Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Japanese Smallpox Epidemic of 735-737

Are you afraid of dogs?

Are you afraid of the color red?

Have you ever been soothed by a lion dance?

Have you considered that you might be a smallpox virus?

Smallpox demon shrine, before which the demon appears and says, “pull my finger.”

Today’s plague gives us a moment to consider one of humankind’s theories that hasn’t aged well. In the 1100s in Europe, people, I guess, saw that smallpox gave you red spots, and thought, red hates red! Fight fire with fire?

In their defense, placebo effects are real. Doing something can be better than do nothing, and if you like the color red, even more’s your happiness.

They wrapped Queen Elizabeth I in red blankets when she got smallpox.

I mean, when I take a pill to smooth out my brain freakouts, it’s pretty crazy, too. I don’t have any real reason to think swallowing a little bit will make me happier. It does, though.

Minamoto no Tametomo, thinking, not today Satan, defeats a smallpox devil in the guise of a drunk frat boy, from Yoshitoshi‘s 36 drawings of Yokai

It took until the 1930s for humans to concede that red fabric and red lights were maybe not effective. Which isn’t to mock the idea. Light really does fix some problems.

Women dancing to ask smallpox to leave, reminding me of the “Thriller” dance, and isn’t “Thriller” basically a dance to mock and drive away demons?

In two villages in Japan, Rokugami and Shimo, women danced a special dance to be friendly to the smallpox demon. If the demon felt welcome, he might also be receptive to being asked to leave. That’s some classic passive aggression. The women wear a purple wrap and white sandals. The drummer wears a red sash. The woman in front carries a big coin on her shoulder and has “Amaterasu Kodaijingu Shrine” written on her left hand. (I must reveal to you that this last paragraph came from a google translate of a page in Japanese, so buyer beware.)

More recent image of women dancing smallpox away. Here it looks more like the macarena. But seriously: it’s a UNESCO approved cultural thing to do.

Figures of owls, fish, and cows might also help you with a smallpox problem.

Or, hey, throw a party to scare smallpox away. No, don’t do that. That’s the worst of their ideas.

The people of Japan blamed the Koreans for their first experience of smallpox. Those two have a very dysfunctional relationship.

But you could understand them wanting someone to blame when between 30 and 60% of their people died. Their agriculture fell apart, their government and army fell apart. It was a bad, bad scene.

Some people in Japan thought the smallpox demon was evil, and should be fought. Others thought he could be bribed and flattered. Others thought that demon was actually a protector AGAINST smallpox. Humans react differently to fear and suffering. They imagine different responses from spiritual forces.

This illustration from about 1720 is from a Japanese book on small pox called Toshin seivo, written by Kanda Gensen. Many people in history were embarrassed about their smallpox scars, including Josef Stalin. What if he had gotten a smallpox vaccine? Oy.

By the year 1000, the Japanese people had built up enough immunity that smallpox only infected and killed children. That sounds grim, but it’s definitely less grim than it was. Smallpox vaccines were still 700 years in the future.

Here’s my favorite story about a smallpox god, or “hosogami”:

An eyewitness account of a hōsōgami was reported in Nisshin shinjishi, a Meiji Period newspaper. A rickshaw driver in Honjo, Tōkyō reported that he gave a ride to a young girl about 14 or 15 years old. She asked him to drive her from Midorichō to Asakusa. Midway through the ride it began to grow dark, so the rickshaw driver pulled over to light a lantern. However, when he stopped, he noticed that the girl had vanished from the back of his rickshaw. In her place, there was a rice barrel lid with a red staff mounted to it. He recognized the barrel lid with the red staff as a symbol of a hōsōgami. The young girl he had given a ride to must have been a hōsōgami using the rickshaw system to find her next victim!

So next time you pick up a young female hitchhiker, consider if you may have picked up a smallpox demon, and check on her once it gets dark.

…Thank you to this great source. I accidentally went to write without my big book o’ plagues, so I relied more on the internet today.


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