How to prevent the plague, how to stop the pestilence: can we learn lessons from Homer?

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

The Iliad opens with a dramatic, scene-setting chapter. Agamemnon shows his unpleasant and foolish character by refusing to return Chryse, a slave girl taken in battle, to Chryses her father, who is a priest of Apollo, despite him presenting a handsome ransom and receiving the assent of the assembled Achaean (Greek) army. Chryses asks Apollo to punish the Danaans (Greeks), which he does by bringing down a plague (λοιμος) on them. This devastates the Greek camp for nine days and on the tenth Achilles calls a general assembly and proposes that they consult a priest or seer to find out what is happening to them. Calchas the seer tells them that they are being punished by Apollo for dishonouring his priest, and that this will continue until Chryse is returned to her father, along with appropriate recompense. Agamemnon, though enraged, agrees to do this and packs off Odysseus in a ship with Chryse and a hecatomb (which now means a great public sacrifice, but in Homer’s time it referred to one hundred oxen) for her father to sacrifice to Apollo.

I have argued that Homer still speaks to us, and can inform our understanding, but have often meant this in terms of generating empathetic affect or presenting us with a form of description and analysis that takes us away from our dominant modes of thinking, i.e. using Iliad in an abstract way. However, in these times of pandemic the correspondence of pestilential circumstances between the Iliad and now makes it feel appropriate to look and see if there are any concrete parallels between, perhaps even lessons to be learned from, the Iliad and our current situation.

We could start with thinking about causes and effects. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is caused by a virus (SARS-Cov-2) which emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019, apparently in a livestock market. The virus is thought to have crossed from bats (the virus shares 96% of its genetic material with a virus found in a bat in a cave in Yunnan, China) although that is not certain yet, and is very efficient at infecting both the upper respiratory tract and lung cells, making it more dangerous than other coronavirus that affect humans. It is this two-fold capability that makes SARS-CoV-2 so deadly for some.

What are the causes and effects of the plague in the Iliad? The plague in the Iliad first attacks the mules and dogs of the Achaean camp, but then the men are attacked by it – specifically, Apollo lets fly his stinging arrows at the men. How many fall sick, and how many die is not specified, but Homer tells us that ‘the pyres of the dead burned thick’ (Murray translation). Chapman is more intense – ‘the fires of death never went out’ – and Fagles is more detailed – ‘the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight’. As to causes, when Chryses first addresses Apollo he calls him ‘Smintheus’ – Σμινθευς – which can be roughly translated as ‘mouse-god’ (the ancient Greek word for mouse is ‘sminthos’ – σμινθος – and god is ‘theos’ – θεος). Was Homer alluding to the possibility that this plague was carried by mice?

How do people discover the plague? In both the Iliad and our current pandemic the signs of the plague are obvious – animals and / or people getting ill and, in some cases, dying. But how do people know that there is a specific cause to this phenomenon they are encountering? In the Iliad it is only when the seer Calchas is called in to use his special talents that the Achaeans know exactly what they are dealing with: an angry and vengeful god that is sending a pestilential hail of arrows into their midst. In our current pandemic it is only when public health officials, microbiologists and virologists are called upon to bring to bear their special talents and equipment that we find out the virus, the vector and the ways of mitigating its spread. This parallel – the reliance upon specialists to provide us with knowledge – is striking given the extreme time distance between these two cases (at least 2,700 years).

How do leaders react to the knowledge that there is a plague in their midst? In the case of the Achaean leader, Agamemnon, it is with great anger. Calchas, the seer, has already sought the assurance of Achilles, the greatest warrior of all time, that he will be protected when he delivers unwelcome news to the leader. Judging by Agamemnon’s response to Calchas – ‘To Calchas first he spoke, and his look threatened trouble: Prophet of evil, never yet have you given me a favourable prophecy’ (1: 106). Given Agamemnon’s response, and his total and supreme power, Calchas is quite correct to fear for his life! However, Agamemnon does follow the advice of his specialist and the outcome is a swift end to the plague (only to be replaced by bloody hand-to-hand fighting, of course). Our leaders – and here I specifically mean the leader of the UK government Boris Johnson – took quite a different path, choosing to downplay the seriousness of the crisis (although not ignoring it as some have claimed) and not following the advice of his own scientific advisers on social distancing and avoiding physical contact. Given that the Prime Minister soon fell ill with the virus and needed to spend time in intensive care, one is perhaps tempted to point out that, at least in Homer’s time, hubris is always followed by nemesis.

Finally, what is the cure and who should be responsible for administering it? In the Iliad the responsibility falls to Agamemnon: he caused this and now must remedy the situation by parting with a considerable amount of ‘wealth’ in the form of livestock and a slave girl taken in battle. Whilst clearly the ‘currency’ is quite different now, perhaps the cure is quite similar today: we need to spend a vast amount of national ‘wealth’ to address the equipment shortages in the NHS, the massive hit to the UK economy, the large-scale interventions in infrastructure that are now needed, and so on. However, the responsibility today falls somewhat differently. In the Iliad it is Agamemnon who assumes responsibility, albeit grudgingly passing some of the ‘losses’ on to Achilles (and, characteristically for Homer, no concern or consideration whatsoever is given to the slave girls taken in battle – Chryse who is returned to her father, and Briseïs who is taken from Achilles and given to Agamemnon). Today, whilst it is the government that co-ordinates responses, it is the people who bear the brunt of the costs and losses, both in terms of physical and mental health, and financially, and it is the people who are made responsible for resolving the crisis through messages such as ‘stay home’ and ‘stay alert’.

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