Dark roast, no cream or sugar.
Hm? Witch? Why would you…ah, I see. The broom. No, this is no witch’s broom. This is… Well, actually, you might want to sit down for this. My table’s the one over there with the rake leaned against it. Yes, I have a rake as well. Join an old woman for a bit, and I’ll tell you my story.
Au—That coffee’s hot. Anyhow, like I said, I’m no witch, and this broom’s not for riding. It’s a symbol of death. Plague death. Yes, that plague.
Nice to meet you. I’m Pesta, Nordic folklore’s personification of the Black Death, the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Pest means “plague” in Norwegian, while the a suffix is used to make it a feminine name. I’m also called the Plague Hag. Lovely, huh? I can’t blame them much for the nickname, though. I was bad news back then. Really bad.
While I swept through mainland Europe, taking out roughly half of the population, Nordic countries thought they’d remain safe. But in 1349, I hitched a ride from England on a trading ship bound for Norway and, well, my friend, I was the only survivor on board, so to speak. The “ghost” ship ran aground, and rats and fleas carried me ashore. Then, I set to work with my tools. Yes, this broom and this rake.
I traveled the Norwegian countryside, “sweeping” as efficiently as I had on the mainland. Entire communities were taken in a matter of days. My appearance, with my ghastly face, red skirt, and black hood, became the most dreaded sight in the nation. And my tools, well, I’ll explain their meaning now.
If I showed up to a town with the rake, it meant some would slip through the tines as I carried out my work, and escape the disease. But if I held the broom instead, no one would survive. I suppose my solemn expression, as I began sweeping outside in a steady rhythm, filled many nightmares back then.
I knew I’d grown quite famous when I troubled a boatman for a ride across a river one dark evening. He didn’t recognize me at first, you see, as a shadowy figure calling out from the shore. But after I’d climbed into the boat and he’d set to rowing, he got a good look at me, and went pale. He dropped the oars, begging me to spare his life. I remember feeling sorry for the man, but, as it was, I had only one purpose, which I was not often inclined to ignore. To repay him for the trip, though, I offered a consolation. If his name was not in my book—Hm? Yes, I have a book of names. Didn’t I mention the book? No? Ah, this old mind…
Anyhow, if his name was not in my book, he’d survive. And if it was, I’d at least make his passing quick. I knew his name wasn’t there, but made a show of looking anyway before telling him so. Upon the man’s return home, he collapsed on the threshold.
That was only the most famous of my tales among many. And my, how my fame spread.
Perhaps it helps people deal with the reality, you know, to personify disease and death in tales. Even the ancient Greeks had the Nosoi, spirits of plague, sickness, and disease that escaped from Pandora’s jar. And of course there’s Grim himself, the more well-known, farm tool-wielding harbinger of doom. It seems he also got his start during the bubonic plague, or shortly after. He went on to represent death as a whole, leading to his worldwide notoriety today.
Me? I more or less slunk back into the shadows. Sure, the Black Death still exists today. But with its extreme scarcity and modern treatments, it’s hardly something to be feared anymore. Nowadays, I pass the time traveling, or just hanging around. Having coffee. I’m waiting to see if I’ll have a sibling, a personification of the new deadly illness that’s swept the world today. After all, one could say that folklore as a whole is just a reflection of the human experience. One of the many forms in which we seek to explain the terrifying phenomena surrounding our existence.
Alright, then. I could use a refill. You?
Images are 19th century paintings by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelson in the Public Domain.