Death has been a looming specter that has haunted mankind since time unremembered, ever since the first flashes of self-consciousness appeared with the evolution of our minds, along with a blooming awareness of the stark reality that we are eventually, inevitably going to die. Considering this powerful influence and fear that the shadow of death has held over us and its unstoppable approach, it is perhaps not a surprise that cultures around the world have sought to give it an embodiment, some sort of avatars to give this dark, intangible force a form and physical appearance to personify it.
There are countless ideas about this personification of death spanning far-flung cultures, mythologies, and religions all throughout history, ranging from the black cloaked Grim Reaper, to angels of death, to decidedly more monstrous demonic entities, and everything between, displaying a vast variety of methods for their sinister work. One very prevalent form of death personified are the tales of what could be called “plague bearers;” dark, mysterious beings that bring with them plague, with "plague" being a sort of catchall phrase for any disease epidemic in ancient times. These ominous beings have taken many forms throughout history, and are featured in bizarre, far-flung accounts from a variety of disparate regions all over the world going back centuries, but all of them share certain similarities in that they feature an enigmatic figure or apparition whose appearance brings with it certain death, torment and strife by disease and pestilence. Is this all pure legend and folklore, or is there anything more to it?
Stories of such entities go back far into history. In the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire, which covered a vast area reaching from Egypt to the south all the way up to Italy, was struck by a massive pandemic of plague. At the time, it was widely reported that there was a group of three small boats roving up and down the coast that were manned by headless men who appeared to be stark black in color. It was said that the appearance of these mysterious boats was a bad portent, immediately preceding an outbreak of plague, and whenever they passed a town sure enough the populace would be ravaged by disease. The menacing boats and their inscrutable headless crews were said to have originated somewhere in Egypt in around 547 AD, after which they became a common sight out at sea off plague infested areas throughout the Empire, to the point that the mere sight of them instilled mass panic in a populace that knew the horrors to come. When the sinister boats left, the plague outbreaks, which had been called the Plague of Justinian, after then Emperor Justinian I, who also happened to have miraculously survived the plague, faded away.
Also from the 6th century is The Plague of Elliant, which rampaged through the village of Elliant in Brittany, France from around 500 to 599 AD, and according to lore completely wiped out all but one man and his mother. It is said that this man had encountered a young woman wearing all white and carrying a staff who was standing by a fast-moving river. When the man approached, the woman, who turned out to be strikingly beautiful, asked if he would be kind enough to take her across. Depending on the version of the tale, he either carried her through the raging river on his horse or over his own back, but the point is that he agreed to help her, perhaps because of her captivating beauty.
It was only when they reached the other side when she told the man that she was in fact an embodiment of disease and death responsible for the plague that had swept through the area, and that she was on her way to spread her dark, grim work through a church. Because of his act of generosity, the plague bearer told the man that he and his mother would be allowed to live, and she was then supposedly true to her word. The man and his mother would come out of the plague unscathed, and indeed be the only survivors at all. When the plague bearer moved on to other regions it was said that she was finally driven out due to her hatred of songs sung about her, of which there were many, some of which ended up in a 19th century collection of songs compiled by a Frenchman named Theodore Hersart Vicomte de la Villemarque.
Interestingly, such beings have often been reported as taking the form of a woman, often very beautiful and dressed in white. One account from 1841 speaks of a woman in white in Lithuania who carried a bloodied handkerchief with her at all times, which she used to cause pestilence and disease by simply casually waving it at people. When the terrified populace took to locking themselves in their houses to escape what they called “The Plague Maiden,” the woman would simply stick her hand through open windows and wave the deadly handkerchief about, after which the occupants would shortly drop dead. Even if the terrified people sealed their windows shut to keep her out, they would sooner or later be forced to go out for food or water, leaving them at the mercy of the deadly maiden.
This plague maiden was supposedly finally undone when a clever young man one evening waited by a widow he had left intentionally open to lure her in. In his hand he allegedly carried a sword that had been inscribed with a blessing reading “in the name of Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” with which he planned to strike out at the apparition who had killed so many. When the plague maiden showed up and put her cursed handkerchief through the window as expected, the man is said to have promptly brought the sword down, cleaving her arm clean off. Although this heroic soul would also fall ill, along with his family, the plague would purportedly disappear from the area shortly after. The lore has it that the handkerchief was kept in a church for a while, and the tale has been immortalized in The Ballad of Morowa Dziewica (The Plague Maiden).
Russia has had at least two of these “plague maidens” in its history. One written of in 1837 in a collection of tales by Polish author Kazimiérz Władysław, and was also mentioned in Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (1844), speaks of a shadowy beautiful woman named Dzuma, which is basically just the Polish word for “plague.” This woman was said to have marauded across Russia spreading disease in her wake, sometimes upon a wagon escorted by owls, as well as “rendering roosters incapable of crowing and dogs incapable of barking.”
