British sentry watching Qattara Depression, 1942

British sentry watching Qattara Depression, 1942

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British sentry watching Qattara Depression, 1942

Although the Qattara Depression was impassible to heavy military vehicles such as tanks, it still needed to be watched, and this British sentry is on duty close to the escarpment and cliffs on the northern edge of the depression. The Long Range Desert Group often crossed the depression, as did RAF aircraft recovery teams, and there were also German patrols based in the area.

Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel.
At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.

By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.

Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7 th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8 th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.

  • St Eligius.
  • St. Willibrord.

On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.

A modern bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht.

Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.

What could have caused such an incident?

In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death.
In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.


A few years back, in order to prop us up as a bulwark against China, the US, supported by the Western media, started a relentless campaign to obliquely praise India for its “spectacular GDP growth”. This suited our politicians and bureaucrats since all this while they had to face the wrath of the people for let alone their aspirations, but, even the barest minimum necessities of life not having been met. Soon the think-tanks in India and the intelligentsia took up the anthem of ‘the growth story of India’ and Indian self-serving analysts started working out the exact dates by which we would overtake the economies of Japan, China and finally the US. The feel-good factor made many people happy and excited.

What went wrong? Firstly, we forgot that all indices, particularly the Human Development Index, put us at the bottom of the heap, tucked roughly between Belize and Uganda. We forgot that GDP growth largely reflected how well are the richest of the rich amassing wealth in India.

Secondly, together with Europe, the US economy had slowed down to near recession and in comparison, isolated (and bolstered too) as we were with our ‘self-sufficiency’ of domestic demand, we seemed to have been unaffected by the global economic slow-down. Since this economic complacency was not based on any robust fundamentals, it was soon to take a hit which it has done now that the US economy is recovering. The dollar is already at an exchange rate of more than 62 rupees. How low is the value of the Indian currency can be made out by this curious observation that the politicians have stopped accepting Indian currency in bribes and now accept only gold. As a result of this artificially raised demand the gold-prices have experienced a sudden spurt.

Indeed, even abroad, the perception about India being touted as an economic giant gave way to India being the most corrupt country in the world. One German business daily which wrote an editorial on India said: “India is becoming a Banana Republic instead of being an economic superpower. To get the cut motion designated out, assurances are made to political allays. Special treatment is promised at the expense of the people. So, Ms Mayawati who is Chief Minister of the most densely inhabited state, is calmed when an intelligence agency probe is scrapped. The multi-million dollars fodder scam by another former chief minister wielding enormous power is put in cold storage. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chairs over this kind of unparalleled loot.”

This newspaper editorial is a bit dated and we have since had many cusecs of water having gone down our polluted and corrupt, but still sacred river of Ganga. Economically, nothing describes our state of affairs better than our perpetually pot-holed roads. Enormous moneys go into maintaining these. And yet, with the first sign of rains, life becomes hell for all commuters. A routine trip to the office that used to take only twenty minutes, then starts taking ninety or more accompanied by the mood of the computer having been marred for the whole day having to battle against the pot holes and fellow traffickers. But, curiously, those who reach the other end silently pat themselves on the back for having reached safely whilst fellow commuters are still stuck on the road. This is, hence, representative of some of our Indians complacency in the face of the disaster that stares us in the face.

(Pic courtesy:

The dismal economic scenario, accompanied by rampant corruption and lack of even basic infrastructure, have come about when the shadow Prime Minister, who is strong in economics, is repeatedly asked to indulge in politics, wherein he is a weakling. Isn’t it a shame that the only time he showed he had a spine was when, on behest of the US, he took a firm stand that nuclear power is what the nation needs most at this juncture and would automatically solve all our other problems?

Since the ruling Congress front has failed miserably, one would start hopefully assuming that the main opposition – BJP front – would come up with an alternate plan or strategy to buck up economy, provide basic amenities and infrastructure, and control corruption. Nay, on the other hand, BJP has come up with their oft-repeated clincher of Ram Mandir. Do you think they have gone bonkers? No, I think that they have done their mathematics well (I have shown this maths at a post ‘How Proud Should We Be Of Indian Republic At 62?’ in this blog). They know that less than one per-cent swing in the votes is all that is required to be winners and make a government. For obtaining this one per-cent swing they can either take the ‘risky‘ way of being idealists and mean well for the Indian society or obtain it ‘safely’ by polarising the Indian society. They would, therefore, invariably tilt towards such polarisation knowing very well that Congress too is only pseudo-secularist and panders to the vote bank of the Muslims in a huge way.

(Pic courtesy:

With this, the voter is stuck between the devil and the deep-sea and, the chances of Indian conditions improving are just a pipe-dream. It saddens me to know that this hopeless state of affairs has come about at a time when we should have done the best. It is because the country’s demographic profile suits high-growth. We are a young country with average age of an Indian being only 29 years. This youth could have been employed in rebuilding a nation. Gradually, our population will start ageing like those of European countries and Japan and then favourable conditions for growth would become even more scarce.

What should we do in this scenario? We don’t have the wherewithal and nor is it necessary to jump into the dirty world of elections by fielding candidates. I think the solution lies in this adage: ‘In democracy you don’t just elect a government, you get the one that you deserve’. We can have a voice through social media including blogs, Facebook and Twitter to let the candidates know that we can’t be fooled by promises of Ram Mandir or doles under Food Security Bill. Lets raise our voices so that it becomes mandatory for the candidates to shun corruption, crime, parochialism and come up with realistic and pragmatic plans for the betterment of our people and nation.

For this it is necessary that we choose the right candidates not emotionally but objectively not merely by his/her party affiliations but by his/her own attributes and potential.

Lets spread the word around that next elections are the last ones before people become so frustrated and alienated from their elected representatives that they are forced to choose the path of revolution.

Watch the video: Κατάθλιψη των γιορτών (September 2022).

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