter the source however, one thing is shared in common: where illness goes, fear is not far behind.

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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