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Old Woman Plague and the Black Death

I have done a post about some of these images before, but the whole Death-theme over at told_tales gave it new relevance. So I've added lots more images, and some text which ended up expanding the post quite a bit.


In Norway there are many legends and stories about the Black Death. They all usually start with: "The Black Death came to Norway in 1348, and when it left there was hardly a person alive"

My favourite story was the one later illustrated by Theodore Kittelsen, and it goes something like this; During the Black Death the plague took the shape of an old woman, who hobbled from village to village, farm to farm. She’d be in old, raggedy clothes and carried a rake and a broom. If you saw her use the rake that meant that some of the people in the area would die. If she used the broom then everyone, yourself included, would be swept away.

The old woman was called Plague or Old Woman Plague. She smelled of death, dust and nothingness.

The title of this painting is "Mother, there is an old woman coming" - and for me at least that title makes the images even worse.

Old Woman Plague would sweep each nook and corner. She was practical and patience.

You could not hide....

Where she was finished there was nothing left except desolation...



..and deserted farms. This shows the tree that would be planted before the main house on all Norwegian farms. The tree was usually taken as a sign of how the farm was doing. A large and green tree meant a prosperous farm. Here the tree is dark and the nest amongst its branches is abandoned.

In some placed the death toll was so high that whole communities were wiped out. This image is called "The Old Church". Its based on a story of a hunter, a hundred years after the plague, and how he was deep in forest hunting. He fired a shot and a strange clang was heard - as if he had hit metal. He went to investigate and it turned out he had shot the church bell of an old church whose community had all been wiped out by the plague. So many people had died that everyone had simply forgotten the place.
He went into the church and there before the altar was a sleeping bear - and that is what is shown in this painting. The bear attacked but the hunter managed to kill it.

Later the hunter got the nearest priest to re-open the church. And the bear? Its skin was hung on the wall near the alter - it's still there today.

Such was the trail left by Old Woman Plague.

She came to a country filled with people, and left a desolate place where nature had retaken the land. This shows a Capercallie, which is known in Norwegian as a Tiur or a 'trollbird'. It was said to be represent the trolls and hags, and those that dwelt below.

Kittelsen used the bird to symbolise the darkness and uncertainty of the land after the plague.

There was nothing you could do against Old Woman Plague. You could not barter, you could not beg - you could just hope that someday she would leave....

cross-posted to told_tales


( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
Wow, these are chilling. There's something creeping and insidious about them, something nasty peeping out the background.

Especially like the skull in the bed, with mice (cockroaches?) swarming over it. In horror movies I always love the grisly aftermath, and the thoughts of what might have happened.
Jun. 15th, 2007 05:19 pm (UTC)
I'm really quite taken with these. What is it that makes them so atmospheric?

The viewer has to peer into the pictures to make sense of them. That makes them actively involving.

In all the pictures the subject is far away, and often partially obscured. Sometimes they have their back to the viewer and are moving away, begging to be followed.

And the lovely sketchy drawing style is vague and diffuse, so you have to squint and, again, peer into the picture to try to make it clear. But it never becomes clear.

Jun. 15th, 2007 07:33 pm (UTC)
What is it that makes them so atmospheric?

I've pondered this myself. I think your point about them being actively involving is a good one. As is the one with the sketchy drawing style. The details are only hinted at, but never truly revealed. That's slightly unnerving.

Also I think the lack of people to identify with is important. In most of the pictures there is no depicted character to work as an internal viewer of the scene the image presents. I mean there is no character in the foreground to work as a focal point in the image.

Instead the image is presented as we, the external viewer, would see it if we were present at the scene. That makes us participate more in the scene shown - it becomes our view, our eyes that see - than if there had been a character in the foreground. Then we would have viewed him viewing, and he would have worked as a buffer so to speak, shielding us and distancing us from the creepy landscape of the image.

( I would not count Old Woman Plague as such a character - simply because when she is in the foreground of the image she is looking out of it, and her direct glare does more to draw the viewer in than to work as said buffer. A point could also be made that when Plague is looking directly at us she is breaking the fourth wall, and that makes the images even creepier.)

In part the composition of some of the images make me think of old photos. When Kittelsen cuts trees and rocks with his composition he is in a way mimicking the snap shot effect that a camera has. His compositions only show you a little glimpse of the scene, and that makes you wonder what is outside the frame. What else is going on that we are not seeing? And considering the creepy motif of the paintings, then not having the full view and scope of the scene is slightly disconcerting.

There is also something with the images that make me think of eerie silence - but alas I cannot quite put my finger on what it is.
Jun. 15th, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)
There's something creeping and insidious about them, something nasty peeping out the background.

yes, I think that's very well put. Some of these images give me the feeling like I am being watch instead of me watching. Its very uncomfortable.

And I think their mice actually. Our cockroaches are rather small, and these look more mice-sized.
Aug. 25th, 2007 01:10 pm (UTC)
B, I'm planning a mixed icon post. I've made a handful of these into icons, so you mind if I post them for others to snag, with a link to this page?
Aug. 25th, 2007 03:23 pm (UTC)
Oh please do! I'd be delighted to see this art made into icons. :)
(and I might just snag a few for myself.)
(no subject) - mr_kit - Aug. 25th, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - baleanoptera - Sep. 1st, 2007 10:48 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - baleanoptera - Sep. 8th, 2007 07:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 15th, 2007 03:08 am (UTC)
Jun. 15th, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)
I know! I actually had several of these images as illustrations in my history book. Creeped me right out!
Jun. 15th, 2007 03:22 am (UTC)
My goodness, this is as horifying as it is brilliant. Props to you, my love. Your posts are always fascinating and this one is no different.

[and that comm looks lovely.]
Jun. 15th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you. As mentioned above I actually had these some of these images as illustrations in my history books when I was a kid. In all honesty they made me a little afraid of turning the pages in that specific chapter.

And the comm is great. Right now the discussion is about Death, but before that it was Tricksters - and there have been discussions about single fairytales as well.
Jun. 15th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)
I loved the illustrations and the explanations behind them, how fascinating!
Jun. 15th, 2007 07:35 pm (UTC)
So glad you liked them! I love these images in myself - for all their creepy, unnerving qualities.
Sep. 6th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)
Hello! Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I just found your posts on illustrations and read them with interest. These illustrations by Kittelsen are really stunning, and very very atmospheric. It's particularly interesting that the plague is personified by a woman who is then depicted very similar to the traditional personifications of death. I think in Edgar Allen Poe's novel it was a male Plague (King Plague), was it not?
Thanks for sharing these!

(As I am very interested in illustrations I added you to my f-list, I hope you don't mind...)
Sep. 7th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)
Hello! Always nice to meet new people. I've added you back.

I love the Kittelsen illustrations - even if they are very, very creepy.
(and if you are interested the talented mr_kit made icons</i> out of the illustrations.)

I agree that having a female Plague is very interesting, and somehow even more disturbing that had it been male. Perhaps its the creepy grandmother aspect?
Sep. 8th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
Either this, or it is the fact, that women - except for the old witch or the femme fatale - are normally life-bringers, giving birth etc. ... Fascinating in either way!

And thanks for the link to the icons!
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( 33 comments — Leave a comment )