“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves” ― Albert Camus, The Plague
If you can find yourself a professional folklorist (look for the guy in weathered tweed, collecting cans for recycling), they’ll probably be happy to tell you that the monsters of our folklore are an anthropomorphic version of our communal fears. Not just any fears, mind you, but the ones we feel (1) have especially dire consequences for civilization, and (2) maybe we can do something about. Folklore is about actionable strategies for dealing with liminal cases, thus invariably involves a useful set of instructions for handling threats that reside outside the more obvious puzzles of avoidance of starvation, escaping from packs of ravenous wild dogs, and retaining a little cranial integrity when the neighbors are looking to beat you about the head and neck for fun or profit. The lessons are frequently specific, but simple. Stay out of the Schwarzwald. Pay the Piper. Don’t start a land war in Asia. Yet, by virtue of living outside the bounds of human decency, every monster is in some sense an aristocrat, a law unto themselves, an aberration that transcends the natural order, and is thus deemed supernatural. And who better to handle a pretentious monster than a culture hero? You can’t just have any regular old Joe Schmoe outwitting or besting an evil monster, otherwise aberrant behavior starts looking easy, and you don’t want the unwashed masses getting big heads. That just leads to democracy. That’s why most monsters are in some sense tricksters – openly pranking us, hiding in plain sight, and generally crying havoc and loosing the dogs of liminality (cannibalism, child abduction, treasure hoarding, and political campaigning, to name but a few object examples). We are identifying the stuff we know happens, would rather it didn’t, and handling it conceptually through containment in a ghetto of monstrosity. Except when it comes to epidemic disease, that is.
We’re not talking about the common cold. We’re talking about the heavy hitters like influenza, typhus, and the plague. For much of human history, there have been gods to which various plagues have been attributed and patron spirits of various diseases, largely in the interest of avoiding capricious smiting or identifying who to appeal to when the kids get sick. Similarly, money and power have usually been relatively good insulation against the problems of the common man, but epidemic disease is the great equalizer. Rich and poor, old and young, fat and thin, nice and mean. One great truth to life is that when the next epidemic hits, it kills indiscriminately, decimating entire populations whether you were born on the right side of the tracks or not, led a righteous life or one of wanton vice, or prayed to the right gods. Once we realized that catastrophic epidemics are periodically visited on mankind, and found it increasingly hard to attribute such machinations to our loving and omnipotent gods, the urge to anthropomorphize plagues as independent contractors must have been enormous. But if the gods are not responsible, and the plague monsters are busy doing their own thing, this opens up the possibility that humans can turn the tables. The common man becomes the trickster, pulling the wool over the eyes of the anthropomorphized disease, a pattern repeated cross-culturally and historically with great frequency. Frankly, plague seems like kind of a rube. The Wends, a small European Slavic Minority, usually found in Saxony and Brandenburg, Germany tell the tale of a 17th Century hitchhiking plague that is cheated by a canny peasant.
A tale narrated by a Wendish peasant, Joh. Parum Schulze, falls somewhere in the middle of the 17th century: So it came to pass, that a man, as I have always heard tell, that was Niebuhr by name, where now Kuflalen dwell, that was afterward Luchau, as he rides home from town, there comes a man alongside, and begs that he may ride a little in the cart, for that he was right weary. This Hans Niebuhr asks him in Wendish, as that tongue was then commonly used, ‘whence, and wither away?’ and takes him up on the cart. At first he will not declare himself, but this Niebuhr, being somewhat drunken, begins to question more sharply. Then he declared himself, saying, ‘I will to thy village with thee, where I have not yet been; for I am der Pest (“the Plague”)’ Then did Niebuhr entreat for his life, and the Plague gave him this lesson, that he should leave him in the cart outside the village, and strip naked and have no clothing at all on his body, but [going home,] take his pot-hook, and coming out before his house, run all round his homestead with the sun, and then bury it under the doorstep: ‘if one but carry me not in ‘quoth the Pest, ‘in the smell that hangs about the clothes. ‘Now this Niebuhr leaves him in the cart a good piece from the village, for it was night; takes the pot-hanger, runs naked out of the village and all round it, then sticks the iron under the bridge, which iron. I myself saw in the year 1690 when the bridge was mended, but nigh eaten away with rust. When this Niebuhr came back for his horse and cart, quoth the Plague: ‘had I known this, I had not declared myself to thee, this device whereby thou hast locked me out of the whole village.’ When they were come up to the village, Niebuhr takes his horses out of the cart, and leaves him sitting thereon. Neither was any sickness from pestilence perceived in that village; but in all the villages around the plague did mightily rage. So far Schulze’s homely narrative. Removing the pot-hook off the hearth seems to stand for leaving the house open: from a deserted house death has nothing to take. As the retiring house holder symbolically ‘lets down the haal on the hearth,’ the new one on taking possession must ‘tuck it up’ again. Running around the house or village resembles that carrying of the ram around the city, and the undressing agrees with the Roman custom (Grimm, 1882, p1185-1186).
