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Plague Legends

Migratory Legends of Christiansen type 7080
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2020-2021

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Contents

  1. The Black Death in Denmark (Denmark).

  2. Of the Pestilence in Jutland (Denmark).

  3. The Black Death in Iceland (Iceland).

  4. The Coffin (The Netherlands).

  5. The Best Physick Against the Plague (England, Daniel Defoe).

  6. A Most Excellent Preservative Against the Plague (England, Daniel Defoe).

  7. Protection from the Plague (England).

  8. Cholera in London (England).

  9. The Monster Fed Felen (Wales).

  10. Sneezing (Scotland, Sir Walter Scott).

  11. The Churchyard of Crail (Scotland).

  12. The Galar Mor -- The Great Disease (Scotland).

  13. The Yellow Plague (Ireland).

  14. The Plague-Swarm (Poland).

  15. The Plague Maiden (Poland).

  16. The Locked-Up Plague (Poland).

  17. The Plague in Hiiumaa (Estonia).

  18. The Plague: Six Lusatian Legends (Germany /Poland).

  19. The Burning of the Jews in Strasbourg (Germany / France).

  20. Persecution of the Jews During the Plague (Germany).

  21. The Tall Man in the Murder Lane in Hof (Germany).

  22. The Last Plague Death in Motzlar (Germany).

  23. Mother Gauerken Brings the Plague (Germany).

  24. Plague-Flies (Germany).

  25. The Unfortunate Wedding at Grimma (Germany).

  26. Cholera (Germany).

  27. The Wedged-In Plague Smoke (Switzerland).

  28. The Plague Column in Auer (Italy).

  29. Astrological Portents (Italy / Spain / France).

  30. Amabie: The Ancient Beast Helping Japan Ward Off the Coronavirus (Japan).


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Black Death in Denmark

Denmark

About 1350 raged the Black Death, of which history relates that it carried off four-fifths of the population in the Scandinavian countries, which, however, is not quite universally true. Nevertheless, even to this day may be heard faint echoes of the terror which that pestilence caused. It is said that children even avoided burying their parents' bodies, many houses stood empty, and the cattle roamed wild over the fields.

A little girl was on one occasion pursued by a bull. While she was running, the pest took hold of her, and she fell dead, so quickly did it kill.

The practice of saying "God help you," to one who sneezes, is by some referred to this time; sneezing was a sign of having caught the pest.

The year before it, a vapour was seen to rise out of the ground, and spread itself over the whole country. In this pestilence all the people in Oster-Logum parish died out, with the exception of three ploughmen, who shut themselves up above an archway in the farm now owned by Nis Hansen in Havelund.

They took with them provisions for six months, but every eighth day they went out and hoisted a piece of fresh beef on the end of a long pole. This hung for the next eight days, and was then taken down. For a long time the meat was always spoiled and black when they took it down, and this was a sign that the plague was still in the air. This went on until the meat was still fresh when they took it down, and they judged that there was no longer any danger.

Then they said to each other, "Now we shall go and see our neighbours."

But they went from house to house and found only the dead, both human beings and animals. In this way they went from village to village over the whole parish. The people lay dead on the fields beside their ploughs, and there was no living thing except eagles and beasts of prey. Houses and farms stood empty for twenty-five or thirty years after that time.

A priest was brought out to the church from Aaben-raa, and offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for the cessation of the pestilence.




Of the Pestilence in Jutland

Denmark

On the east side of the churchyard of Fur no one is buried because when the Black Death raged in the country, a living child was buried there, in order to stay the contagion.

Other instances are given of this method of staying the pestilence.




The Black Death in Iceland

Iceland

At the time when the Black Death began to rage, it was the custom of a certain farmer to hold prayers every morning at all seasons of the year. On one occasion they were busy gathering the hay together, as it looked like rain, when the farmer said they would go home to prayers.

Some of the others objected to this, and said it would be more fitting for them to get the hay in, but the farmer insisted, and they all went to the house.

During the day there came in sight two tiny tufts of cloud, which came nearer and increased in size till at last they appeared as a man and a woman riding on grey horses.

They rode along above the farm, and the woman was heard to say, "Shall we visit here?"

"No," said the man, "that was not commanded us."

So the Black Death passed over without coming to the farm, and all the people there survived.




The Coffin

The Netherlands

Dr. Abraham Van der Meer, an upright and zealous reformer, relates in his memorabilia, that his grandmother, while residing at the Hague, being one summer night unable to sleep, placed herself, about four o'clock in the morning, at the window, and there saw a coffin coming up the Spui Straat, but without anyone else seeming to notice it. It moved on until it stood up erect before a house, where it vanished in an open window.

