University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Medicine in Mythology and Literature

Homer, Greek Gods and Goddesses, and the Plague

The earliest account of disease in Greek literature appears in the opening episode of Homer’s Iliad, which was composed in the eighth century BCE. When Agamemnon tries to ransom his captured daughter, he insults the priest Chryses. As punishment, the god Apollo sets a plague upon the Greek army. According to Homer, at the onset of the plague, Apollo only shot his arrows at mules and dogs in the camp and then later at the Greek soldiers themselves (Iliad I.9ff).

What Homer describes is a highly communicable disease with acute fever, sudden in onset and rapidly fatal, such as easily might attack an army. No symptoms are explicitly mentioned, nor are any recoveries. After the Greeks appeased Apollo with sacrifices and the return of Agamemnon’s daughter, they set about cleansing the camp by throwing “defilements” into the sea. This suggests that part of the disease was a severe dysentery exacerbated by battlefield conditions.

In mythology, the arrows of Apollo and his twin sister Artemis are often a symbol for the sudden onset of disease. The myth of Niobe illustrates this point. Niobe was a mortal woman who boasted that she was superior to Leto (the mother of Apollo and Artemis) because she had borne seven sons and seven daughters as opposed to Leto’s two children. As punishment for this insult to their mother, Apollo shot all seven sons with arrows and Artemis shot all seven daughters. Not only was Niobe robbed of the source of her pride, but she was forced to watch all fourteen of her children die in rapid succession, even as she tried to shield them, with her own body, from the deadly allegorical darts.

Arrows could not only cause disease, but heal it as well. In this capacity, Apollo was called Paean. He was also the father of Asclepius, the healing god whose cult was widespread in the Greek world.

In Homer’s Iliad, Apollo is addressed with his epithet Apollo Smintheus, or “Apollo the mouse god.” The Greeks associated Apollo with mice, which were believed to be vectors of disease, and so prayed to him under that name. They did not know it was the microorganisms on the fleas on the rodents, and not the rodents themselves, that were harmful. They simply recognized the correlation between rodent infestation and plague, and so prayed to the mouse god for relief.

A famous passage in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War describes the plague that gripped Periklean Athens during the Peloponnesian War (II.47.3-54.5). His vivid depiction of the plague and its aftermath inspired other authors in antiquity to treat similar topics, such as Sophocles’s Oedipos Tyrannos and Lucretius’s De rerum natura (Book V).

Greek myth is often an allegory for an historical event. One of the canonical Twelve Labors of Hercules involved ridding the swampy district of Lernea of a multi-headed serpent known as the Lernean Hydra. Every time Hercules cut off one of the serpent’s heads, two more grew in its place. Archaeologists believe this myth actually commemorates an infamous plague which devastated the population of ancient Lernea. The rapid spread of whatever sickness gripped the region corresponds to the duplicating heads of the serpent.