Magic in Times of Plague

Figure 1 “The Royal Touch” from the British Royal Library

People aren’t so different from year to year, century to century. Just like we are now, our ancestors had to contend with plagues and various illnesses sweeping across the country. Just as now, many of them gritted their teeth in frustration when their leaders failed to protect folks. John of Ephesus, writing during the time of a particularly nasty plague in Constantinople (541–549 CE), mentioned that while the people of that city were aware of plague for at least two years beforehand, the rulers did nothing because they didn’t believe it was their problem. And, just as now, our ancestors sought any form of help they could in combating plague, up to and including magic.

Calling back to older, Pagan beliefs about rulers being tied to the land, many sought the touch of kings and queens as a means of curing their maladies. Edward the Confessor was said to have miraculous healing powers, as did some of the more devout children of the nobility through the ages. This “royal touch” was believed to be possible due to the ruler being a divine representative of God on earth, and probably, when effective, did a good bit to boost the popularity of that ruler with the people. There are some lingering remnants of this practice even today with babies being held up for presidents and celebrities to kiss, in the hopes that some of their inherent “divine power” will rub off on the child.

In a more material focus, our ancestors were fond of protective amulets, and especially so during times of war and plague. One of the most common methods of crafting an amulet against plague was to inscribe one of the epithets of your god upon clay. You would wear this around your neck, and whisper the epithet based upon the numerology of that name.

If fashioned today, we might make an amulet to Apollo using the epithet “ACESTOR”, which alludes to him as the god of the healing arts. Breaking the epithet down and assigning numbers to the letters in the English alphabet, we come up with 1+3+5+19+20+15+18, which totals up to 81. You would then whisper Apollo’s epithet, “ACESTOR”, a total of 81 times per day to protect yourself from the plague. That’s certainly a commitment, but it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to our ancestors, some of whom said incantations as many as three thousand or more times per day to ward off illness.

Figure 2 Pilgrim badge from the shrine of Thomas Becket

In medieval Europe, when pilgrimages to holy sites were all the rage to heal your illness, the Church began selling pilgrim badges. Mass produced out of cheap metals, the badges were simply touched against the shrines which housed the actual relics, and then sold to pilgrims for a considerable profit. This was much more sustainable than selling actual relics of saints, who only had so many toes, fingers, and locks of hair to encase in glass. 

If you didn’t have time to invest in the creation of an amulet (or in the considerable chanting over it), you could always avail yourself of a snake. Associated by our Christian ancestors as being “of the Devil”, and thus, of evil, snakes were chopped up rubbed across the body of the afflicted. If neither you nor the snake found this agreeable, you could simply hunt up some unicorn horn, grind it into a powder, and ingest it, as no poison or disease was said to be able to stand against the might of a unicorn. If unicorns were in short supply in your area, the horn of a narwhale was usually substituted.

The Church didn’t have a monopoly on magic, of course. Medical professionals always saw a boom of clients during times of plague, as did local witches. Catherine Jenkin, author of the article “Curing Venice’s plagues: pharmacology and witchcraft”, writes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches.”

It’s tempting to completely dismiss the practices of our ancestors when it comes to medicine, even though so many of us look to them for guidance on religious matters. Weren’t these the people who practiced bloodletting for every conceivable ailment, after all? Weren’t the mortality rates dreadful, and didn’t folks die from easily preventable illnesses? All true, but it’s important to keep in mind that for every leech and treatise on the humors, there was a cunning person prescribing willow for headaches and foxglove for heart ailments. These local witches, then, while unable to combat the plague itself, likely brought a great deal of relief to their clients in the form of painkillers or even quicker, less painful deaths.

The practice of witches at the time was to prescribe the use of various herbs to ward off the noxious vapors, or miasma, which the plague was believed to spread from. The old nursery rhyme that chants “ring around the rosies” tells of one such practice during the time of the Black Death, which was to keep a pocket full of “posies”, the scent of which was said to ward off the plague. Herbs could also be burned in a room or the essences of them could be sprinkled over a handkerchief to be kept in place over the mouth and nose when near the infected. Plague doctors took note of this and stuffed their own masks full of herbs in an effort to keep out miasma while performing their duties.

Our current crisis is nowhere near the levels of the Black Death or some of the plagues that killed our ancestors, of course. Still, it’s comforting to look back and know that, as they made it through things, so too can we.

[Ashley Nicole Hunter is a founding editor and regular contributor of ev0ke. She also serves on the board of directors of Bibliotheca Alexandrina.]