Indeed, dogs were said to abhor the presence of this plague maiden, becoming extremely aggressive and agitated in her presence, and she seemed to fear them as well. One account tells of the specter being chased by a pack of dogs, during which she was able to leap great heights over obstacles with superhuman agility. During this chase, it was said that she reached a wall and began to climb a ladder as the barkless dogs growled and snapped at her from below, but a villager at the top of the wall pushed the ladder down. Dzuma then apparently fell and vanished as soon as the dogs descended upon her, but not before swearing vengeance upon the village.
The same collection of folklore tells of yet another Russian plague maiden called Powietrze, which means “vapor” or “air.” This particular entity was said to appear as a beautiful woman in white who walked upon stilts and brought death wherever she went with, again, a white handkerchief. According to the tale, Powietrze found a companion in the form of a man she came across one day, who she asked to ride her about on his shoulders in exchange for immunity from the plague. The man agreed and dutifully carried her about across the countryside, but as the death toll mounted during their scourge he had second thoughts. When they approached the river Pruth, the man supposedly jumped in along with the plague maiden in the hopes that she would drown, but she instead easily floated upon the surface as the man sunk to the bottom and died.
A more sinister looking plague maiden supposedly once haunted ancient Greece as well, coming in the form of a hideous blind old hag. This apparition was said to have empty sockets for eyes, to be hunched over, and to aimlessly wander and feel her way around, waving her arms about in all directions hoping to make contact with living things in order to corrupt them with fatal disease. If she managed to touch any human or animal, they were said to immediately fall gravely ill and die not long after that. Since the blind old plague bearer typically walked along walls, the only way to avoid her if she entered one’s home looking for victims was believed to be to stay in the center of the room and hope she couldn’t reach you.
Of course not all of these plague bearers were women, and one of the more bizarre tales involves a strange man who one day in the 17th century arrived in the small town of Lüchow, Germany and approached a villager named Hans Niebuhr to ask him to give him a ride into town aboard his cart, claiming that he was rather tired from all of the walking he had done. The stranger did not waste time or mince words in ominously introducing himself as plague incarnate, on his way to the village to kill everyone there. In exchange for giving him a ride, the stranger promised that Niebuhr would be spared from the death. There were some other rather bizarre conditions put forward as well, in that the stranger demanded that he take a cooking pot hook from his house, run around naked outside of his home, and then bury the hook in front his house. Only then would his home be granted immunity from the plague.
Niebuhr got out of the cart at the bridge leading into town and fetched the hook from his house as asked. However, he is said to have then proceeded to strip down naked and go careening through the entire town rather than just in front of his own house, before coming to a stop at the bridge and burying the hook there. Because of this disobedience, the whole village was spared from death, and would remain that way even as every other town in the region inevitably withered and died. The rusty old hook itself is allegedly still buried there under the bridge, with some villagers claiming to have actually seen it.
In Chinese lore, these plague bearers often came in the form of the victims of disease pandemics, who would appear mostly as they did in life, only sometimes with warped or twisted features. Called the yi-kuei, or “plague demons,” these lost souls were said to go on mindless rampages of death across the countryside, and it was thought that if they killed someone then that person would take their place in their existence in limbo. In order to protect themselves, villagers would resort to an array of rites, rituals, and acts of penance in an effort to ward off these plague demons, as well as whole “plague festivals” devoted to banishing the creatures from their villages, which featured many gruesome displays such as dumping burning bodies from boats.
Other plague bearers took forms that are more indistinct or vague. One such entity was reported from 6th century Egypt and was said to take the form of a hulking shadow beast that would lurk within the recesses of homes. When pestilence invariably was brought upon the towns this specter visited, it would lie in wait within abandoned houses for looters looking to steal. It was said that anyone who entered houses where the demon lied coiled in wait would immediately drop dead in their tracks. There is also the plague bearer that came in the form of a blue flame, which prowled the Odenwald mountains of Germany. This blue flame was apparently stopped when it was walled within a church in the town of Erbach.
The origin of such tales of mysterious bearers of disease and pestilence across so many cultures likely lies in an imperfect understanding of how diseases spread and work at the time. In past ages, medical knowledge of such things as bacteria and viruses was incomplete. It wasn’t known how diseases spread, how they worked, or how to stop them, only that they sometimes appeared in deadly epidemics or pandemics to terrorize whole regions. To put a face on this crippling fear and try to make some sense out of all of this, it is likely that these populations created the idea of sinister beings of death, of disease incarnate, who would sweep through leaving sickness in their wake. By personifying sickness into a tangible form, these cultures were able to come to some understanding of what diseases were and how they moved from place to place.
However, one wonders how much of this is pure folklore spawned from an ignorance of medical knowledge and how much was colored by some sort of real paranormal phenomena at work. Could there have been something else behind some of the stories? Were there perhaps ghosts, trickster spirits, or some undefinable phantoms behind any of this? Throughout history into modern days we have had our specters, monsters, and phantoms such as the Men in Black, Mothman, and Black Eyed Kids. Could it be perhaps that these beings merely appear as a product of our times? Were these plague bearers perhaps similar phantoms that were the product of theirs? Whatever the case may be, these are nevertheless intriguing tales to be sure, and provide a glimpse into the historical merging of disease, death, and demons.