Magic Words and Quack Cures: An ‘Epic’ Fail During a Plague

Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet 36

“There was one oracle, also an autophone, which he had sent to all peoples during the plague. It was a single line of verse, “Phoebus, with uncut hair, keeps off the cloud of plague.”

This line was to be seen everywhere, written on doorposts as a spell against the plague. In most cases it produced the opposite result. For, through some fortune, those homes on which the line was written were those which were especially impacted. Don’t imagine that I am saying that they were destroyed because of the line, but that it happened this way in some fashion. Perhaps the people who were encouraged by the words acted negligently or took everything too easily and did nothing to help the oracle against the disease because they believed they had these syllables to fight for them and “long-haired” Apollo to shoot down the plague with his bow.”

ἕνα δέ τινα χρησμόν, αὐτόφωνον καὶ αὐτόν, εἰς ἅπαντα τὰ ἔθνη ἐν τῷ λοιμῷ διεπέμψατο· ἦν δὲ τὸ ἔπος ἕν·

Φοῖβος ἀκειρεκόμης λοιμοῦ νεφέλην ἀπερύκει.

καὶ τοῦτο ἦν ἰδεῖν τὸ ἔπος πανταχοῦ ἐπὶ τῶν πυλώνων γεγραμμένον ὡς τοῦ λοιμοῦ ἀλεξιφάρμακον. τὸ δ᾿ εἰς τοὐναντίον τοῖς πλείστοις προὐχώρει· κατὰ γάρ τινα τύχην αὗται μάλιστα αἱ οἰκίαι ἐκενώθησαν αἷς τὸ ἔπος ἐπεγέγραπτο. καὶ μή με νομίσῃς τοῦτο λέγειν, ὅτι διὰ τὸ ἔπος ἀπώλλυντο· ἀλλὰ τύχῃ τινὶ οὕτως ἐγένετο. τάχα δὲ καὶ οἱ πολλοὶ θαρροῦντες τῷ στίχῳ ἠμέλουν καὶ ῥᾳθυμότερον διῃτῶντο, οὐδὲν τῷ χρησμῷ πρὸς τὴν νόσον συντελοῦντες, ὡς ἂν ἔχοντες προμαχομένας αὑτῶν τὰς συλλαβὰς καὶ τὸν ἀκειρεκόμην Φοῖβον ἀποτοξεύοντα τὸν λοιμόν.

Herakles tripod Louvre F341.jpg
Apollo and Herakles fight over tripod, Taleides painter

3 thoughts on “Magic Words and Quack Cures: An ‘Epic’ Fail During a Plague

  1. Fascinating! Sunlight is, in fact, a natural antiseptic that can kill both bacteria and viruses; during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, for example, those nursed in open-air hospitals had a higher recovery rate than those nursed indoors: https://medium.com/@ra.hobday/coronavirus-and-the-sun-a-lesson-from-the-1918-influenza-pandemic-509151dc8065 I think that this is not a case of a failed oracle but rather of failed interpretation of that oracle. How on earth could people read “Phoebus, with uncut hair, keeps off the cloud of plague” and decide that what the oracle wanted them to do was write these words on their doorposts rather than following the verse’s advice and staying out in the “long-haired” rays of the sun?
    (Alternatively, I suppose it’s possible that the verse led people to spend more time outside in groups, and this just spread the plague faster. Any thoughts?)

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