02. Ancient Mediterranean, 03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities, Christianity, Judaism, Religion

Pestilence & Prayer: Arrows & Plague (4)

Pestilence & Prayer: Arrows & Plague (4)

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The oldest symbol of pestilence is the arrow; according to James Hall in Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art:

The arrow is not merely a weapon, but the traditionally carrier of disease, especially the plague.

Apollo is the Greek god most often associated with arrows; he was one of the twelve Olympians and patron of archery (among other things). Apollo was said to never be without his bow and arrows, articles which he used to inflict judgment and death upon disobeying humans. Homer’s Iliad contains the earliest connection to pestilence with arrows. In the Iliad, Apollo is described as a “furious” god who “rang death as his shot his arrows” when he avenged the rape of Chryseis.

The arrow as a symbol of the plague also has its origins in the legend of Apollo and his sister, Diana, massacring the fourteen children of Niobe. They were punishing Niobe because she tried to dissuade the women of Thebes from worshiping Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana, and boasted of her own superior family connections. To humble her pride, Apollo and Diana killed all her children. The scene is described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and an ancient Greek urn depicts the children of Niobe fleeing from the siblings’ ruthless arrows. The celestial siblings stand in the center of the urn with their bows drawn as their victims lie at their feet.

In ancient traditions, Apollo shared many Christianized traits with God, because he was the cause of destruction but also the purifier and healer. Asclepius was Apollo’s son, and the [supposed] Christian champion over these pagan gods was the early Christian saint [who could also miraculously heal through God].

Much was at stake because Christianity was a religion of healing. Christianity’s principle rival in the world of late antiquity was not primarily the professional physician, but rather the healing god Asclepius

Wallis, Medieval Medicine, 47.

Although there are strong connections between the pagan world and the Christian world, the “Christianization” of the symbol of the arrow is not merely a continuation of the Greco-Roman tradition. Paganism and Christianity had profoundly different worldviews. For late-antique pagans, the earth and heavens did not interact; there was a chasm that could only be passed after death. In contrast, Christianity breached this abyss to join together the two spheres with saintly-intercessors, the dead who could amplify the prayers of those below.

The symbolism of the plague-arrow also appears in ancient Hebrew literature, and thus provides a direct link to the later Christian traditions. Like the Greco-Roman myths, arrows are symbols of divine punishment in the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 24:10-25 tells the story of the Davidian plague. After King David sinned against God He offered David [a choice between] three forms of penance:

  1. Seven years of famine
  2. Fleeing from your enemies for three months
  3. Three days of pestilence

David chose the pestilence, so God brought down vengeance and disease upon His creation by making His “arrows drunk with blood.” Giorgio Vasari includes a rare depiction of the Davidian Plague in the predella panels of his San Rocco Altarpiece for the church of the Compagni di San Rocco in Arezzo. This image, The Prophet Gad Offers David a Choice of Three Divine Punishments, illustrates King David’s choice between the three forms of penance.  As can be seen, arrows as symbols of pestilence appear in both ancient Greco-Roman and Hebrew texts. It is thus logical to continue this assessment and symbolism when discussing Christian plague imagery after the Black Death.


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