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Death playing chess

It is impossible to obtain true numbers due to lack of data, but the estimate is that one hundred billion people have lived on this earth since we crawled out of the primordial soup. How much is one hundred billion? That’s a one followed by eleven zeros, or 100,000,000,000. It is a number impossible to grasp. And every one of those people, from cave dwellers to present-day urbanites, priests, nurses, scholars, fishermen and teachers, peasants and princes, crooks and carpenters, all have one thing common. Each of them must face death. Every single one. That unvarnished reality may be why our relationship with death and its mysteries have inspired so many works of art. Death is universal; we must struggle with it because it cannot be escaped.

In the Middle Ages, especially in western Europe, the onslaught of a powerful, sweeping sickness that decimated populations and brought economies and communities to a complete halt also brought about a distinctive form of death-art: the portrayal of Death as a palpable and real character stalking the earth. Death dances. Death plays games. Death holds hands, rides horses, weighs wealth, wields axes and sickles, sits at table. One can see these images again and again in church frescoes, wood block prints, statuary and reliefs, in literature and poetry. Death was personified and actively present around every corner in every home, lurking, listening, waiting. The plague was his instrument. The capricious nearness of Death, his deliberate pursuit of humanity, his impartiality and implacability, was awakened by the bubonic plague. The disease’s rampage brought about a profound disruption of society across all social and cultural barriers, and created an unprecedented level of suspicion, terror, even psychosis, as families, villages, towns and cities were ripped apart and millions of people sickened and died.

We have always feared illness, witness the ostracization of leprosy victims since biblical times. A diseased person was “unclean,” punished by God for some unknown violation and shunned by all, not only out of personal fear of contamination, but also as a social judgement. To fraternize with a leper was to risk one’s own condemnation. The dread of this infectious sickness, now known as Hansen’s disease and easily cured with modern antibiotics, caused its sufferers to be isolated and avoided well into the 20th century. The aforementioned Black Death, bubonic plague, caused by a bacteria carried in the bite of specific fleas, is now also treatable with antibiotics. Both of these diseases still exist in our world today, but neither generates the terror of previous times because they are better understood.

The COVID-19 plague has already taken more than 200,000 lives worldwide, far fewer than the Black Death, which at its height in the 14th century is estimated to have killed 50 million people. Science gives us many answers now that previously were sought from religious texts and institutions: we know it is virus, we are learning how it began and how it spreads, searches for a vaccine and a treatment are ongoing. And still fear, manifesting as modern anxiety, is dancing around us all. We do not live in the dark as our medieval ancestors did, but instead are bombarded with information that haunts us in our isolation: bodies piling up, crematoria overwhelmed, transmissions both unknown and undetected, supplies and medicines insufficient, doctors and nurses in danger. When traveling a week or so prior to the lock-down, I noticed a group of Asian tourists in a public place, all in masks. There was consternation all around. Were they Chinese? Were they carriers? Why were they allowed to be out amongst regular people? It only took about ten seconds for the fear of “other” to manifest in my mind and seek to blame these people, about whom I knew nothing, for the current pandemic. The dread of disease is deeply rooted in our DNA.

We humans have been learning as we go, on our way towards enlightenment. When it is your grandma, your uncle, friend or mentor who has succumbed, grieving in isolation is hard and rage is normal. But fear, so helpful to us in our evolutionary route towards modern humanity, is the flip side of ignorance. When I pass people in their 20s and 30s walking blithely around the city without masks, defying anyone to tell them why they should bother when they are asymptomatic, I see another face of fear. Acknowledging one’s own mortality is a big stretch for entitled youth, and embracing responsibility to strangers an even bigger one when there is no measurable benefit to themselves. But without it they are performing the same function as those black rats in the Middle Ages, who carried the fleas who carried the disease. The rats get a pass – they didn’t know they were carriers. We are people and we do know.

Let’s listen to the experts and do what is advised. Let’s be compassionate for the ill and their caregivers. Let’s remember to laugh and be grateful for beauty, wherever we find it. Let’s not succumb to irrationality or hopelessness or nonsense. Let us remain calm and endure. Let us take care of each other and wear our masks.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2020. Reuse with permission.
Photo credits: Death playing chess: Täby Church, Sweden, c. 1480
Plague rat, c. 1940 (Albert Tarter,) Wellcome Collection

Plague rat