Miasma and oracles: How ancient Greeks understood plagues

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TWH – In antiquity, the Pagan Greeks dealt with plagues. The Wild Hunt spoke about the Greeks and plagues with Gwendolyn Reece, an eclectic Wiccan, and 3rd Degree High Priestess of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel.

Reece works primarily with the Theoi, the Hellenic gods, and considers herself a priestess of Apollo(n) and Athena. Reece explained that the familiar name, Apollo, is Latin, but to the Greeks, he is Apollon. In respect of the Greek tradition, this article will refer to the god as Apollon. Apollon has a special relationship with plagues.

Reece serves Apollon as priestess. She also serves him in oracular ritual as a μάντις or “mantis” as it translates in English In an oracular ritual of possession, a mantis “channels” a god or ancestor.

Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy]

The Apollo known in modern culture differs from Apollon in Pagan Greek culture. Apollon has a great deal more complexity than the Apollo of the modern world does. Unlike many other Greek Gods, the name of Apollon fails to appear in the earliest surviving Greek texts, such as the Mycenaean Linear B Inscriptions.

One of his earliest mentions occurs in the opening of “The Iliad.” Scholars think that “The Iliad” was written down between 799 and 700 B.C.E. Siding with the Trojans in that war, Apollon inflicts a plague among the Greeks.

The Greeks of the Classical Age from 510 to 323 B.C.E. did not consider Apollon to be a sun god. Among them, the God of the sun was Helios. According to Reece, Apollon and Helios became conflated in the Hellenistic Age from 323 to 31 B.C.E. and the Roman Age from 31 B.C.E. to 381 C.E.

Names of Apollon

The Greeks sometimes called him Phoibos (Bright, Shining), or Apollon Phoibos. Greek gods frequently had two names. Sometimes, the second name was another name for the god such as Pallas Athena or Apollon Phoibos (Bright, Shining Apollon). People could refer to the god by either name.

The second name can be an epithet. That epithet indicates an interest, a quality, a role, or an area of expertise of the god. Reese said people can “look at the gods as having a lot of hats. Apollon has a lot of hats. He is the god of healing. He is the god of prophecy. He is the god of light. He is the god of music. … He is the god who brings the laws.”

These are not his only roles. People can understand these roles or interests as separate things or as aspects of some underlying quality, sort of like the tale of the six blind men and the elephant. Reece considers these epithets to describe “expressions of a deeper nature rather than the many hat theory.”

According to Theoi Project, “a site exploring Greek mythology and the gods in classical literature and art”, Apollon has many epithets. Some of his epithets are Apollon Pythios (patron god of his oracular cult at Delphi), Apollon Alexikakos (averter of evil), Apollon Paian (the healer), Apollon Loimios (deliverer from plagues), Apollon Smintheios (of the mice), and Apollon Epikourios (Apollo the helper). His epithets refer to his cult aspects.

Healing and miasma in ancient Greece

Reese explains that it is challenging for modern people to understand how ancient Greeks experienced plagues, without understanding the concept of “miasma.” She described miasma as spiritual pollution or being out of right relationships with the gods, the “polis” (city), friends, family, or self. Miasma refers to a “sickness in the society not just a sickness of the individual.”

Miasma can also refer to a violation of some moral law.

Working to dispel spiritual pollution and modern medicine with its antibiotics, anti-virals, and vaccines are not mutually exclusive. They complement one another and can easily be used in tandem.

The Greeks reserved oracular healing for those states of ill health that no one else was able to diagnose.

Reece said that “Typically, you would go to an oracle to try and understand the source of miasma, [and] what [you would] have to do to rectify it.”

Extraordinary illnesses required extraordinary treatments such as oracular work. According to Reece, anyone could go to an oracle. Oracles had something similar to what today would be called a “sliding scale.” Poor people could pay with just a barley cake.

