Seminar 4: ‘The myth of the spotted sun and the blemished moon: a biosocial ethnohistory of syphilis and related diseases’

‘The myth of the spotted sun and the blemished moon: a biosocial
ethnohistory of syphilis and related diseases’

The fourth HSMT seminar of Michaelmas Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 31st October (Week 4) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Cesar Giraldo Herrera.

Dr Herrera is a biologist and an anthropologist from the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. He received his PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Aberdeen for the dissertation Sweet Dreams Rocking Viking Boats, Biocultural Animic Perspectivism through Nordic Seamanship. Currently, he is a Victoria Maltby Junior Research Fellow at Somerville College, and he is working on the manuscript for a book entitled Microbes and other spirits: Crossroads of microbiology and Amerindian shamanism. The work traces early records of Amerindian health and environment management systems, showing their continuing strands of thought and demonstrating how they anticipated and influenced the theory of contagion, the ontological theory of disease, the notion of ecological community and antibiotics.

Syphilis, yaws and pinta are diseases that feature prominently in some of the earliest accounts of Amerindian medical knowledge and mythology. These diseases, the way they were understood by Amerindians and their treatments drew the avid attention of European missionaries, chroniclers and historians in the years that followed the first contacts. According to these records and to the oral traditions of some enduring communities, these diseases were and are starring characters of their myths origin. They are the protagonists of the earliest recorded versions of the myth of the Sun and the Moon; a myth, which albeit with profound variations, is widely distributed throughout the Americas. It narrates the events that led to the origin of the celestial bodies, of diseases that caused their spots, and of crucial cultural practices like fishing, cultivation, pottery or metallurgy. This paper examines myth and knowledge associated with it as records of a biosocial ethnohistory. It addresses the social interactions between and beyond humans portrayed by the early accounts of the myth and how these interactions could have influenced the development of these diseases. It also explores how the biological understandings of the disease may contribute to the interpretation of the meaning and symbolism of the myth.

Having blogged for Week 2’s seminar on state-supported treatment for venereal diseases, you may be concerned that the Wellcome Unit Library has exhausted its suggested reading on syphilis. Thankfully, this is not the case: we’ve plenty more where that came from! Starting with Sex, sin, and science: a history of syphilis in America by John Parascandola (RC201.5.A2 PAR 2008), which explores the spread of the ‘Great Pox’ in the U.S. from the time of Columbus and colonization to post-World War II treatment. Within the first chapter, Parascandola touches upon the mythologies Dr Herrara is interested in: the tale of the shepherd Syphilus (pictured in the header image) who blasphemed the Sun-God:

He first wore buboes dreadful to the sight,
First felt strange pains and sleepless past the night;
From him the malady received its name.1

Deborah Hayden also explores Columbus and America in Pox: genius, madness, and the mysteries of syphilis (RC201.47 HAY 2003). The first three chpaters of this title are particularly relevant: ‘Christopher Columbus: The First European Syphilitic?’, ‘The Revenge of the Americas’ and ‘A Brief History of the Spirochete’. All of the books in the RC 201 section are about syphilis, so other titles in this area may also be of interest.










Several works held in the library focus specifically on the biological repercussions of the conquest of the New World. Noble David Cook examines the effect deadly Eurasian sicknesses had on Amerindians and vice versa in Born to die : disease and New World conquest, 1492-1650 (E59.D58 COO 1998). The consequences of the introduction of the bacterial spirochete Treponema pallidum (which triggers venereal syphilis, pinta and yaws) into Europe are interspersed across this narrative of disease. Another useful text on this subject, which also discusses pintas and yaws, is the essay ‘Pre-Columbian Treponematosis in Coastal North Carolina’ by Georgieann Bogdan and David S. Weaver, which appears in Disease and demography in the Americas (E59.A5 DIS 1992), edited by John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker. The essay looks at skeletal material and what it can tell us about treponemal infections.











For more general medical explanations of the nature of the lesser-known diseases of yaws and pinta, two websites which can provide further information are the World Health Organisation’s page Yaws: A forgotten disease  and an article by Larry M. Bush and Maria T. Perez for Merck Manual, Bejel, Pinta, and Yaws.

And finally, an early work on the sun and moon disease myths can be found in Richard Mead’s 1712 essay Of the power and influence of the sun and moon on humane bodies; and of the diseases that rise from thence, which is accessible online via SOLO.

Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

1. Fracastoro, quoted (in English translation) in Parascondona, from Rosebury, Micorbes and Morals, p.33

Header image:     L0031325 Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro) shows the shepherd Syphilus and the hunter Ilceus being warned against yielding to temptation with the danger of infection with syphilis. Engraving by Jan Sadeler I after Christoph Schwartz, 1588/1595.
Engraving 1588-1595 By: Christoph Schwartz after: Jan Sadeler. Published: [s.n.],[Munich] : [1588/1595]. Size: platemark 24.1 x 30.5 cm.
Collection: Iconographic Collections. Library reference no.: ICV No 51428
Full Bibliographic Record Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue:
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0: