Few things strike terror in the fragile human psyche like a virulent, unstoppable plague. To this day, nearly seven centuries after the event, say the words ‘black death,’ and I’d wager most people know what the hell you’re referring to. In our Western high-tech age, we are lucky to have easy access to clean water (for now; You think wars for oil are trouble? Oh, just you wait, brothers and sisters), antibiotics and antivirals, better hygiene. Sure, there’s been an uptick in allergies, but the trade-off is certainly worth it. We no longer have disease wielding the sword of Damocles over our brittle necks.
And what of our favorite imaginary world? After 86 episodes of fantastic storytelling, we finally learned what Lucifer’s endgame is: the Croatoan virus. Walking tall, looking good, a nattily-clad star of the morning, shuffling around in Sam’s meatsuit, spreading that vile pathogen around and, despite the valiant efforts of President Palin’s (shudder) proactive blow-em-up campaign, humanity isn’t looking too swell.
Let’s not bicker about who killed who — wait, wrong story — let’s not bicker about whether, given recent events and/or any shift in the plot dynamic and/or the stubborn resolve of Team Free Will and/or getting ready for the apocalyptic stretch run, this satanic microorganism is even going to rear its rotten egg. Instead, let us turn to that most trusted of sources. Magic 8-ball, will the Croatoan virus make a third appearance?
“ask again later”
Fine, but you all still have to read this essay. Preparation is the mother of conjunction junction, or something to that effect.
Nothing important happened today
Way back in season two, Sam’s visions lead the brothers to a small town in Oregon where, on the lookout for the man that appeared in said vision, they encounter a telephone pole with the word “Croatoan” carved on it. I’ll pause a moment to let you chuckle at the classic Schoolhouse Rock bit. Heh heh. Next, they take the frightened wife and the corpses of her husband and second son to a local doctor’s office. John Carpenter-esque set pieces ensue and in time, the brothers commence completing the puzzle.
SAM: Yeah. And I think the infected are trying to infect others with blood-to-blood contact. Oh, but it gets better. The virus leaves traces of sulfur in the blood.
DEAN: A demonic virus?
SAM: Yeah, more like demonic germ warfare. At least that explains why Iâ€™ve been having visions.
DEAN: Itâ€™s like a biblical plague.
SAM: Yeah. You donâ€™t know how right you are, Dean. Iâ€™ve been poring through Dadâ€™s journal. I found something about the Roanoke colony.
SAM: Dad always had a theory about Croatoan. He thought it was a demonâ€™s name â€“- sometimes known as Dever or sometimes Reshef. A demon of plague and pestilence. DEAN: Well, thatâ€™s terrific. Why here? Why now?
SAM: I have no idea. But Deanâ€¦who knows how far this thing can spread? Weâ€™ve gotta get out of here, weâ€™ve gotta warn people.
Reshef, or Resheph, or Resep, was a deity of the Arameans, a Syrio-Canaanite people, a god of war and thunder, plague and the underworld. Assimilated into the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom, he became associated with Set (or Seth), god of chaos and storms and assassin of Osiris in a myth that comes from this same time period. In Ugarit, a town on the Mediterranean coast, Reshef was associated with the Mesopotamian Nergal, lord of the underworld, who received many prayers in order to avert his dangerous influence. Nergal was initially sent down by heaven as atonement for his failure to properly observe divine order. Sound like anyone you know? In time, Nergal became associated with Mars, clothed in a frightful (read: bright) splendor. As for Reshef, he was usually represented brandishing a weapon in his right hand, a shield or ankh in his left, and the existence of his likeness in statue and on stelae continued down into the Ptolemaic period.