Before six weeks had expired every inmate of that house had died of the plague.




The Best Physick Against the Plague

England

It is my opinion, and I must leave it as a prescription, (viz.) that the best physick against the plague is to run away from it. I know people encourage themselves by saying, God is able to keep us in the midst of danger, and able to overtake us when we think ourselves out of danger; and this kept thousands in the town, whose carcases went into the great pits by cartloads; and who, if they had fled from the danger, had, I believe, been safe from the disaster; at least 'tis probable they had been safe.

And were this very fundamental only duly considered by the people on any future occasion of this, or the like nature, I am persuaded it would put them upon quite different measures for managing the people from those that they took in 1665, or than any that have been taken abroad, that I have heard of; in a word, they would consider of separating the people into smaller bodies, and removing them in time farther from one another, and not let such a contagion as this, which is indeed chiefly dangerous to collected bodies of people, find a million of people in a body together, as was very near the case before, and would certainly be the case if it should ever appear again.

The plague, like a great fire, if a few houses only are contiguous where it happens, can only burn a few houses; or if it begins in a single, or as we call it, a lone house, can only burn that lone house where it begins. But if it begins in a close built town or city, and gets ahead, there its fury increases, it rages over the whole place, and consumes all it can reach.




A Most Excellent Preservative Against the Plague

England

One thing I could not help observing, what befell one of the quacks, who publish'd that he had a most excellent preservative against the plague, which whoever kept about them, should never be infected, or liable to infection; this man, who we may reasonably suppose, did not go abroad without some of this excellent preservative in his pocket, yet was taken by the distemper, and carry'd off in two or three days.




Protection from the Plague

England

It is certainly and constantly affirmed, that on Midsummer Eve, that is, the day before the nativity of St. John Baptist there is found under the root of mugwort, a coal, which preserves or keeps them safe from the plague, carbuncle, lightning, the quartan ague, and from burning that bear the same about them: And Mizaldus, the writer hereof, saith, that he doth hear that it is to be found the same day under the root of plantane; which I know to be of truth, for I have found them the same day under the root of plantane. It is to be found at noon.




Cholera in London

England

Excerpt from a letter by Richard Harris Barham to Mrs. Hughes, July 19, 1832:

I am sorry to say, from letters received from town this morning, that this horrible plague continues its ravages on the city. Of Dr. Davies's eight patients, four died the same day with my poor boy, and the others since; and I learn that twelve are now lying dead in the immediate neighbourhood of St. Paul's Churchyard.

In the meantime Government are using all their influence with the Press to make as light as possible of the business, in order to prevent the necessity of declaring London a foul port.




The Monster Fed Felen

Wales

In an ancient MS. by Llywelyn Sion, of Llangewydd, there is mention of a frightful monster called the Fad Felen, which was seen through the key-hole of Rhos church by Maelgwn Gwynedd, who "died in consequence." This monster was predicted in a poem by Taliesin, as a "strange creature" which should come from the sea marsh, with hair and teeth and eyes like gold.

The yellow fever plague, which raged in Wales during some five years in the sixth century, is the monster referred to in this legend.




Sneezing

Sir Walter Scott

The custom of saying "God bless you" when a person in company sneezes is derived from sternutation being considered as a crisis of the plague at Athens, and the hope that, when it was attained, the patient had a chance of recovery.




The Churchyard of Crail

Scotland

The Churchyard of Crail is peculiarly full of interest to the antiquary, and even to the moralist.

Adjoining the main entrances into the churchyard, on the right hand, is the stately old tomb of the Lindsays of Wormiston, the first of whom purchased the estate 247 years ago.

To the east of this tomb a small enclosed plot, where tradition asserts that, on more than one occasion, the "plague" was buried. This was done by our superstitious forefathers in the following approved fashion:

It was an universal belief with them that the dreadful pestilences which were wont to decimate Scotland, had their seat in the air, and for the purpose of intercepting the deadly visitor, large wheaten loaves were raised high up on poles, which, after being so exposed for a length of time, were carefully buried where they should not be disturbed; for the wise people of those days firmly believed that the discoloration of the loaves showed the veritable presence of the pest, which, save for this antidote, would have spread death and ruin amongst the inhabitants.




