Coronavirus – and panic in history

There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.

That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.

In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.

The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.

Which made me think about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?

PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11

Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.

There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift.

Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.

PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl

Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour.

A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!

I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.

Chernobyl unsettled all of us back in 1986

If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.

On the disease side of things, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.

PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS

There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s.

It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.

I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.

FIND OUT MORE: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

PANIC IN HISTORY: Terrorism

On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame.

While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.

Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham.

That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.

DISCOVER: Movies that promote conspiracy theories

PANIC IN HISTORY: Threat of nuclear war

Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up.

Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.

In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.

The History of Exorcism!

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Got a demon? Have an exorcism!

Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.

Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.

There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels

Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven.  They rebelled against God and were cast out.  They became ugly and hideous. 

But they did not lose their power.  Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell.  And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body

It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening.  That might be your open mouth for example.  Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud.  She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.

People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf. 

Bad case of food poisoning?  Maybe.  Very probably.  But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?

So how to get rid of a demon?  How to treat a ‘demoniac’?  Well, an exorcism of course. 

In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism.  Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed.  She could not cross herself.  She behaved strangely.  Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking. 

So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.

As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense.  A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession! 

The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth!  And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet.  And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her.  After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.

READ MORE: The strange disappearance of the bodies of medieval kings

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons

Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells.  A crime punishable by death.  Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer. 

She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness.  For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.

The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave. 

This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up!  The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.

Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her.  So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.

DISCOVER: The weird belief in lizard people

HISTORY OF EXORCISM: A fairy can also be a demon

Aaaah…but fairies you say.  They’re nice spirits aren’t they?  Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages.  The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney.  To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.

Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs.  They were only invisible when they wanted to be. 

Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head. 

Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.

Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members

If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place.  A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling. 

A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child.  They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.

So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then? 

Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.

Unfortunately, babies did die.  And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.

So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!