Microbes and Demons
By Paula Schneider
Before I went into hospice nursing, I served as a public health nurse and nurse consultant at the state level for about 10 years. I have a Master’s degree in public health and this area of health care has been a passion of mine for years. Part of that interest includes the study of microbes (commonly called germs). It is fascinating to consider how we all live in (and they live in us) a sea of microscopic beings we cannot see but that have such a profound effect on our lives and our health.

Some years ago, I ran across a description of an investigation done by scientists at a remote site of the Dead Sea area called Qumran, where a strict religious sect, known as the Essenes, lived about 2000 years ago. This intriguing report detailed some of the rigorous religious practices of this group of probably exclusively men. Part of their ritual had to do with religious purity, which included good hygiene and washing. This study showed how the members would use latrines that were away from their settlement area. Scientists studying these areas were able to find samples of intestinal worms specific to humans, thus they determined the area was used as a latrine. The sect members felt they were doing a very healthy thing by keeping this area of human waste far away from their living quarters.

Interestingly, after the sect member used the latrine, he or she was required to enter a cistern before he returned to the settlement. The cistern was not filled with fresh, running water but with collected water that was stagnant. As the member immersed in the water, it became contaminated with bacteria and other microbes that eventually caused the community members to sicken and die. Unfortunately, they probably were never able to link this practice with their resulting ill health. A tragic result was that the Essenes did not live long and while they were alive, they were not healthy people!

So, you ask, what does this have to do with demons? I read a fascinating book by Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. This highly stimulating book reviews history to bring to light some beliefs held by people in the Middle Ages—both Jewish and Gentile. Apparently these beliefs were shared amongst all cultures at the time; they were attempts to explain phenomena that had no scientific explanation at that time in history. They used demons to explain what we now know are microbes!

Especially mentioned is that demons frequented uninhabited places—deserts, forests, and fields, as well as unclean places. Privies were especially believed to be haunted and the Talmud, books of Jewish teachings, prescribed special incantations invoking the protection of guardian angels in these places. Also, they believed that evil spirits, sometimes called spirits of uncleanness, rested on unwashed hands which would contaminate foods handled by these hands. People would sicken when they ate the contaminated food. Their writings urged people to be especially careful to wash their hands in the morning upon rising, because “the night creates a special susceptibility to spirit contamination.”

I am fascinated to discover that people from antiquity had some understanding of public health and handwashing principles. So what if they called them demons? The idea is the same—there is something present that causes ill health.

If you are interested in reading a very intriguing and thought-provoking book, I recommend Jewish Magic and Superstition. The ISBN number is 0-8122-1862-0 and I purchased my copy through Amazon.com. There are many other fascinating topics in the book that I do not have room to mention here in this article.