The Galar Mor -- The Great Disease

Scotland

Long, long ago, the Galar Mor -- the great disease, the plague -- ravaged Scotland with terrible severity. It was a dreadful affliction, which, once infesting a country, spared none. Like a blue "Haesp," it hovered in the air, and lowered inevitably on its victim. The only prevention, where it broke out, was to knock down the houses on all the inmates, infected or not, and bury it with them in the ruins.

Well, the Galar Mor broke out at the old castle [Ceann-Drochaide, or Bridgend]. A company of artillery was ordered from Blair Castle. They came up through Athole. The road cut to allow the cannons to pass is yet pointed out by the old people in Glenfernat. On they came over the Cairnwal, and their way is again visible from cuttings above the Coldrach -- on over to Corriemulzie. Then they turned down Cornam-muc, and the cannons were put into position at Dalvreckachy.

The queen stood in the castle door, combing her hair. The first round brought the walls down about her. None of those within escaped, and the noble towers were levelled to the ground.

Many long years -- ay, ages after -- when the red-coats were stationed here, one of the soldiers was prevailed on, for a large sum of money, to explore the vaults. There was a hole open like a flue -- the mouth is yet to be seen-- into which, when a stone was thrown, it could be heard descending a flight of steps a long, long time.

Down this hole he was lowered by a rope to the first steps, whence he proceeded, torch in hand, on his adventure. Pale and trembling, he was brought to the upper world again, and he vowed he had seen queer things, dreadful things, and that nothing should induce him to go back again. In one room or vault he had come on a ghastly company. They all sat round about as if living, with glittering ivory faces, dressed in strange garb, and silent, motionless, breathless, and dead.

Years again afterwards, the Watsons -- a wealthy family, then living in Castletown -- began to clear out the ruins, and found numbers of old coins, broken vessels, iron doors, smashed grating, immense quantities of deers' horns, and bones of various animals. But a little old man, with a red cap, appeared to them and bade them desist if they valued their own welfare.

Tradition reports that there are very many entire vaults below as yet; especially the stables, and a subterranean passage from them, by which the horses of the Castle could be watered at the Cluny without coming outside. From amongst the ruins, and around them, grew up a few trees to shelter the fallen greatness of Ceann-Drochaide Castle.

The narrator of this legend, an old worthy of Braemar, concluded:

I feel honoured by the attention given to my wandering narrative. My memory is failing me now, and I seem to recall the old tales of the country dimly -- as it were a glimpse through the mists of time. But no wonder. Like the old Castle, my best days are over, and my broken words are as the sounds issuing from the inner vaults, where many things unwot of may lie hid under the ruins of age.




The Yellow Plague

Ireland

Long ago a disease broke out in this district and it was called the yellow plague.

One evening a priest was crossing the hill reading his office. He was coming from Ardpatrick going westwards and as he came near a stream that is flowing through the glen on the western side of the hill he saw on the opposite bank a girl dressed in yellow.

She spoke to him and asked him to help her across. He did so and then the girl said, "Do you know to whom you have rendered such service?"

The priest said he did not, and she said "I am the queen of the yellow plague." He begged her to go back again and she did.

When the people on the other side heard this they came to the eastern side to live. There are tracks of plots and ditches on the hill and it is supposed that that is where the people lived when they came to the eastern side of the hill.

I got this tale from my father who lives in the townland of Bohernagore Ardpatrick.

Maureen Clery, Bohernagore Ardpatrick.




The Plague-Swarm

Poland

A Ruthenian, having lost his wife and children by the plague, fled into the forest from his desolate cottage and sought safety there. He wandered about all day long; towards evening he constructed a booth of branches, lit a little fire, and fell asleep, wearied out.

It was already after midnight when a mighty noise awoke him. He rose to his feet, listened, and heard a kind of songs in the distance, and accompanying the songs a sound of tambourines and fifes. He listened, in no small astonishment, that, when death was raging around, people were rejoicing there so merrily. The noise that he heard kept continually approaching, and the terrified Podolian [a Ruthenian by nationality, a Podolian by locality] espied a swarming multitude advancing along a wide road. It was a troop of strange looking spectres that circled round a carriage; the carriage was black and elevated, and in it sat the Plague.

At every step the frightful company kept increasing; for on the road almost everything was transformed into a spectre. Feebly burned his little fire; a tolerably large firebrand was still smoking a little. Scarcely had the plague-swarm drawn near when the firebrand stood upon feet, extended two arms -- the burning part began to glitter with two glaring eyes -- it began to sing in concert with the others.

