ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Since antiquity, Man has interpreted diseases and epidemics as being the work of powerful plague gods and demons. With pestilence still a major social concern in the modern century, could these ancient dark beings still be at work?
Widely known worldwide as the ancient Greek god of the sun, music, prophecy, and the arts, it is often forgotten that Apollo was also one of the most feared plague gods in the classical world.
As author Rick Riordan repeatedly highlights in his The Trials of Apollo series, the handsome Olympian could effortlessly dispense diseases with his divine arrows. This being what the Greeks were punished with during the Trojan War when they captured the daughter of an Apolloian priest.
Some anthropologists have also liken Apollo to the Vedic deity Rudra, who was similarly able to induce sickness with his arrows, as well as purge illnesses. If you find such beliefs confusing, remember that ancient mankind often regard sicknesses as divine punishments. Correspondingly, it was believed that the plague god that inflicted sickness on you, should be the one to immediately pray to for recovery.
Also known as the “Jeweled Fowl” or the “Jade Turkey,” Chalchiuhtotolin was an Aztec god of diseases and plague, as well as a symbol of sorcery. Feared as a bringer of illness, he was associated with other destructive Aztec gods such as Tezcatlipoca. In Aztec art, he was also frequently depicted with black/white eyes i.e. a symbol of evil.
Like several other plague gods and demons on this list, Chalchiuhtotolin was also prayed to for good health, this again because of the belief that a plague god can both kill and heal. Of note, Chalchiuhtotolin’s nahual, or animal shape, is that of a turkey and he is described as particularly fearsome when in this form. Historically, the Aztec population was also decimated by disease outbreaks following the Spanish colonization of Aztec lands. Metaphorically, Chalchiuhtotolin’s dreaded wings forever left a dark mark on Aztec history.
An ancient Mesopotamia deity, Nergal was an underworld god associated with death, war, and pestilence. Often depicted as a lion in ancient Mesopotamian art, Nergal was eventually demonized by Christian writers and occultists, following which he became a spy of the demon Beelzebub. In the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games, Nergal is shown as a barbaric demonic being, with a myriad of twisted faces on his exposed chest.
As for how Nergal came to be associated with plagues, some anthropologists believe this to be the result of syncretism with Erra, a Babylonian plague god. Other researchers highlight that the two deities were mentioned within the same ancient Sumerian poem, and suggest that the two names refer to the same dark god.
Regardless of who is who, Nergal was one of the most powerful and feared plague gods in Mesopotamian faiths. At his fingers were various destructive powers, foremost of which being war and diseases. Worse, he didn’t hesitate to use these powers. In one myth, Nergal inflicted war on Babylon simply because he was bored.
Thanks to The Exorcist, Pazuzu is today one of the most notorious names in pop culture, “fondly” remembered as the malicious and very vulgar entity that possessed young Regan Macneil.
In his original form, though, Pazuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian demonic king who represented famine, as well as the southwest wind that brought locusts during rainy reasons. Depicted as a winged being with beastly and obscene features, Pazuzu was deeply feared but also frequently invoked for protection against other evil spirits, plagues, and disasters. Such veneration was not because Pazuzu could heal, but because of his aggressive and deadly nature. In other words, it was believed that the deadly plague demon could frighten away other wicked beings. He is no friend of humanity, but he doesn’t tolerate compatriots too.
Resheph was an ancient Egyptian god of plague and war. Previously an Ugaritic deity and associated with Nergal (see above), Resheph is believed to have been “introduced” to the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom era of the Egyptian Empire. Following which he was also associated with other dreaded Egyptian gods such as Seth.
Within Hebrew traditions, Resheph was also a personal name, as well as previously misinterpreted as representing pestilence and burning coals. More recently, author Larissa Ione named the apocalyptic horseman of pestilence (see below) as Resheph in her Lords of Deliverance book series. In the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins, Resheph was also the name of a fearsome war elephant.