Score one for Luchau, which presumably managed to dodge the ravages of the plague at least once. Across the globe, a Filipino folktale with a somewhat darker back story, nonetheless has our everyman punking the plague.
The husband pushes his bad wife into an abyss. When he attempts to draw her out again, another woman appears. She is the Plague. Out of gratitude for her liberation from that other wicked woman, she proposes to him that they travel together through the world: she, the pest, will make people ill; he, as physician, will cure them. So done. As a result the man becomes rich. But at last he grows weary of his excessive work: so he procures a snappish dog, and puts it in a sack. The next time he is called to the side of a person made sick by the pest, he says to her, “Enter human beings no more: if you do, I will liberate from this sack the woman that tormented you in the abyss,” at the same time irritating the dog so that it growls. The Plague, full of terror, begs him for God’s sake not to set the woman free, and promises to reform. It will be seen that in its method of the “sickness and the cure” (Fansler, 1921, p222).
Sucks for the bad wife. She just didn’t listen. This is of course, not the moral of the story. Frankly, the guy was a bit of a homicidal jerk and con man. Tossed his wife into the abyss and likes poking little dogs, but he did ultimately save us from the plague. The common theme seems to be that the Plague isn’t that bright. The Norwegian version of pranking the plague includes the element of vanity.
In the old days, the plague or Rokka went around in Solor and brought either a rake or a broom…. A man followed her to a barn and drilled an augerhole in the wall for her. “I’ve heard that you can make yourself as small as you will; but can you creep in here?” he said. Yes, Rokka shrunk herself together, so she became as small as a mouse and crept into the hole…and then the man took a plug out of his pocket and banged it into the hole. Then he read a sentence out of the black book, and then Rokka was stuck so tightly in the hole that she could neither break out nor tunnel out, and she sits there still today (Tangherlini, 1988, p11).
We have to live life as if we are not ultimately going to die. When everyone around you is dropping dead, denial becomes a less effective strategy. When we are powerless against a microscopic foe, all the money and power in the world seems but a frivolity, compared to the indiscriminate mercilessness of an epidemic. It is one of the few times that society’s find it necessary to truly act as communities. Hence, the nearly ubiquitous egalitarianism of folktales about putting one over on the plague. When the gods are silent and our leaders are powerless, we can only turn to our wits and wiles in the service of the greater good. When the invisible apocalypse looms, the future of the species is at risk, and our appeals to all manner of higher powers fail, we start to realize how fragile our notion of civilization is, how intertwined we are as communities, and as Hippocrates said, “It’s far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has”.
Fansler, Dean Spruill, 1885-. Filipino Popular Tales. Lancaster, Pa., and New York: The American folk-lore society, 1921.
Grimm, Jacob, 1785-1863. Teutonic Mythology. London: G. Bell and sons, 1882.
Tangherlini, Timothy R. “Ships, Fogs, and Traveling Pairs: Plague Legend Migration in Scandinavia”. Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 101, No. 400 (Apr – Jun), pp. 176-206, 1988.