The villager was stupefied; in speechless terror he seized his axe and was on the point of striking the nearest spectre, but the axe flew out of his hands, transformed itself into a tall woman with raven-black tresses, and, singing, vanished before his eyes.

The plague-swarm proceeded onwards; and the Podolian saw how the trees, the bushes, the owls, the screech-owls, assuming tall shapes, increased the multitude, the terrible harbinger of a frightful death. He fell down powerless, and when in the morning the warmth of the sun awoke him, the vessels that he had brought with him were smashed and broken, the clothes torn to rags, the provisions spoilt.

He perceived that no one but the plague-swarm had done him all this mischief, and, thanking God that he had at any rate escaped with life, proceeded further to seek shelter and food.




The Plague Maiden

Poland

Because the evil plague was still rampant, all the villages were desolate; the roosters had all lost their voices -- not a one of them could crow. The watch-dogs could no longer bark as before. But they could smell the ghost and see it from afar. Then they would growl and attempt to attack it. The plague maiden teased them with truly malicious joy.

A lad was asleep atop a tall haystack, and next to him stood a ladder. The moon shone brightly that night, and all was still. Suddenly a mighty roar was heard from the distance, as though carried by the wind. At the same time one recognized the angry growling and howling of the dogs. The lad stood up, and to his fear he saw a tall, white figure, dressed in white and with flowing hair, rushing toward him. A long, high fence was in the way, but the tall female figure jumped over it with one leap, then climbed up the ladder.

Now safe from the dogs, she pointed a foot at them, and teasing the angry pack she called out again and again: "Look out, look out, the foot! Look out, look out, the foot!"

The lad recognized the terrible maiden at once. He carefully approached the top rung, and with all his might pushed against the ladder. The tall female figure fell down, and the dogs attacked her. She threatened revenge and then disappeared.

The lad did not die. However, for the rest of his life he would stick one foot out and repeat the maiden's words: "Look out, look out, the foot! Look out, look out, the foot!"

Commentary

The Russians, Serbs, and Poles -- like the Slovaks and Lithuanians -- perceive the plague in the form of a maiden. In Serbia and Slovenia this maiden is named Kuga.

The old Polish legends tell of a plague maiden who drives about on a two-wheeled cart. Five years ago when cholera laid waste to large stretches of the countryside, I heard from Russian mountain people on the other side of the Prut River that a woman was carrying this sickness into the cities and villages.

Mickiewiez relates the following about this woman:

Ordinary people in Lithuania perceive the plague in the form of a maiden. Here I shall relate the content of a ballad that I once heard in Lithuania:

The plague maiden appeared in a village and brought death to all the houses by putting her hand in through a door or a window and waving a red cloth. The villagers locked themselves inside their huts, but hunger and other needs soon forced them to abandon these safeguards. Everyone expected to die. In these fearful circumstances, a nobleman, who himself had the greatest store of provisions and was thus able hold out the longest, decided to sacrifice himself for his fellow humans. He picked up a sable on which the names of Jesu and Mary were engraved and then opened a window in his house. With one blow the nobleman struck off the hand of the terrible ghost and captured the red cloth. To be sure, he himself died with his entire family, but from that time onward they never again heard of the plague maiden in that village.




The Locked-Up Plague

Poland

In the year 1709 when the plague was ravaging Prussia it also came to Konitz [Chojnice], killing many people. The citizens were beside themselves, fearing that the entire town would perish, when a strange man appeared and offered to ban the plague. His offer was accepted.

He had a hole cut into a large linden tree growing in the Lutheran churchyard and made ready with a chock that fit exactly into the hole. He then led a solemn procession into the churchyard, banned the plague into the tree, then quickly drove the chock into the hole, locking the plague inside the tree. He warned the people against removing the chock, lest the plague should escape.

From then onward the plague has not shown itself in Prussia. To the present day the tree with the chock is still standing.




The Plague in Hiiumaa

Estonia

A foreign ship lay anchored near the island of Hiiumaa. A few peasants rowed out from the shore to bring provisions. As they were returning a small boy jumped into their boat. He was three-feet tall and dressed in a grey jacket, cut in the style of nobility, and with a three-cornered hat like those formerly worn by Swedish peasants in Hiiumaa.

They threw him into the water, but he quickly reappeared and took his place in the boat. And that is how the plague came to the village of Kärdla.

If the plague entered a house and the inhabitants called out the greeting, "God bless you!" then it had no power over them. However, if the plague greeted first, or if the inhabitants delayed their greeting, then they all would die.

