The Plague of Athens

The Plague of Athens

You might have noticed that there was no Word of the Week last week. The reason is because, medically speaking, I was dying. According to the hypochondriac’s best friend, WebMD, my symptoms indicated I was suffering from either a cold, flu, cancer, or pregnant. Given the uncertainty, I simply took to telling people I had the plague and left it at that.

Now, you might think that the word plague is a general word for any spread of infectious disease. But, if you want to get very technical, and I always do, the modern word plague officially refers to a single disease. Actually, three, closely related infections caused by the same bacteria. There’s the bubonic plague if the infection is in your lymph nodes, the pneumonic plague if the infection is in your lungs, and the septicemic plague if the infection is in your blood. The sources of all of these names are the fairly standard mix of Latin and Greek. Plague comes from the Latin plaga, meaning to attack or wound. Septicemic comes from the Greek septikos, meaning blood. Pneumonic comes from the Greek word for lungs. And bubonic comes from the Greek word for crotch or groin.

Instead of a Hideous Picture of the Bubonic Plague, Here are Pictures of Bunnies and Kittens. You're Welcome

Instead of a Hideous Picture of the Bubonic Plague, Here are Pictures of Bunnies and Kittens. You’re Welcome

Why crotch or groin? Well, the bubonic plague causes these nasty black, swollen nodules as it pools in your lymph nodes (which the body uses to help flush away infection and waste). These nodules occur all over your body, wherever you have lymph nodes, which include the armpits, throat, and especially the groin area. Hence, they got the name buboes (singular: bubo). And hence, the bubonic plague. Also, because they were ugly festering black, the bubonic plague which swept across Europe in the 14th century and killed between one and two thirds of the European population was also called The Black Death. Incidentally, do not do a Google image search for buboes, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death.

Apart from this, the movie was really good. Seriously. Just ignore the stupid robot owl.

Apart from this, the movie was really good. Seriously. Just ignore the stupid robot owl.

Now, if you’re a Harryhausen fan, you might recognize the name Bubo, not as a swollen, black lymph node, but as a robot owl. In the classic 1981 Ray Harryhausen stop-motion masterpiece, Clash of the Titans, the smith god Hephaestus crafted a clockwork owl for Athena. The goddess gave the owl to Perseus to help him rescue the princess Andromeda. Bubo is also briefly seen in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, where the Argosian soldiers call it trash, showing that no one appreciates the classics anymore. And, insofar as horrific diseases can ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the word “funny,” there’s a funny coincidence here.

See, the Black Death of Europe gets a lot of play as THE pandemic. By the way, that’s the word for a general spread of disease. Actually, there are a couple, and they have the same root as the word democracy. Demos means people in Greek. So an epidemic is an infection “among the people,” which is generally limited to a single geographical area. And a pandemic means an infection of “all the people,” which means that the disease has spread across many regions. The Black Death is famous for being THE pandemic everyone knows. But there have actually been a lot of major disease outbreaks that shaped the course of history.

For example, and this gets back to the not-funny coincidence, the Plague of Athens. See, from 431 BCE to 404 BCE, Greece was at war pretty much with itself. Actually, to be totally fair, the situation was complicated. Greece was really a collection of leagues and alliances ruled by various city states. A series of wars between these leagues, chiefly lead by Athens on one side and Sparta on the other, called the Peloponesian Wars had broken out. It was complicated. But in 430 BCE, Athens was under seige by Spartan forces. And it might have held out, but then, the plague of Athens hit. And it spread quickly due to the close quarters and poor hygiene caused by the seige. Interestingly, it does not appear that this epidemic was actually the plague, but despite excellent records from the time, historians have still be unable to identify what disease it was that killed off one quarter to one third of the population of Athens. By the way, Sparta eventually went on to win the war.

Apart from the illness and the death, one of the most devastating impacts of both the Plague of Athens and the Black Death and many other epidemics in history comes from a single Latin word. The word is germ. And, until the 17th century, the word germ meant “seed.” Until that time, people had no idea what caused disease and how it spread. In Athens, many people believed that the plague was a sign that the gods had turned against them and had sided with Sparta. Temples were abandonned or used to store the dead and people became miserable and hopeless. There was a failure of morality and a breakdown of social structures. The same happened in Europe during the Black Death when people believed that the plague had been a punishment from God, weakening the church’s role in society and, by many accounts, causing rises in crime, immorality, violence, war, and general strife. People were afraid and they had lost hope and faith.

