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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:4, Winter 2021

Epistles: A Tale of Two Plague Gods

By Jon Beltz

Biblical Archaeology Review

Over the course of human history, plagues and epidemics have been a horrific part of life. The past two years have shown us clearly that such afflictions are not going away any time soon. We have fought back against the COVID-19 pandemic with medical science, especially with the recent vaccination efforts, to combat it on the physiological level. And we have also struggled with ways of conceptualizing and explaining the pandemic in religious and symbolic terms to deal with the emotional, social, and spiritual tolls it has taken.

The various cultures of the ancient Near East fought against outbreaks of fatal disease with their own systems of medicine. In the cases of Egypt and Mesopotamia, we have textual evidence of these traditions: diagnostic texts, collections of recipes for treatment, and lists of medical ingredients. But ancient peoples also had ways of conceptualizing disease and plague on a symbolic level within their religious systems. This often took the form of anthropomorphized personifications of epidemics as spiritual beings and of viewing certain gods or demons as the causes of outbreaks of disease.

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