The Pima Indians of the American Southwest hold the belief in an old legend called oimmeddam, the wandering sickness, which elicits the deepest fears of man.
“Where do you come from?” an Indian asks a tall, black-hatted stranger.
“I come from far away,” the stranger replies, “from……across the Eastern Ocean.”
“What do you bring?” the Indian asks.
“I bring death,” the stranger answers. “My breath causes children to wither and die like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction. No matter how beautiful a woman, once she has looked at me, she becomes as ugly as death. And to men, I bring not death alone, but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives… No people who looks upon me is ever the same.”
The Black Death of the mid-14th Century may be the most famous example of what oimmeddam can do to man. Also called, the Black Plague, it stands as the most devastating pandemic in human history.
WHAT CAUSED THE BLACK PLAGUE?
Plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis that often infects small rodents (like rats, mice, and squirrels) and transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea.
In the past, black rats carried the most commonly Bubonic-infected animals and ravenous rat fleas would jump from their recently-killed rat hosts to humans, looking for a blood subsistence. Pneumonic plague, a particular form of plague infection, is instead transmitted through infected droplets in a sick person’s cough.
Today the debate rages debate over the origins of the plague, and recent science from DNA testing of the deceased’s bones hypothesizies that the Black Plague may have been a hybrid of Bubonic and pneumonic plagues. The research and debate continue.
A Franciscan friar named Michael of Piazza described the torments of a sickness never witnessed. “Then, a boil developed on their thighs, or on their upper arms a boil…. This infected the whole body, so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means for curing it, and then the patient died.”
Helplessness embraced the area. There was no diagnosis, no cure, no hope. The game of Russian Roulette played over and again, where one awakened from a restless sleep in hopes they were clear of the boils which embellished the skin and the cough which ravaged the lungs. Moral decay soon followed as faith in mankind and God dwindled away.
Michael of Piazza writes, “Soon men hated each other so much that, if a son was attacked by the disease, his father would not care for him.”
The body count increased. Large pits constructed to bury the deceased. Soon, the government shut down. Harvests remained unattended. Leaders died. The city stopped working. No sanitation, no food, and no one to bake the bread. Mothers turned away from their children; husbands left their wives. Clergymen refused to give last rites to the ill and the poor were paid to enter the dwelling of the infected to report news to gather information on who was alive and who was dead.
Many were blamed for the origins of the plague—–cats, dogs, stinking wind, Jews and witches.
Where will oimmeddam go now?
The ships which carried the disease were forced out of port, but it was too late. Death walked to the seaport of Catania and into Northern Africa via Tunis, to the Balearic Islands, Cyprus, Corsica and Sardinia. It crept to the north to the port of Genoa, then Venice. It raged across Italy forcing the inhabitants to live in a perpetual state of terror.
Like a dark rain cloud, it blew into France, consuming the enormous operation at Avignon, which held the Papacy of the Catholic Church. Faith in God diminished further. Hopelessness and fear accompanied with the disease. The Black Plague gusted past France into England. It raged intermittently for the next 300 years and took the lives of millions of people.
Sources & References:
- Richard Lomas, ‘The Black Death in County Durham’, J. Medieval. Hist., 1989, 15: 127–40, pp. 129–30
- Sacier, Karen, Janes, Sharyn, Community Health Nursing: Caring for the Publics’ Health, (Jones and Barlett’s 2009) 67