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πλάνης vagabond fever

A Plague, a Cure and Some Art: the Museum of Medical Sciences

A wandering star, a stranger in town, and a highly contagious plague are inextricably related in the minds of the ancients. In the western tradition, Greece and Rome, the universe was moral. Lives were defined, prescribed and ordered by the gods, the law, the state, and the family. Things outside of this bounded universe were treated with suspicion, a very human instinct.

Stars that moved in unrecognized patterns, and foreigners who wandered into town were unknown and from away and engendered caution and fear. They were named for their outsider status. Plagues were foreign too, they invaded the sanctity of the community and killed its members, and were named with the same words as the stars and drifters.

 The Stoics, believers in an interdependent cosmos, looked to the night sky to augur our predestined lives. Of particular interest to all these ancients was the stella erratica, or “errant star,” so called for its shifting location. (Our familiar constellations, by contrast, remain fixed in the firmament.) Romans borrowed a word from the Greeks to denote these celestial strays: planeta, or “planet.”

Derived from the verb “to wander,” the original Greek noun πλάνης was applied to more than just Mars and Saturn—in Euripides’s Bacchae, to take just one example, it refers to a “vagabond” who comes to town. Among the physicians of the ancient world, including Hippocrates himself, πλάνης could also mean “fever,” a pestilence that migrates from person to person. The Romans, of course, had their own words for disease—morbuspestis—but they adopted this astronomical language in their own medical writings too, using the Latin cognate. In one account, planeta refers to a fever with an “unrestrained onset.” In another, planetae are those illnesses that obey neither finite duration nor predictable prognosis.

Gore Viral, How We Got Our Language of Infectious Disease, By Charles McNamara, May 6, 2020


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