Confusion, fear and panic have gripped countries and corporations the past few months as Novel Coronavirus has continued its unstoppable march through the world. And though science offers us a far more sophisticated set of tools to deal with a pandemic of this nature today than it did millions of years ago, there seems to be little change in the way people have reacted to such calamitous circumstances.

Irrationality was the leitmotif in the past as it is now, evidenced in the many cures being presented by official and unofficial sources and in the panic mongering across the messaging boards and social media. From cow urine to dung, a certain number of glasses of water and a few white pills, everything has been suggested as a potential remedy for the virus.

Now turn back the clock to millennia before, in an island near New Guinea called Rook. Its people, whenever misfortune struck, which could be a loss of wealth or wife or a debilitating illness, had one solution. They gathered together and ran—all the time screaming, cursing and howling while beating the air with sticks to drive the devil away.  

In the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes), the outbreak of misfortune or an epidemic was blamed on unseen devils. To get rid of them, people would evacuate their homes, set up temporary structures outside the village and spend a few days offering sacrifices to the gods and preparing for the final ceremony, which according to anthropologist-author Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), involved marching silently to the village, armed with swords and machetes, and then at a signal from the priest rushing into the streets, all weapons blazing. This way, they believed they could drive evil away.

When in doubt, these practices tell us, find a devil to blame. But in some cases, the devil is also a devi. In India, several goddesses are both carriers of disease and hold its cure. They play a dual role. For instance, Sitala Devi can cure small pox but also causes it.

The story goes that she was born out of the ashes of a yagna fire, from its embers as they cooled and was hence known as the goddess who can keep things cool. She was unhappy though because she did not have too many worshippers and asked Brahma for respect and followers. He granted her the wish but it with a condition, her power would emanate from the cure for a disease that she would cause. In all her temples, especially in the North and the East, Sitala Devi is shown riding a mule, a pot and broom in hand. The pot contains the germs and the broom helps sweep them away.

The Greek myths personify the spirits of disease as Nosoi whose efforts are foiled by Hygeia, daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine. Her sisters were Panakeia (Panacea) (Cure-All) and Iaso (Remedy). Hygeia was always represented as a woman holding a large serpent in her arms.

In many cultures, an illness is sought to be fought or averted by transferring it onto an animal or other people. The Moors (from Morocco) believe that a headache can be cured by passing it on to a lamb or a goat, as can other illnesses. Wealthy Moors were known to rear goats and lambs for the purpose and some even believed that these animals could help keep other animals healthy, especially the valuable horses in their stables. In Arabia, people would lead a camel through the streets during a plague because it was believed that the animal could absorb the pestilence. The camel was then taken to a remote spot and strangled to death, in the belief that it had taken the disease with itself.

Frazer says that such beliefs rest on the principle of vicarious suffering and mark an early stage of intellectual and physical development in humankind. It is not just animals that bore the brunt of such belief systems, women (mostly) and slaves did too. In Uganda when men returned from battle with another tribe, the oracles warned the kings that evil had attached itself to the hunters and soldiers. To counter the devil that may have ridden back home with these men, the oracles recommended picking up a woman that had been brought back captive, along with a cow, a goat, a fowl and a dog and sending them back to the borders of the region that the soldiers had conquered. There their limbs were broken and they were left to die. The evil they carried, it was believed, would be buried with their bones. Perhaps it did, but the absurd behaviour that promoted such thinking still lives on (think the cow urine drinking festivals, the Corona Go ditty being sung by politicians and diplomats and the numerous messages on social media recommending the bizarre).


A version of this article appeared in the Business Standard (March 14, 2020), Trailing an epidemic