A Sami demon of illness and death, Ruohtta rode throughout Sami lands on a horse, spreading epidemics and death wherever he went. He was also the ruler of Rotaimo, the land of the dead, and in Sami beliefs, it is said that those who did not live their lives according to the natural order would be reborn in Rotaimo. There, they would receive a new body but would also be confined within the dark land forever.
To protect themselves from the dreaded plague demon, the Sami would either pray to the sky deity Radien or sacrifice a horse, the latter act believed to be capable of transferring one’s illness to the dead horse. Lastly, the belief of Ruohtta spreading illness from horseback could be a metaphorical reference to the Norsemen. The relationship between the two tribes is hotly debated, but they could have been bitter rivals at some point in history.
7. Sugawara no Michizane
Strictly speaking, it is inaccurate, and unfair, to regard Shinto divinity Sugawara no Michizane as a god of illness. Ask any Japanese and the person would likely tell you that Sugawara is instead, the Shinto god of scholarly pursuits, revered throughout Japan in numerous Tenjin shrines.
Plagues were, however, what led to Sugawara no Michizane being widely worshiped. Originally a Heian Era scholar and officer, Sugawara was the victim of court politics and ultimately died in exile in AD 903. Following his death, Japan was besieged by epidemics and disasters. Even the Imperial Palace in Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) was repeatedly damaged by lightning.
Believing these catastrophes to be vengeance enacted by the furious spirit of the scholar, the Japanese imperial court then restored Sugawara’s titles on top of constructing a shrine to appease him. Decades later, Sugawara was even deified as the Shinto god of learning. Today, the most famous Shinto shrine associated with him is Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka Prefecture. Of note, modern Japanese worshippers today to Sugawara no Michizane for scholastic success. Very few do so for health or immunity from illnesses.
8. Tian Hua Niang Niang
In Chinese, Tian Hua Niang Niang means “the maiden of heavenly flowers,” and refers to the deified form of all pox diseases; particularly smallpox.
One of the deadliest diseases in Chinese history, smallpox was responsible for the death of innumerable Chinese throughout history; responsible too for the abrupt passing of Emperors Shunzhi and Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty. Chinese folkloric beliefs thus stipulate that all, especially children, should worship Tian Hua Niang Niang when afflicted with pox diseases. Today, altars to the heavenly maiden continue to exist in various Chinese temples. For example, within the Mazu Temple of Tianjin city.
9. White Rider
The first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the White Rider is strictly speaking, neither a plague god nor demon. It is highly debatable too whether he is evil or merely a representation of the Christian God’s judgement. Regardless, many Christians worldwide regard the horseman as the personification of pestilence. To many, the White Rider’s arrival on Earth will be one of the signs of the arrival of Judgement Day.
To some Christian theologians, the White Rider conversely represents successful evangelization. For example, second century Greek Bishop Irenaeus viewed the horseman as none other than Christ himself, with the white wings of the horseman symbolizing the widespread acceptance of the Gospel.
Vice versa, some modern and pre-modern Christian leaders regard the White Rider as the fiendish Antichrist. For most modern folks, though, Christian and Non-Christian alike, the White Rider is a dreaded symbol of the End of Times. He brings with him a catastrophe from which few can recover from. A disaster in which many will perish too.
© 2020 Scribbling Geek
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on April 20, 2020:
Thank you very much for your encouraging comment!
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on April 19, 2020:
Skillfully done with even-handed descriptions lacking any judgmental quality in depicting these beings. Just the facts. Informative work. Thanks.
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on April 08, 2020:
Thanks for commenting, manatita44. Many mythological beings are credited with dual natures, which I suppose is Man's effort at understanding natural forces beyond his control.
Even vulgar Pazuzu could be said to have a "good" side. Some analysts consider his role in the Exorcist as that of reflecting the goodness of God. Or, to justify/proof the existence of God.
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on April 08, 2020:
Thanks for reading, Umesh!
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on April 08, 2020:
Good compilation. They are the evil distruction makers.
manatita44 from london on April 08, 2020:
An interesting study. I so happy that in some or most of them, you show that they had the capacity for Light as well as darkness. Great!