Thus the plage entered a house where everyone was asleep except for an old servant woman who was lying on the stove. The woman saw how the plague struck each person, one after the other, with a staff. A black-and-blue spot emerged from the spot where each one was struck. From this spot the sickness spread across the entire body, which killed the person in a short time.

When the plage was about to leave, the servant woman called out, "Touch me with your staff as well."

But the plague replied, "Your name is not recorded with the others."

Thus she was the only person in the entire household to remain alive.




The Plague: Six Lusatian Legends

Germany / Poland

1

When the plague threatens a village, one must draw a circle around it with the handle of a copper kettle which comes from a house where all the inhabitants have died. The plague cannot cross this circle unless it is dragged across by force. The people in a village near Cottbus learned that this is true.

The plague was raging in the countryside, but the peasants of the village had protected themselves with the circle that they had drawn around the village. One day the miller drove from this village to his mill outside of the village. On his way back he saw a woman dressed in white lying by the side of the road. She urgently begged him to take her along on his cart, for she too wanted to go to the village. The miller accepted the woman's request. On the way she asked about all the members of his household. The miller mentioned all of their names, except for one, which he happened to forget.

When they came to the ring that had been drawn around the village, the woman fell from the cart. The man helped her back onto the cart, but she fell off again.

The miller wanted to leave the woman lying there, but she begged and wailed until he took her hand and dragged her behind his cart, which the horses had pulled a few steps further along. He then helped the woman back onto the cart and arrived home with her without further difficulties. When he stopped in his yard, he noticed that the woman was gone.

At first the miller had no further problems from these events. He sat down at table with his family. Suddenly he heard the door open, and the woman dressed in white stepped into the room. She took a wooden ladle from under her apron and with it hit on the head the one whose name the miller had forgotten to mention. This victim suddenly began to complain of a headache, the first sign of the plague.

The miller then realized what a disaster he had caused by bringing the white-clad woman into the village. The plague was now in the village and almost all of the inhabitants died soon thereafter.

Branitz.


2

Once the plague moved into a city, and many people died. No remedy against the disease could be found.

One day a girl heard a bird calling out "Valerian, valerian."

She told this to other people. Thus it was decided to look for the plant. After finding it, they boiled the plant. They gave the resulting brew to the sick people. Everyone who drank it was cured.

Leuthen [Lutynia].


3

In Geierswalde in olden days a trench ran beneath a certain house. One could easily get into the trench. One day someone saw a ball in it. No one knew where it came from. On the day when the ball was noticed all the cattle in the village were attacked by an epidemic. Suspicions turned to the ball. To keep the cattle from dying the peasants rolled a large stone onto it. The epidemic died out immediately.

Sometime later the house burned down. The trench caved in, but the stone and ball remained in place.

A serious epidemic never again broke out in the village, but the after-effects of the ball still can be felt: Peasants who spread manure on a Saturday find that their cattle are struck with a disease. Because of this no one in the village dares to do such work on a Saturday.

Geierswalde.


4

A peasant was driving home. His wagon was completely filled with people. On the way a woman standing at the side of the road asked for a ride. The peasant consented and made a place for her beside himself. However, he soon realized that something was not right with the woman. He asked her at least to do him no harm, and she promised to follow his wish. Then from beneath her clothes the woman pulled out a small wooden spoon and touched everyone on the wagon with it, one after the other. Everyone whom she touched with the spoon died.

Ströbitz,


5

Once upon a time there were a king and queen who had no children. One day when they were walking in the forest they sat down together on a large black stone.

The king said to his wife: "I would be happy if we had a child, whatever it was like."

Then a voice rang out from the stone: "A year from now you shall have a child."

The year passed, and the queen gave birth to a daughter as black as ebony. The princess died when she was twelve years old. Her body was carried in an open black coffin into the church and placed before the altar. A soldier stood guard in front of it.

The next morning the princess was in the coffin, but the soldier had disappeared. A soldier had to stand watch the next night as well, but the following morning he too had disappeared. Thus it continued for an entire year. All the guards mysteriously disappeared, but the princess in the coffin remained unchanged. Finally a soldier had to stand guard again. This soldier had said goodbye to his family because he believed that the next morning he too would be gone. Standing alone by the coffin in church, all kinds of thoughts occurred to him. He thought about crawling under the coffin, and that is what he did -- right at the head of the coffin. The clock struck twelve, and the princess sat up, smacking her lips like a pig.