Reshef was sometimes named in spells to counter the power of the demon Akha who could cause abdominal pain. In alchemy, certain elements are often linked to various body parts: mercury to the head, sulfur to the heart and salt to the stomach. Throwing a little supernatural light on this, we can see how the god of plague would wish to counteract the puissance of salt, no? The Croatoan virus leaves behind sulfur traces and its victims certainly have their heart, their humanity altered. Now the pure element of sulfur isn’t toxic, in fact, it’s pretty damn necessary for a human to function like a well-elemented machine. Is demonic sulfur chemically altered in any way? Regardless of the answer because how the hell would I know, this virus certainly makes one loon, but in an almost orderly, Gestapo kind of way.
As for Dever, I hate to cast an evil eye at the naturally super Supernaturalwiki.com, but Sam clearly says DeveR, so it has nothing to do with deva/daeva, though those are wonderfully diabolical as well. Dever is an old Hebrew word that represents a demon of pestilence, and is mentioned in Habbakuk 3:5 and in Psalms 91:5-6.
Cause and effect
For many, plague conjures up the famous ten in the book of Exodus: the Nile turning to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, cattle plague (perhaps anthrax?), boils, hail and thunderstorms, locusts, a darkness that can be felt (how’s that for spooky) and last and certainly not least, death of the firstborn.
Gnats and flies and locusts aren’t all that scary unless they’re turned into the protagonist of a television episode, but a few of those are, especially those that fill the mind with images of eerily glinting pustules, gooey pus and blood running everywhere. Now that’s a plague.
One of the first famous, actually historic ones was that of Athens in the fifth century BC, whose effects were recorded by Thucidydes in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Due to the extreme virulence of the disease, and the already high-tension situation, the people lost all sense of society. The next great plague was the so-called Plague of Justinian which decimated Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire in 541-542 AD. The historian Procopius wrote:
For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease….but those who were seized with delirium suffered from insomnia and were victims of a distorted imagination; for they suspected that men were coming upon them to destroy them, and they would become excited and rush off in flight, crying out at the top of their voices.
And we all know and love the story of the fourtheenth century’s Black Death, beautifully articulated in the allegory of La Danse Macabre, a series of paintings, frescoes, woodcuts, you name it by countless artists portraying dancing skeletons leading every stratum of society to the great equalizer. Dancing, too, is often equated with madness; think especially of the German Totentanz or the Italian tarantella, a frenetic dance that in certain folkloric strains was believed to be able to ward off death by spiderbite. Such dancing manias, a wonderful medieval trope, could be classified as a Mass Psychogenic Illness, the DSM-IV’s Mass Hysteria, but such ruminations are a bit out of my league and I’ll leave that up to the experts. Jas, I’m looking at you.
Itâ€™s madness I tell you, madness!
When I think of madness, forgetting the political class for a moment (zing!), a tried-and-true answer is syphilis. Like a lot of diseases these days, it’s quite treatable early on. That wasn’t always the case, and there’s a whole host of famous folks who’ve suffered both confirmed cases and the always-fun rampant speculation. One of its most renowned sufferers and a fantastic writer to boot, was Guy de Maupassant, whose troubled characters reflected both himself and, ironically, his illness which later caused him to go mad, attempt suicide and be committed to an asylum. Now, in Supernatural, the Croatoan virus certainly makes those it infects quite mad, yet only from our point of view. It’s George Romero’s The Crazies all over again. We sober humans are the enemy, only this time, the baddie behind the disease isn’t an ineffectual and devious military but The Big Honkin’ Evil himself.
Witness the little girl in The End playing quietly until mean ole Dean sauters on up to suffer a glass attack and then something far worse: spraypainted on the wall in big, dark blood red letters, Croatoan. Guess that would explain the horde of rampaging lunatics after his ass. Since Future!World (that’s how I write such things in fanspeak, yes?) is nothing but a cycle of ever-shrinking pockets of non-infection, it’s safe to say that the Croatoan virus is the baddest mofo the planet has ever seen. Take that, yersinia pestis! C’est-Ã -dire, we sure as hell better hope that there isn’t a third appearance or we’re all screwed. Oh, Magic 8-ball?