Apollon Olympia  [Courtesy of G. Reese]

The oracular ritual

An oracular ritual involves divine possession of the mantis who allows the god to possess them and speak through them. Other people at the ritual ask questions to the god. The deity gives the answers to the mantis who informs the others at the ritual.

Reece stressed that the oracle gives advice from a different perspective. They do not foretell the future. During the oracular ritual, Reece said that Apollon is “doing some soul healing work.”

It took Reece about three years to develop enough of a relationship with Apollon to become his mantis. According to her, Apollon was making subtle changes to her “physiology to allow for this work to happen.”

She said that she rarely experiences his thoughts directly. Reece felt during her three years of prep, Apollon was putting up “firewalls” in her mind. She felt that “Apollo’s direct thoughts would fry my brain.” Sometimes she gets a “direct hit of what Apollon is feeling.” At other times, he shows her things.

Reece said that in a possessory ritual, she has the task to “get out of the way.” This will minimize the danger of her potentially distorting the message from god.

People who do possessory work have developed a way to describe the roles of the mantis. The mantis can be in the “driver’s seat.” Reece said that in that role, Apollon “can talk to me. I can perceive him. I am listening. I am conveying [his messages]. That’s being in the driver seat.”

The mantis can also be in the “passenger seat.” In this role, the mantis gives “the deity, or ancestor, or spirit, the ability to use their body, but they are still aware. They are still conscious. They can very easily grab back control. At any moment, they can reach over and grab the wheel.”

Sometimes the mantis can be in the “backseat.” They are “still observing but they’ve given the deity control over their body. They can say ‘hey, wait a second’ or whatever.” The deeper the mantis goes, the less influence their knowledge and psychology can impact Apollon’s message. Reece generally takes the back seat.

The mantis can even be in the “trunk.” Reece said that when the mantis in this stage regains control, “they don’t remember a damn thing.” Apollon dislikes that role for his mantis. According to Reece, Apollon is “very, very, very protective of his mantis.”

The interpretation of the oracular pronouncement

What the god says through the mantis, has parallels to a modern medical diagnosis. Instead of a prescription for drugs, the oracle would provide counsel. That counsel could be about enacting rituals or building temples.

In antiquity, rituals based on oracular pronouncements frequently involved objects imbued with pollution be carried outside the boundaries of the polis or city. Some rituals occurred only once. Other rituals continued annually right up to the Christian persecution of Pagans. The Olympic Chariot Race was one such ritual repeated over and over. In the late 5th Century B.C.E., people built the Temple of Apollon Epikourios (Apollon the Helper) at Bassai as a result of an oracular pronouncement.

The Temple of Apollo[n] Epikourios at Bassae, Arcadia, Greece [Image credit: Carole Raddato CC BY-SA 2.0]

Oracular ritual in March 2020

On March 1 Reece acted as a mantis in an oracular ritual on the birthday of Apollon. Someone asked specifically about Covid 19.

Reece said that Apollon’s messages run “through my own psychology, so I am not claiming to be speaking his words unless I’m in a full-body possessory ritual.”

She said that Apollon was clear that “this will show us all of the places where our society is broken and needs to be remade in a different fashion.”

She said he has given repeated warnings about things like environmental degradation. Reece continued “this will not be the last one of these [plagues] and it may not be the worst.” Apollon gave the message that Covid 19 “is not the bad one, as bad as this is.”

Apollon gave Reece the message that “this is a time for us to be asking questions [to] highlight the places where we could make different collective decisions [than we have]. For example, why are we not in a society where everyone has access to healthcare? … Where is it that we are broken and out of right relationship?”

Reece also said that Apollon has been repeatedly urging people to invest in local agriculture. The situation that we have where food comes from so far away is not sustainable.

Reece considers this to be “an opportunity, as horrible as it is, for us to take this moment to step back, and begin envisioning what kind of a world we want to live in.”

She stressed that “we could choose differently. Reece continued, “We have an opportunity to rupture the tyranny of common sense right now. The tyranny of common sense keeps our society mired in miasma.”