She quickly jumped out of the coffin and wanted to eat the guard, but seeing no one, she said: "Didn't my father send me a sacrifice today?"

Then she began to search. She finally found the soldier. Seeing him beneath the head of the coffin, she said: "You have redeemed me. I don't attack what is behind me. Do you know who I am? I am the plague."

She uttered a great curse on the people, and then she disappeared. The next morning the soldier related everything he had experienced during the night.

Vetschau.


6

At the end of the last century [1700s], the Missen peasants found in their field a sinister-looking, very old man. The old man said he was very weak because he had been underway a long time. He asked to be lifted onto a wagon or otherwise be carried into the village. But the peasants mercilessly left him lying there in the field.

Another peasant came driving by with a load of firewood.

The old man asked again: "Take me with you."

This peasant took pity. He pushed the wood aside and helped the man onto the wagon. Arriving at home, the peasant made a bed for the old man and laid him on it.

Then the old man said: "Out of gratitude that you brought me here, I want to save you from death. I am the forerunner of the plague. If you want to preserve your life and that of your family, leave Missen at once. Move into the open field near the river. Don't return to the village until a white goose approaches you swimming on the river."

A short time later a deadly plague broke out in Missen. The peasant gathered up his things, and he and his family moved into the open field with their cattle and everything that they could carry away. The peasant must have spent many months there, when suddenly the water rose greatly in the river. The next day a white goose approached them, swimming on the river. Then the peasant moved back to Missen with his family.

Meanwhile, three quarters of the Missen residents had died.

The place where the peasant lived in the field is called "the shack" still today.

Missen.





The Burning of the Jews in Strasbourg

Germany / France

According to the well-known legend, it was the Jews who caused the black death by poisoning and infecting the wells, thus bringing the plague to Christendom. It was said that relatively fewer Jews died from the plague. Everywhere they were persecuted, arrested, tortured, and burned to death by the thousand.

Although the black death did not come to Strasbourg until the summer of 1349, already one year earlier the city council was pressured from various sides to attack the Jews living in the city with fire and sword. Enemies of the Jews felt that these attacks were too lenient. The community's uproar brought about a change in the city government. Under the administration of the new council, on February 14, Saint Valentine's Day, 1349, two thousand Jews were burned to death in their own cemetery near the northern boundary of the city.

The plague broke out in Strasbourg on Saint John's day [June 24] of the same year.

The street in which the Jews were burned to death is still today [1852] named Brandgasse [Fire-Alley].




Persecution of the Jews During the Plague

Germany

In the fourteenth century the legend spread throughout all of Europe that the Jews had caused the black death by poisoning wells and waterways. It was claimed that this criminal activity was directed from Toledo through messengers and letters from secret leaders. It was claimed that letters had been discovered in such places as Ulm that were written at the time time of Christ's crucifixion by Jews in Jerusalem to their fellow Jews. The contents of these letters enflamed the vengeful mobs. The horrific consequences of this delusion are too well known to be recounted here.

In Strasbourg 900 Jews were burned to death (of the 1884 who lived there). In Mainz the numerous Jews who lived in the city voluntarily met their deaths when their houses were set afire. Similarly, large numbers of Jews were burned to death in Augsburg, Ulm, Konstanz, Hall, Munich, Salzburg, Erfurt, and Eisenach.




The Tall Man in the Murder Lane in Hof

Germany

From Enoch Widmann's Chronicle of Hof:

In 1519, just before the plague killed so many people in Hof a large, tall black man was seen in Murder Lane. His wide-spread legs reached both sides of the street, and his head rose far above the housetops.

My great-grandmother, Walburg Widmann, herself, saw how he walked along this street one evening with one foot at the tavern's entrance and the other foot across the street in front of the large house there. She was so frightened that she did know which way to go. In God's name and making the sign of the cross, she advanced in the middle of the street and passed between his legs. Had she not dared to do this the ghost would have followed her. She had barely escaped when the ghost clapped his legs together so hard that all the houses in Murder Lane nearly collapsed.

Soon afterward the plague befell the city, and it was first felt in Murder Lane.




The Last Plague Death in Motzlar

Germany

When the Festival of Saint Mary of the Snows was first celebrated in Schleid nearly everyone from Motzlar went there to participate.

Only a single peasant from the village remained behind, saying mockingly, "I'll not go to the Snow-Festival," then went to his field to plow.

But things did not go well for him. When the others returned from the festival they heard him moaning and crying, "If I only had gone to the festival with you!"

