Although most of us may feel a bit sorry for ourselves in 2020, having to deal with lockdowns and other strict measures to combat the coronavirus, we are are truly not alone in this experience. Millions of people who lived before us dealt with plagues which killed vast swaths of the population and instilled fear and dread in all those who were left tp pick up the pieces of society.
A Greek inhabitant of the Roman city of Londinium in the late 160s, named Demetrios, lived through the Antonine plague — or at least part of the plague — which he tried to ward off by wearing a scroll with a Greek prayer in the form of rhyming hexameters.
This was the same style of writing used in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Incredibly, his amulet, containing the inscribed lead sheet rolled up inside it, was discovered 2,000 years later on the banks of the Thames. Now safely ensconced in a place of honor in the Museum of London, which houses many such treasures found in the city, it tells a story of desperation with which we can easily identify today.
This written plea for protection from the “raging” plague, which he said caused “flesh-wasting, melting, infiltrating pain,” was addressed to the Greek deities Iao, Sabbath and Abrasax.
In the heart-rending text, the Greek man begs the deities to “watch over Demetrios.”
The plague of those days, which may have actually been a virus, lasted for approximately one decade, from the 160s to the 170s. Sadly, it most likely will never be known exactly how Demetrios’ amulet found its way to the banks of the Thames.
Did he throw it there in disgust after he himself became ill? Or did he survive, and somehow his body, still wearing the amulet, came to rest there?
Historians estimate that the Antonine plague killed as many as five million individuals across the Roman Empire of that day, an astounding amount of the population in those early days of the second millennium AD.
“Send away the discordant clatter of raging plague”
The prayer, which is still visible today, nearly 2,000 years after it was inscribed, reads “Send away the discordant clatter of raging plague, air-borne … infiltrating pain, heavy-spiriting, flesh-wasting, melting, from the hollows of the veins. Great Iao, great Sabaoth, protect the bearer. Phoebus of the unshorn hair, archer, drive away the cloud of plague. Iao, God Abrasax, bring help … Lord God, watch over Demetrios.”
Translated by Dr. Roger Tomlin, the prayer may have originally been scratched into the surface of the pliable lead sheet by Demetrios himself or by a scribe or even a charm seller of the time. Historians believe it is unlikely that he had brought it all the way from Greece.
The sheet is an alloy of 55% lead and 45% tin, both easily pliable, soft metals. Both metals occur in great abundance in Britain but not in Greece — leading experts to believe that the object was made in London and that Demetrios was a member of a Greek-speaking community in the great city.
The text was moreover not representative of the Greek spoken in those times but a holdover from a previous time, an archaic style that survived in the form of religious rituals. Addressed to the Greek god “Phoebus Apollo,” or Bright Apollo, the text describes the god as “akersikomes,” (“with uncut hair”).
It was widely believed by both Greeks and Romans that Apollo could save believers from dangers of all kinds, but in those plague years, Demetrios felt the need to call on other deities for added measure, asking Iao, Sabaoth and Abrasax for additional help.
Pleas to the God of the Hebrews – and figures from Gnosticism
Sabaoth is not of Greek origin but Hebrew, with the term meaning “host’ or “host of heaven.” “Abrasax” is a fascinating term in and of itself. In Greek, ΑΒΡΑΞΑΣ is a variant form of Abrasax, (ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ) which is a word which has a mystical meaning in the Gnostic Basilides, for the “Great Archon,” or Lord.
It comes to us from ancient Egypt originally. Abraxas was associated with the early beginnings of Gnosticism which would later influence many of the first Gnostics who had gone on to form thought in the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism and Christianity.
The word Abraxas is found in Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, and also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri.
The famous Abraxas Talismans or Gems, found in many archaeological sites, normally show a man’s body with the head of a cock, one arm with a shield, and the other with a whip. The image was engraved on many gemstones from that time so long ago, and they were used as amulets or charms during the second and third centuries.
As the initial spelling on stones was “Abrasax” (Αβρασαξ), the spelling of “Abraxas” seen today probably originates in confusion between the Greek letters sigma (Σ) and xi (Ξ) in the Latin transliteration.
The seven letters spelling its name may represent each of the seven classic planets. The word may also be related to Abracadabra, although other explanations also exist.
Magic formulas from the Black Sea
The prayer’s wording itself gives historians clues as to when it was composed. The line “Phoebus of the unshorn hair, archer, drive away the cloud of plague” greatly resembles a “magic formula” devised by a holy man named Alexander, who was known to have lived on the Black Sea coast in the late 160s AD.
He is recorded to have claimed that if his followers painted his magic words on their houses, they would be protected from whichever illness was plaguing mankind in those days.
The Antonine Plague, a pandemic that began in the late 160s was one of the most damaging pandemics in recorded history. The statesman and historian Dio Cassius, who lived through it, stated that it claimed “many lives.”
The pandemic is thought to have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and spread rapidly to Rome and further west. Demetrios’ plaintive amulet is an important piece of evidence showing that it even reached the shores of Britain.
Despite being described by the eminent Greek doctor Galen, it is still unknown precisely what the plague represented — modern scholars have for the most part ruled out a bacterial infection, such as bubonic plague, and believe that it was caused by a virus, such as smallpox or measles.
Perhaps one day we will be able to analyze the DNA of the sufferers from the Antonine Plague and know exactly what it was they suffered from. Until then, we have only to feel sympathy for Demetrios, who was doing the best he could to save himself from the scourge that rampaged through his world, much like the coronavirus does today.