A PRAYER TO ARISTAIOS
Thousands of years ago, in a place of rocks and sea and cerulean skies, men and women gazed with terror upon the face of evil: wolves and dogs and men seemingly made mad by the gods. The Greeks called on Artemis, beseeching her to intervene against the illness known as rabies as she was said to do. But Artemis always had better things to do than listen to their pleas – not a single biting, shrieking, drooling victim lived to tell of her power in all the long centuries of pleas. And their true foe, a microscopic machine which exists only to make more copies of itself, worked unseen and uncomprehended until one man deduced a means to fend off this hideous destroyer of the mind.
We reap the benefits of Louis Pasteur’s work even now. This French scientist brought us not only vaccines to prevent rabies infection outright, but developed post-exposure prophylaxis, and all without ever seeing his enemy. The ancient Greeks had another god, one who guarded against the onset of the spreading madness: Aristaios; and they might consider Pasteur to be his specially favored son.
Rather than blaming this disease on angry gods, in recent centuries man has rewritten the myth in various literary horror themes. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, alien invaders – on cursory inspection these are stories with Freudian or Victorian themes, or merely moneymaking fantasies which owe their proliferation to the availability of cheap pulp paper for dime store novels, and later on the blossoming film industry. But they all derive from a single fear unique to humans: the utter obliteration of self, transmissible to others.
As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, I find the zombie myth to come the closest to the reality of rabies. This has perhaps been aided by my up close and personal encounter with this ancient scourge fairly early in my career. A cat - every muscle finely trembling - grasping blindly at the air just beyond its carrier door – pupils dilated as in death – a single drop of saliva poised on lower lip. It had ceased to be a cat and been instead transformed into an automaton with only one purpose: that of transforming all other living creatures within reach into identical violent automatons. Given the opportunity it would have shredded everyone in the exam room into ragged, bloody walking dead.
My immediate and visceral reaction upon seeing this poor doomed creature felt more like instinct than objective medical evaluation. I knew that I was in the presence of Death. It may be that we as a species have lived and evolved in proximity to this particular lyssavirus for millions of years and in so doing can recognize and fear its handiwork almost as readily as we do the hissing of snakes.
One would expect that the prospect of such a terrible disease would cause veterinarians everywhere to rise up as one and shout from the rooftops about the need to immunize our domestic house pets against rabies even today. Certainly many have done so, and we can attribute the vanishing of canine rabies from the United States to successful public health campaigns involving private practice veterinarians. But here in Southern California I find myself and many of my colleagues doing battle against an uninformed public and veterinarians who apparently consider rabies, common in our local bat population, as mythical a threat these days as the aforementioned zombie and friends. It is more common for a new client to tell me that their prior veterinarian specifically told them to avoid rabies vaccination than for them to be able to tell me their cat has even once received it.
So we who recognize the danger soldier on – we, who serve as priestesses and priests of Aristaios. We perform the rituals of unwrapping syringes and mixing diluent into lyophilized powders and injecting them into our willing supplicants, and all that is lacking in our endeavors are incense and chanting and long linen robes. With each injection we offer up a silent prayer that our nostrums do their magic, and that the evil be kept at bay for another year, and another, and yet another. And we teach – or at least we try. We are the new Greeks.
Apologies for the double spacing. I can't seem to fix it.