Plague Doctor: Literally "Dr. Beak of Rome"

Plague Doctor: Literally “Dr. Beak of Rome”

However, some folks were more savvy than others. In ancient Greece, for example, some scholars observed that when carrion eaters ate the corpses of the plague victims, the carrion eaters quickly got sick and died. They concluded that the disease was spreading by more natural means. In the Medieval period, miasma theory became prominent. Scholars believed the plague was spread by “bad air,” including the fumes of decaying bodies. Victims of the plague were advised to get clean air to help cure them. Because of this, traveling plague doctors took to wearing bird-like masks. The prominent beaks were filled with linen, spices, and armoatic herbs that were thought to clean the air. It seemed like a good theory. The trouble is, what actually spread the Black Death was contact with bodily fluids of the infected, usually thanks to fleas biting victims and then passing the infection on to others. So the “clean air” idea did no good. What did even less good were the flagellants, groups of religious zealots who traveled from town to town, whipping themselves to atone for the sins of man and hopefully convince God to end the plague. That’s right, you had people traveling from town to town across Europe opening bloody wounds to prevent a blood-borne illness. But you can’t fault people. No one had any idea about germs.

The Tarrasque's Rebranding Campaign: "At Least I'm Not as Bad as the Black Death"

The Tarrasque’s Rebranding Campaign: “At Least I’m Not as Bad as the Black Death”

And that brings us to D&D and how this relates to your game. See, no one really thinks much about it, but D&D is technically a world without germs. I mean, sure, some of the vectors for disease in various editions have been explained, but given that you have divine magic that cures disease and causes disease and given that you have magical diseases that defy any sort of rational explanation, most players and DMs take a sadly scientific view of illness. And that’s a shame because we simply don’t think about the full impact of an epidemic on a society that is literally ruled by aloof deities rather than science. An epidemic is already a pretty horrible occurance, it’s a natural disaster, but it’s a slow natural disaster and it spreads and it lasts for a long time. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, the tarrasque waking up, Far Realm invasions, those things happen pretty quick. They occur, they are over. But a pandemic can last for many years, devastating a region. It doesn’t just kill, it crushes spirits and destroys faith and social order. A plague is probably the most terrifying natural disaster that can occur in D&D. And that’s a world that includes motherf$&%ing dragons. No one knows how plagues happen or why or where they come from or how they spread. A city in the grip of plague could be quarantined by the rest of the world, starved out, as civilization inside collapses and people try to escape. And, because germs aren’t really a thing, such containment measures might fail. People might be convinced to turn to dark gods, begging for relief. Refugees might be slaughtered as healthy populations try to prevent the outbreak from spreading. It’d be an amazing basis for a campaign.

Of course, it’s too damned easy for players to cure their characters of disease in D&D. So, if you want to make a plague the basis of a D&D game, or even just the driver of a single adventure, maybe limit the curative magic so that the players might be afraid of being infected. Just remind them that diseases are magic and all the handwashing in the world isn’t going to help them when the gods are pissed at them.

By the way, if you’ve played Shovel Knight, now you know why Plague Knight looks like a bird. And if you haven’t played Shovel Knight, PLAY IT! It’s on Steam and it’s awesome!

Why are you still here?! Go download and play Shovel Knight! Now!

Why are you still here?! Go download and play Shovel Knight! Now!


“The magistrate calls for silence. He clears his throat and speaks. ‘From what has been said, I cannot determine the truth of this matter. Therefore, either you may plead guilty and accept just punishment, or you will be consigned to a cleric of Saint Cuthbert for a Trial by Ordeal. And may the gods spare you if you are innocent.'”

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

So this week’s word has an odd story behind it. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts about economics and the word came up and I found myself wondering why the word never actually made its way into D&D. Specifically, why it never made its way onto clerics’ spell lists.