Afterward when his people entered his house they found him lying dead on the floor, black over his entire body. He was the last person in Motzlar to die from the plague.




Mother Gauerken Brings the Plague

Germany

Once the plague broke out in Rankendorf and Grevenstein near Dassow. This is how it happened:

One evening at the Grevenstein mill a journeyman and an apprentice were busy grinding flour to be taken to Pohnsdorf the next day. After dark the apprentice stuck his head out the door and heard the howling of dogs.

"Listen," he called to the journeyman. "Mother Gauerken is coming with her dogs."

The journeyman ran to the door and saw a raven-black cloud slowly descending over Pohnsdorf, and from the cloud he heard the cry: "Oh, Pohnsdorf, it's coming to you."

The journeyman thought that because the people of Pohnsdorf had him grind their grain he did not want any evil to befall them.

Therefore he called out to the cloud: "Hey! Just make your way toward Rankendorf and Grevenstein."

Then the cloud burst apart, one part descending on Rankendorf and the other on Grevenstein. The next day the plague broke out in both places.

The apprentice told everyone what had happened. The journeyman was captured and was to be burned at the stake. However, Mother Gauerken took pity on him, and the plague suddenly ceased. For joy they spared the journeyman's life.




Plague-Flies

Germany

Flies are often carriers of the plague, and these are therefore called plague-flies. A plague that terribly ravaged the Oberpfalz [Upper Palatinate] was carried there by a journeyman tradesman who brought a plague-fly with him because of its glistening gold color. He did not know that it had been on a person sick with the plague.

Near Windisch-Eschenbach a herder boy saw that a wooden chock had been driven into a boundary stone. Courious, he pulled it out, and out came a fly, followed by smoke. From this the plague came into the country. Sometime later the this herder boy noticed that the same fly came back to the boundary stone and flew inside. The boy quickly drove a wedge into the opening, and the plague ceased.

The plague is often captured in this manner. On another occasion, when the plague was in Bärnau, someone saw how a plague-fly crawled into a hole in the ceiling beam. He quickly drove a chock in behind her, and from that time onward the plague did not return to Bärnau.

In Roding someone sick with the plague caught a fly, and just to pass the time he wedged it inside a worm-hole in the wooden wall. He recovered from his sickness. Long afterward he wondered what had become of the captured fly. He had scarcely pulled out the chock when the plague struck him again, and for a second time death overtook the town.




The Unfortunate Wedding at Grimma

Germany

On the 16th of October in the year 1637 a respected and educated man from Grimma gave his daughter in marriage to the rector of the Grimma school. A number of students from Leipzig were present at the wedding. One of them made up a very indecent wedding-poem and presented it to the guests. In this poem he included a disgraceful parody of the Christian burial hymn "Now Let Us Bury the Corpse," which he sang with the words:

Nun lasset uns die Braut begraben,
Und gar keine Zweifel haben,
Daß Morgen sie wird auferstehen,
Und auf zwei Weiberfüssen gehn.
Now let us bury the bride,
And we have no doubt at all,
Tomorrow she shall rise again,
But no longer as a maid.

What happened next? They laughed about the burial hymn, but on the third day after the wedding the bride died from the plague. A few days later the bridegroom died as well, as well as two of the bride's brothers, who were students. They went, as it states in the chronical: a thalamo ad tumulum, a luxu ad luctum [from the bridal chamber to the grave, from celebration to sorrow].




Cholera

Germany

Even today there are many people in Pomerania who believe that cholera was intentionally brought into the country in 1831. It is said that a Frenchman did this in order to depopulate the country, and thus make it easier to capture once again. To achieve this the French attempted to sneak into the country in many ways und with many disguises.

The following account about Stettin is told even today:

One day a man carrying a large chest on his back entered the city through the Berlin Gate. He looked about fearfully in all directions and attempted to pass by the sentinels without being seen. However, he was noticed and taken to the guard-house. They demanded that he open the chest. At first he refused, but finally he had to obey their commands.

In the large chest they found a smaller one, and in this one a still smaller one. Thus it continued for a time, until at last they opened the smallest one. Here they found a tiny, tiny human. He was the Frenchman who wanted to bring cholera into the city.




The Wedged-In Plague Smoke

Switzerland

A devastating plague laid waste to the village of Weggen, one hour distant from Luzern. One day the inhabitants of an old wooden house on the lake shore saw a small blue wisp of smoke. It hovered about and then floated into a crack in the wall.

"That is the plague," said someone who saw it, then went and drove a wedge into the opening.

