Am reading The Tell El Amarna Period by Carl Niebuhr and came across the following passage on one of the letters in the collection received from “a prince of Alashia” which he supposes to “probably lay on the Cilician coast” but as the link above notes is likely on Cyprus. At any rate, Niebuhr describes the following as the first instance of a description of plague:
Behold! my brother, I have sent thee five hundred talents of copper as a gift. Let it not grieve my brother’s heart that it is too little. For in my land the hand of Nergal (the god of pestilence) has slain all the workers, copper cannot be produced. And, my brother, take it not to heart that thy messenger strayed three years in my land. For the land of Nergal is in it, and in my house my young wife died.
Plague or pestilence or whatever infectious diseases there were had no obvious cause since the organisms cannot be seen with the naked eye. Hence, they were generally associated with some god or other — Nergal here, Apollo in Greek mythology, and often Sekhmet in Egypt — or in some cases ascribed to an “ill wind”. Some of these may have been seasonal and so the wind analogy might make some sense if particular winds arise during the season when plague usually shows up.
You know, as I was reading this book, the impact of writing really struck me for the first time. We’re so used to the written word being around these days that it’s difficult to imagine a time when there was no writing: every kind of communication took place person-to-person, either directly or through some kind of messenger. Either way, communications were still delivered by voice from one person to another. Imagine what it may have been like to know only that form of communication and then be presented with an object that, in a sense, records what one person has said, and another person, perhaps far removed in both time and space, can read it — or “hear” the other person saying it in his head. And you can read it again and again, it’s not entirely transactional (Dunnell used to call this “time transgressive). I’ve always understood this from an intellectual perspective, but it never really struck me how incredibly novel this would have been: You could then “talk” to someone tens or hundreds of miles away without another person as an intermediary.
It’s even kind of amazing that we can also “listen in” to these conversations thousands of years later; we know (pretty much) what these long-dead people were saying to one another.