The word is ordeal. When we hear the word ordeal, we usually think of a terrible, harrowing experience. But ordeal actually has Germanic roots and it comes from the word “to judge” or “to give what is deserved.” An ordeal was actually a form of divine judgment. And it goes back a long way. Early legal codes like the Code of Hammurabi included the ordeal as a way of determining guilt. So, what was an ordeal?

Well, let’s jump ahead to European law in the Middle Ages. When the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime could not be determined, they could either settle the case (by pleading guilty and making compensation or suffering the punishment) or they could opt for a Trial by Ordeal. They would undertake some sort of injurous act and if they were unharmed or if their injuries showed signs of healing normally and not festering, they were found innocent. The idea was that G-d knew if you were guilty or innocent and would protect you if you were innocent.

Different ordeals existed at different points in history and in different parts of the world. Some of the most common included plunging your hand into boiling water, walking across hot irons, grasping a hot iron, consuming poison, and so on. There were a lot of creative trials by ordeal all over the world.

(That facial expression is less "I'm gripping a red hot iron bar" and more "I'm having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.")

(That facial expression is less “I’m gripping a red hot iron bar” and more “I’m having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.”)

Now, interestingly, an economist named Peter Leeson discovered some records from Hungary which indicated that some two-thirds of people who underwent trials by ordeal involving grasping searing hot iron bars were found innocent. And he explains that the trials were probably rigged in those cases. Once the defendant agreed to the trial, Leeson reasoned, rather than simply settling or pleading guilty, that told the priests that the defendant truly believed in his or her own innocence and that G-d would deliver them from harm. The act of accepting the ordeal and potentially having your arm or legs boiled or dying from poison or whatever was a sign of innocence, so the priests would rig the trial to exonerate you. Is that true? Who knows. But you can read about it in his book, Anarchy Unbound or listen a really nifty episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast about this and other ways of getting the guilty and innocent to reveal themselves without knowing it.

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Early Germanic law was actually quite fascinating. In addition to Trials by Ordeal, it also included Trails by Combat, in which the accuser and the defendant would duel to determine guilt or innocence (again on the assumption that some divine power would intervene to protect the innocent). More interestingly, though, it actually had some very neat ideas about compensation and damages and lawsuits. Some Germanic laws included the concept of a weregeld (literally: the cost of a person). If harm was done to a person or their property, they had to be compensated whether that damage was intentional or accidental. The base price was the weregeld and it was multiplied based on the social status of the individual. People with families were worth more than loners. Nobles were higher than commoners. Professionals higher than laborers and so on. If you couldn’t pay the compensation, you were declared an outlaw which meant you no longer enjoyed the protection of the law. That meant anything anyone did to you was nice and legal. It was usually a death sentence.

Now, I could talk about my recent D&D campaign in a society that followed a legal system heavily inspired by Germanic law traditions and a group of outsider adventurers who were stunned by some of the seemingly barbaric practices, but it was that ordeal thing that stuck with me. Trials by Ordeal were common, not just in the western world, but in many different cultures. There were all sorts of divine or magical ways to seperate the guilty from the innocent. And, if you believe in divine intervention, it just makes sense that stuff would be possible. So where, in this fantasy world where the gods are objectively real and grant magical powers, is the ordeal spell? You’ve got the Zone of Truth and you’ve got the Detect Evil and you’ve got the Atonement. But where is Ordeal. Where is a blessing that will protect the innocent heart from some harmful trial but not the guilty? How did this get overlooked?!

More to the point, what is the deal with the law in your D&D game? Every DM eventually does that game where the PCs are on trial or they have to investigate a crime or prove someone innocent of something, but the trials and the investigations are always filled with these modern ideas of evidence and forensics and fact-finding. And all of that completely ignores the fact that D&D includes an objective alignment system, a set of deities that really exist and really grant magic to help the faithful, and wizards and divination and mystical truth-telling skulls. Why is the law in D&D so f$&%ing boring?! Where are the Trials by Ordeal? The Trials by Combat?

And while we’re on the subject, why aren’t divine spells more selective in who they will work on and who they won’t? Why won’t cure spells just fail on people of the wrong alignments or people with two many checkmarks in the sin column? That’d turn every clerical spell into a trial by ordeal, right? Imagine this for a trail. The defendant is scorched with a hot iron and then a cure spell is cast. If the spell fails, the dude is guilty. The end.

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System