Scapegoating Foreigners for Plagues

Today I published a piece in the Conversation about the function of plagues in ancient myth as frameworks to think about human leadership and how we generally make things worse for ourselves because of our own stupidity, ignorance, or denial

Individuals and groups cope with trauma and fear by externalizing causality, by searching for people or things to blame apart from ourselves. This often takes the form of scapegoating–typically aimed at the weak or those we position as different from ourselves. In Athens’ calamitous plague, this happened too.

Thucydides, 2.48

“The story goes that the sickness started in the part of Ethiopia above Egypt and then it moved to Egypt and Libya and then over most of the King’s land. When it suddenly fell on Athens, it afflicted people in the Piraeus first and it was there that it was said that the Peloponnesians must be throwing drugs into the cisterns, since there were no streams there. Later it spread to the higher part of the city where many more people begin to die.”

  1. ἤρξατο δὲ τὸ μὲν πρῶτον, ὡς λέγεται, ἐξ Αἰθιοπίας τῆς ὑπὲρ Αἰγύπτου, ἔπειτα δὲ καὶ ἐς Αἴγυπτον καὶ Λιβύην κατέβη καὶ ἐς τὴν βασιλέως γῆν τὴν πολλήν. [2] ἐς δὲ τὴν Ἀθηναίων πόλιν ἐξαπιναίως ἐσέπεσε, καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἐν τῷ Πειραιεῖ ἥψατο τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὥστε καὶ ἐλέχθη ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν ὡς οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι φάρμακα ἐσβεβλήκοιεν ἐς τὰ φρέατα: κρῆναι γὰρ οὔπω ἦσαν αὐτόθι. ὕστερον δὲ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἄνω πόλιν ἀφίκετο, καὶ ἔθνῃσκον πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἤδη.

As historians note, epidemics during the time of Justinian were similarly sourced to Africa and the Near East and Medieval people saw the Black Death as coming from the Levant. Thucydides recounts that ,in their desperation to find a cause, the Athenians blamed the Spartans for poisoning their wells, just as Northern Europeans scapegoated Jewish populations in the 14th Century for the bubonic plague (See Marchant, 1891 ad loc.). The Athenians realized that they were wrong about sabotage when the Spartans and their allies started dying too.

(There are accounts of biological warfare from the Ancient world. Ironically, the Athenians are the ones implicated.)

The sad truth of this is not distant to us: as recently as today Fox News’ poster boy for white stupidity, Tucker Carlson, is arguing that it is not racist to call COVID-19 the “Chinese Coronavirus” [not linked too, because, well, it’s stupid and racist). And, last night, our brilliant commander in chief banned travel to and from Europe for non-Americans. This means US Citizens can come home. Oh, and people from the UK can come too. As such, the travel ban is mere improvisational propaganda, an attempt to seem to do something which actually may be worse than doing nothing at all.

Say what you will about the cupidity and stupidity of Agamemnon in the Iliad–when faced with the facts, he understood the cause of the plague and sent Chryseis’ daughter home.

The Plague of AthensMichiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Other plague posts:

Keep Your Hands Clean With This One Easy Trick!

The Worst Part of a Plague: Despair

The Wages of a Wicked Man: Plague, Broken Walls, Fallen Armies

PSA: An Epidemic’s First Acts

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