By Evaggelos Vallianatos
The case of the plague in ancient Greece may still give us a pose for reflection.
The Greeks gave diseases precise names. They called plague loimos (pestilence). They described disease, sorrow, and suffering as nosos, from which we have nosocomial (hospital) disease.
The plague made its first appearance among the Greeks as a weapon of divine wrath.
Agamemnon, their commander-in-chief, offended Chryses, the priest of Apollo, and Apollo spread pestilence among them.
At the beginning of the first book of the Iliad of Homer, Agamemnon insulted Apollo’s priest by refusing to give back his daughter, whom he had captured in a raid.
The priest knelt in front of Agamemnon and begged him to release his daughter.
But Agamemnon told the priest to get out of his sight as quickly as he could, lest he lost his patience.
The frightened priest runs away from the Greek camp. When he was at a safe distance, he immediately prayed to Apollo to punish the Greeks.
He reminded the god he had built a temple to honor and worship him, offering him rich sacrifices. Make the Greeks pay for my tears; he appealed to Apollo.
Chryses called Apollo Sminthian the god of plague. The name Sminthos came from a town in Troas near which the Greeks had possibly pitched their camp.
Apollo listened to Chryses. He became very angry with the insolence of Agamemnon.
He rushed “like night” out of Mt. Olympos in Thessaly and landed in the Greek camp near Troy.
He started shooting his invisible plague arrows at mules and dogs and then soldiers.
Homer says the dead fell to the ground for nine days, and fires everywhere burned their bodies.
This plague came to an end by appeasing Apollo.
Achilles, “of the swift feet,” the greatest hero of the Trojan War, asked Kalchas, the “blameless” seer accompanying the troops, to reveal the cause Apollo was spreading the plague among the Greeks.
Achilles assured Kalchas he could count on him for his protection, so he urged him to tell the truth.
Kalchas said Apollo was furious because of the way Agamemnon had treated his priest, Chryses.
The Greeks, Kalchas said, should return “the glancing-eyed” daughter of the priest, Chryseis, to him and sacrifice 100 cattle in honoring Apollo, who would then cease his biological warfare against them.
Despite the threats of Agamemnon, Achilles and Kalchas prevailed. The Greeks returned Chryseis to her father. Apollo stopped shooting them with his disease arrows.
However, during the ninth year of the Trojan War, the plague returned to the Greek camp and Troy. The pestilence was ravaging the neighboring cities in the Hellespont.
At this moment, Palamedes, a genius of craftsmanship and inventor of writing, weights and measures, counting, and military tactics and strategies convinced the Greek soldiers to fight the plague by becoming healthier.
He introduced a new diet and vigorous athletic training and competition. He replaced the eating of meat with dry fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
He also organized rowing competitions and athletic games outside the narrow and unhealthy camp.
He even convinced Agamemnon to reward the victors with prizes. The plague barely afflicted the soldiers who honored Palamedes.
Homer ignores Palamedes. This story comes to us in the writings of Philostratos, a Greek historian of the third century of our era.
Lessons from the Homeric Greeks
The wrath of Apollo three millennia ago could easily take the form of the wrath of nature in the twenty-first century.
Offending the gods had deadly consequences.
We no longer have gods. We have replaced those anthropomorphic and civilized, and democratic gods with mean one-god tyrants.
These regimes of tyranny foster living under the delusion of being omnipotent.
Not only do we have frightful and genocidal weapons on the ready for the potential extermination of our real or imaginary enemies, but we direct our misguided and unethical power against the natural world, indirectly digging our own graves.
So, would it be wrong to think of our virus pestilence as divine wrath coming not from Apollo but from his sister, goddess Artemis, now represented by the endangered natural world?
Even closer to home, we know the sources for plagues are as far as our animal farms, disease factories for decades.
And yet, the profit of slaughtering animals by the billions is so large. The brainwashing for eating meat so pervasive that the obsession of fighting the pandemic is only with synthetic drugs we call vaccines.
Palamedes’ advice is still the answer to defeating this and future plagues. Better health.
What must be done
Start with getting rid of pesticides in our food. These poisons defeat our natural defenses: they weaken and often shatter our immune system, making it easier for the plague to make us sick or kill us.
Pesticides are not necessary for growing food. Organic farmers are the proof. They grow healthy food.
With a federal policy change from pesticide-dependent agriculture to family farming guided by agroecological science, organic farmers would have no trouble feeding the nation.
The second change to defeat recurring or continuing pandemics would be to address the life and death threats of climate change seriously.
This monster is fed by the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, billions of cars fueled by petroleum, and industrialized agriculture, especially its animal sacrifice zones.
These enclosures, also known as animal farms, resemble sardine cans packed with too many sardines.
They are the annual killing grounds for about 9 billion hogs, cattle, chicken, turkeys, and other domesticated animals.
Animals forced to live in such proximity to each other trigger diseases, some of which have the potential of becoming pandemics.
The additional harm of these hell holes is that the mountains of animal excrement produce diseases and greenhouse gases like methane.
Experts figure that these animal disease factories may be responsible (with the rest of industrialized agriculture) for a third to a half of all US greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
Thus, if President Joe Biden wants to be true to his promises and should, he needs to ban or phase out pesticides and reform or abolish animal farms.
This would be a good beginning to removing fossil fuels entirely from our economy and society.
The eternal Sun god Helios, god for the Greeks and other ancient people, is beckoning to save us from our madness.
Solar and other forms of non-polluting energy have the potential to create a more just and livable society here and elsewhere in our beautiful world.
These are not easy choices, but then ignoring them will only get us in more danger. Scientists have been warning us we have no more than this decade to clean up our nest.
Our children and the Earth demand it. Threatening the Earth is utterly barbarian hubris. Plato said the Earth is the oldest of the gods and the maker of days. She is our mother.
Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental theorist. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency for several years. He is the author of hundreds of articles and 6 books. The article is republished with permission from the author’s blog https://vallianatos.blogspot.com/.