In the late middle ages, Europe witnessed a devastating number of diseases, the Black Death being the most infamous one that wiped out a third of the population (25 million people). But none of them were as uncanny as the Saint Vitus plague, also known as the dancing plague. It began in July 1518, when a woman called Frau Troffea started dancing in the streets of Strasbourg restlessly. People began to worry about the seemingly insane woman as « By the third day, blood was oozing out of her shoes ». 6 days into the exhausting routine, Frau was taken to Saint Vitus shrine located east of Strasbourg. Saint Vitus was believed to perform miraculous cures and heal those afflicted with epilepsy but also inflecting it on those who angered him. Shortly after, Frau was sent to the shrine for penance, more than 30 people started compulsively dancing and it was obvious to the bystanders that the dancers were in pure agony as they screamed for help from God and Saints. Even more alarming, by the end of August, the sickness reached plague status as about 400 dancers were loose in the streets of Strasbourg begging for mercy. As it kept going, as many as 15 people per day died from heart attacks and strokes. different local records describe the scene:
« In their madness, people kept up their dancing until they fell unconscious and many died. »
Chronicle of the dancing plague in the Strasbourg archives
The physicians declared the dancing a result of « overheated blood » and weren’t able to give any medical prescription. The city council then decided to intervene. They came up with the idea of curing the dancers with more dancing. A stage was set up in the market, drummers and pipers were hired to provide accompaniment. People were paid to keep the dancers on their feet « by lifting their exhausted bodies as they whirled around ». As the numbers of the inflicted grew, the council, realizing they made a mistake, started making irrational decisions out of panic and distress. First, the inflicted were quarantined in their houses as they were believed to be victims of divine wrath. Music was banned in the entire city as well as gambling. As the dancing hysteria kept going in most of the Strasbourg houses, it was obvious that locking the inflicted inside was inefficient. As a result, the council started taking even more questionable decisions.
A giant 110-pound wax statue of Saint Vitus was made and sent as a gift to the shrine to « appease his anger ». The dancers were also obliged to wear red shoes soaked in holy water and were transported in wagons, like Frau Troffea, to the shrine outside Strasbourg to pray for their absolution. The dancing plague stopped suddenly, just like how it started, in September 1518. Historians still argue about its causes. The main theory is « Mass Hysteria ». Prior to this outbreak, the region, still recovering from the aftermath of the bubonic plague, went through 4 famines between 1492 and 1511. As a result, food prices peaked and more people struggled to survive. In 1517, labeled as « The Bad Year », a fifth famine took the lives of more people resulting in the overcrowding of orphanages. On top of that, Leprosy and Smallpox were on the rise as well as other diseases. It is quite possible that these grim circumstances would induce this hysteria.
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« Akâak » sucks!
Before answering this clickbaity title, I am going to tell you a story about socks. Don’t worry, I’m getting somewhere with this and I promise you that you will in all likelihood learn something interesting from this article.
The other day, I found some cute made-in-Tunisia socks, which you can see on the cover of this article. You most likely get the reference for that meme. In case you don’t, I am going to kindly explain it. A few months ago, a new word became extremely trendy in Tunisia: عكعك.
What does it meme?
Rumors suggest that this new word originated in Sbitla, where a man named “Âkâak” was killed in an accident after the « evil eye » hit him. This incident led the word “Âkâak »to becoming widely known as a bad omen. If someone envies you, and they want to explicitly “give their evil eye” they will say it. It is, however, mostly used jokingly.
In addition to being used by everyday people, (even my mom!) It is all over TikTok and YouTube now. Several videos showing catastrophes happening to people soon after someone shouts “âkâak” are displayed on these platforms: from upturned wheelbarrows to injured people and the list is endless.
What is a meme?
This is the section where I will be defining the concept of a meme. The origin of a social meme -often unknown as it spreads from mouth to ear- was interpreted by Merriam-Webster as the following:
“While memes today are recognized as amusing or interesting items that spread widely through the internet, the word itself dates to the 1970s. Originally ‘memes’ were conceptualized as units of cultural transfer, and could be boiled down to ‘ideas that catch on and pass between people via culture.’” Merriam-Webster.
To be more precise than the Merriam-Webster definition, the word meme first occurred in the 1976 book “The selfish gene” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He came up with the word by combining the ancient Greek word mimeme –meaning something imitated- with the English word gene.
The meme mutation:
A meme is to a culture what a virus is to living or computing hosts: the meme will only spread if its host, or in this case a social human, carries it on.
If we go back to our original example, the word “âkâak”, we see that it all started with someone using it to summon the evil eye, then it spread from person to person much like how a virus would.
We can apply this concept to every viral meme you’ve come across. For instance, someone someday was watching Spongebob, and for some preposterous reasons, they came upon this famous episode and found the idea of the rainbow very interesting. They then used it as a reference in a picture.
But memes have another property that resembles viruses: they mutate. The reference originally said “Imagination”, how did it change? Well, it simply mutated!
Words are memes?
We can’t help but notice this repeating cycle: invention by humans then spreading then mutating.
Following this reasoning, words can be considered to be memes: all words have been invented by someone and spread through society. The words will mutate according to the language or accent used (among other factors).
In our socks example, the origin is actually tragic if we were to believe the rumor. Yet the meaning of the word mutated to become a joke after spreading. Think about it like the children’s game Chinese whispers; also known by its Arabic name « Chnowa howa? » The story will almost inevitably change at the end of the line. That is how memes mutate and that’s how new words are made: through a meme pandemic!
Thus, everything is a meme, words are memes, you’re a meme and your life’s a meme as well.
That’s it for today. If you came here hoping for me to talk about superstition, I didn’t have that on the menu but you can educate yourself on the evil eye, which is also a kind of meme that is referred to as “old wives’ tales”. You should know however that this reference only explains it from an Islamic point of view since that is the culture it is most associated with. I highly encourage you to find other sources and to form your own opinion on the matter.