Plagues Through the Ages

            Reading accounts of historical epidemics, plagues, and pandemics while in the midst of a contemporary one is an intriguing and educational experience.  One can experience the horrors of relentless death from a different perspective while also finding solace in knowing that current circumstances are only temporary and life will go on, as it did in the ancient accounts found in Iliad, Oedipus Rex, and Histories of the Peloponnesian War.  Looking from the perspective of one living at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to see the many parallels as well as the contrast between current events and those which occurred anciently.

            Between the plagues illustrated in Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Thucydides’ Histories of the Peloponnesian War, and the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic, many similarities can be seen.  The most significant of these are that of appeals to authority, increase in religiosity, and ensuing chaos within administrative bodies.

           In each of the three historical plagues, the citizens of the affected nations go to their leaders for help, guidance, and assurance.  When the priest of Apollo and Chryseis’ father pleads Agamemnon to return his daughter, Agamemnon’s troops—knowing the plague will end if Chryseis is returned—murmur “Respect the priest and take the ransom” (Lombardo, 2).  They know their leader is the one who can help them, and they advise him to make the choice which will free them from the plague.  A more dramatic cry for help occurs after plague strikes Thebes in Oedipus Rex.  Oedipus, the king of Thebes, steps outside his palace and is confronted by the sight of a line of priests surrounded by citizens of Thebes, weeping and wailing and praying.  Oedipus asks them why they are sitting at his doorstep, and a priest replies, “Oedipus, greatest in the eyes of all, we who are here as your suppliants beseech you to find some defense for us” (Thomas, 5).  The priest talks about the past times Oedipus has cared for his people and encourages him to do it again to save them from the plague.  In modern times, when the COVID-19 disease is ravaging every continent, authoritative figures are being entreated from every side by those they lead. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, the state hit hardest by the virus (Elflein), “pleaded with the federal government to provide more help in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic” (Reisman).  These situations remind us why we have governments and leaders in the first place: to provide stability and solutions for the people they serve in times of need.  This concatenation has occurred since the genesis of government and will likely continue far into the future.

Oedipus and Antigone, or the Plague of Thebes, by Charles Jalabert, 1843, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille © Bridgeman Images

           While government is a significant player in times of crisis, religion is a more individualized aspect of societal response in times of crises, both ancient and modern.  The ancient Greeks had very strong convictions concerning the numerous gods they believed dictated everything that happened in history and in their lives, and it shows.  When the priest speaks to Oedipus, he says there are supplicants not only at Oedipus’ shrines, but also stationed at “the double-gated temple of Athena and at the smoke-filled oracle of Ismenus” (Thomas, 4).  People in modern times are also turning to various deity for help and comfort.  According to a Gallup report, although in-person worship services “[have] temporarily […] been mandated out of existence”, they have quickly shifted “from in-person to virtual, online worship” (Newport).  People all over the world are banding together in faith with the hopes that the pandemic will soon pass, and life will return to normal.

            Although the four situations are similar in many ways, the differences between them are stark and very significant as well.  These differences are caused by many things: time, technology, individual and societal ideologies and morals, et cetera.  The most significant distinction between the response of the anciently afflicted and those currently affected by COVID-19 is that of resentment.

           The people in each of the three ancient histories harbor sorrow and resentment towards the plague alone for causing the deaths of their family, friends, and neighbors, while the majority of people in this contemporary plague harbor a very different kind of anger.  The priest of Thebes, while speaking to Oedipus, describes the state of Thebes thusly: “the city, as you yourself can see, is badly shaken already and from the waves can no longer lift her head above this bloody tossing; there is death in the fruitful buds from the earth and in the pasturing herds, and even in the childless births of women” (Thomas, 4).  In response, Oedipus explains that he sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the house of Apollo in search of a solution and should be back soon.  “But whenever he comes,” Oedipus says, “I would surely be an evil man not to do whatever the god reveals” (Thomas, 5).  Obviously, Oedipus is willing to do whatever it takes to rid his people of this plague and end their suffering.  The plague is the enemy, and Oedipus and his people want to defeat it. 

           Modern times illustrate a very different breed of indignation.  In a time of government-advised (and even enforced) lockdown, social distancing, and mask-wearing in an effort to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of COVID-19, it seems that people are angrier about the response to the virus than the virus itself.  Amid various (often conflicting) statistics about mortality rates, conspiracy theories concerning the origin of the virus, and other popular debates, some people are completely rejecting the solutions presented by their government.  In Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and other states, citizens have organized and carried out protests to express frustration with stay-at-home orders, in direct violation of social distancing guidelines (Slodysko).  In direct contrast with Oedipus’ desperation to find and implement a solution as quickly as possible, these people have seen the proposed solution and have refused to comply.  Although many other Americans feel fear and sorrow as the Thebans did, those in opposition to strict guidelines are more vocal than those who may have had similar beliefs in ancient times.

Protesters demonstrate against stay-at-home orders that were put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Huntington Beach, California, April 17, 2020. Image via Associated Press.

            Over time, many aspects of human beliefs change, but human nature has remained largely the same.  Religions come and go; plagues come and go.  But amidst the trial and turmoil of life, we can look back and see that nearly everything we are experiencing has been experienced before.  This can provide a sense of solidarity with those who came before us, as well as hope for the future.

Sources

Elflein, John. “U.S. COVID-19 Death Rate by State.” Statista, 25 May 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1109011/coronavirus-covid19-death-rates-us-by-state/.

Finley, M. I. The Portable Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius. Penguin Books, 1977.

Lombardo, Stanley. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000.

Newport, Frank. “Religion and the COVID-19 Virus in the U.S.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 22 May 2020, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/307619/religion-covid-virus.aspx.

Reisman, Nick. “Cuomo Pleads With Federal Government for Coronavirus Help.” Spectrumlocalnews.com, 24 Mar. 2020, https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nys/central-ny/ny-state-of-politics/2020/03/24/cuomo-pleads-with-federal-government-for-coronavirus-help.

Slodysko, Brian and Sara Burnett. “Pro-Trump Protesters Push Back on Stay-at-Home Orders.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 17 Apr. 2020, https://www.yahoo.com/news/pro-trump-protesters-push-back-014011139.html.

Thomas, J.E. Oedipus Rex. https://www.quia.com/files/quia/users/teritter/Oedipus_Script (online version), or https://www.quia.com/files/quia/users/teritter/Oedipus_Script (.pdf version).

Jalabert, Charles. Oedipus and Antigone, or the Plague of Thebes. 1843. Musee des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles.

“Protesters demonstrate against stay-at-home orders that were put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Huntington Beach, California.” VOA News, Associated Press, 18 April 2020, https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/pro-trump-protesters-push-back-stay-home-orders-0. 10 June 2020.

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