From that hour onward the pestilence ceased in the village.

Many years later a member of the family enlisted in foreign military duty. When the soldier returned home again his eye fell on the one spot on the wall, and he remembered its history.

"Let's see," he said jokingly, "if the little wisp of smoke is still there."

Although someone begged him not to do so, he quickly pulled out the plug, and the blue smoke jetted out.

The plague, liberated again, struck down the brash soldier as its first victim. Soon afterward everyone in the house died, and many others in the village perished as well.




The Plague Column in Auer

Italy

In the village of Auer there is a monument, the so-called plague column, which they had built in thanks for their liberation from the Black Death. Mysterious things often happen here, especially in the nights of the Ember Days. Large, dark masses roll moaning and groaning across the street or follow after the passers-by. Furthermore, other sinister beings are often seen next to the plague column. Once a headless giant attacked someone there.




Astrological Portents

Italy / Spain / France

The year 1345 was considered by the astrologers as one full of evil portents. In it many conjunctions took place; notably one on the 8th of February, when Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, and Mercury were all standing in the same sign. Villani, in his Florentine Chronicle , testifies to the profound impression which these astrological conjunctions produced, and how much they were believed to have caused all the troubles which then visited Italy.

The medical faculty of Paris declared these conjunctions to be one of the causes of the plague (the Black Death), and they repeat in their report almost the very words of the Toledo letter, without mentioning it by name.



Amabie: The Ancient Beast Helping Japan Ward Off the Coronavirus

Japan

In Italy, they sing from balconies. In the UK, they place pictures of rainbows in windows. In India, they chant "Go corona." Around the world, solidarity in the face of the coronavirus is taking many forms. In Japan, that form has three legs, a beak, scaly skin and floor-length hair. Meet Amabie, the 19th century half-fish, half-human that's resurfaced to keep people safe.

The mermaid-like creature began appearing on social media in Japan in early March and was soon being tagged in upwards of 30,000 posts a day. Manga artists rendered the creature in their own styles, sharing images alongside messages wishing for an end to the virus.

Amabie then got official recognition when Japan's health ministry made it the face of its public safety campaign. After that, it started appearing on cookies, face masks, candy, bread rolls, the obligatory Starbucks logo pastiche, and even statues in parks.

According to a woodblock-printed news sheet dated April 1846, the creature made its first and only appearance in the sea off Higo Province, now Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu. As the story goes, a government official went down to the beach to investigate reports of something shining in the water.

When the official arrived, a mermaid-like creature emerged, introduced itself as "Amabie who lives in the sea," and issued two predictions. "For the next six years, there will be a bountiful harvest across Japan, but there will also be an epidemic." Amabie then told the official, "Quickly draw a picture of me and show it to people," and disappeared back into the sea.

Nagano Eishun, librarian of the Fukui Prefectural Archives and an expert on ancient spirits, says Amabie is one of more than a dozen prophecy beasts reported during the Edo period, and it probably derives from an ape-like creature with a similar name.

In 1843, three years before Amabie first appeared, there were reports of a three-legged simian in the same province. The furry beast went by the name Amabiko and its origin story was strikingly similar. A woodblock printed news sheet from the era said a man went down to the sea to investigate reports of glowing lights. Amabiko introduced itself, predicted a rich harvest and an epidemic, then claimed that people would survive and live long, healthy lives if they saw the creature's image.

"The two have so much in common, it's natural to think that Amabiko was Amabie's former self," says Nagano. And he says the monkey was far more famous than the mer-creature in the 19th century. During times of plagues, such as cholera and dysentery, people used a picture of Amabiko as a good luck charm.

Nagano says the creature probably changed form as its story spread across the country through drawings and people took liberties with their interpretations. He adds that commercial interests may have driven both the creativity and the creature's insistence that it had to be seen.

"The woodblock printed news sheet, called kawaraban, was basically a single sheet of paper with a piece of illustrated news or gossip," he says. "The producers always wanted an interesting story to catch people's attention, so they got inventive, like perhaps letting a spirit warn people they'd get sick unless everyone had a copy of that image."

After many decades out of the spotlight, Amabie is finally getting the attention it craves with some help from social media.

It seems human nature hasn't changed much since the 19th century, and the image of this strange creature is still able to provide some kind of solace. But Nagano says there's a fundamental difference between then and now.

"Back in the 19th century, those images were only supposed to save the person who bought the news sheet. But now people are spreading the images to protect everyone. I would say that shows we've made big progress."




Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised March 11, 2021.