Rabies has been with us since earliest times. Aristotle noted that rabies affects dogs and any animal the afflicted dog bites. And it has been draped in superstition since earliest times. The very name of the pathogen, the Lyssavirus, derives from the Greek concept lyssa, which means wolfish rage. Lyssa is personified on Greek vases as a woman wearing a dog’s head as a cap. Her name derives from lykos, meaning wolf. In Attic Greek, lyssa literally means rabies. And so, the medical and the metaphorical came to be forever linked into something terrifying and violent.
The fear of rabies is so primal because the disease challenges the boundary between humans and animals. The legends of werewolves and vampires, which continue to haunt the Western imagination, likely originated from this same fundamental fear of being transformed into a mad animal by its bite and then savagely seeking to transform others.
In THE DEADLIEST FEVER, Miriam is called in to treat rabies. She might have cut the patient’s lingual frenulum, where, based on the position of salivary glands under the tongue, rabies was thought to originate. But other folk remedies abounded in her time, including a potion derived from the skull of a hanged man. The best-known cure of Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher and naturalist contemporaneous with Miriam, was to take the hair from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite, burn it, and insert the ashes into the wound. This recommendation—alas, no more effective than the others—lives on in our expression the “hair of the dog” as the remedy for a hangover.
When you find out who Miriam’s patient was, you and Miriam will have come a long way toward identifying the connections among a jewel heist in Ephesus, the death of sea captain, and the desecration of a Torah mantle. Want to know more? Then click here: