Nearly 2000 years’ ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote “religio honours the Gods, superstitio wrongs them” (cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 216). In ancient Rome “religio” was a word associated with conspicuous, but not excessive, reverence for and piety towards the Gods. Seneca’s comment suggests that religio stands in contrast to superstitio. But what is superstitio? In the propaganda war against Paganism, Christians claimed that anything that was Pagan was superstitio. In an earlier age it was the other way around. To some extent superstitio was, originally, any religious practice which seemed thoroughly strange, unappealing and inexplicable, thus Jews were condemned for superstitio for engaging in the seemingly bizarre practice of circumcision, among other things. But there is much more to the word than xenophobia. Superstitio implies a lack of self-control, excessive devotion, and perhaps an inappropriate desire for knowledge, such as might be thought to be obtained via certain magical rites (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 217).
“[The] use of the term superstitio seems to have widened over the first century AD, both conceptually and geographically … the concept of magic emerged as the ultimate superstitio … [However] the definition of magic is famously contentious and and debated … According to the encyclopedia of the Elder Pliny, magic was a heady combination of medicine, religion and astrology, originating in Persia, and meeting human desires for health, control of the Gods and knowledge of the future. The system was, in his view, totally fraudulent. He recounts, for example, how Nero (‘whose passion for magic was no less than his passion for the lyre and the tragic song’) lavished massive resources on magical arts wanting to give orders to the Gods – but dropped them when they failed to work: ‘that the craft is a fraud there could be no greater or more indisputable proof.’ And he frequently points to the mendacious claims concerning the magical properties of particular animals and plants made by the ‘magi’ (the title of Persian priests, but extended in the Greco-Roman world to include all ‘magicians’): a cure for toothache, for example, that prescribed burning the head of a dog dead from rabies, before dropping the ash (mixed in cyprus oil) into the ear that was closer to the painful tooth [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 218-219].”
Despite the condemnation of magic as superstitio by certain ancient intellectuals, we know that magical practices were, in fact, common features of the religious landscape throughout the Roman empire. For example, in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass the efficacy of magic is not doubted – in that work not only is the central character turned into an ass through a powerful magic rite gone wrong, he is also cured of this transformation via a magical rite associated with the Isian mystery cult. As with many other religious practices, mystery cults:
“differed from the rites of magic or theurgy only in their communal character and the fact that they were directed towards the good, whereas the intimacy with a deity (of the world below) sought by men and women who practiced rites of sorcery were often designed to do harm. But, in principle, a sorcerer sought a personal encounter with a deity, as did those initiated into mystery cults, or from the second century AD, into certain gnostic and philosophical movements. The only difference was that the sorcerer did this through prescribed rites to discover secrets and acquire some power over the deity in question – but not in order to gain union with that deity [Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion at 187].”
Thus it was magical rites that aimed to harm, and demonstrated disrespect towards the Gods, that were generally reviled in the Roman era, not magic per se. However, while archeology and ancient sources confirm that engagement in magical practices was common, determining what “magic” denotes (as opposed to the theoretically more respectable “religio”) is no easy task, for it seems that religion and magic are in reality frequently intertwined. A “miracle” is another word for magic; chanting a sacred mantra is a magical practice; wearing a religious symbol, such as a cross, in the belief that it will somehow protect the wearer, is a magical practice.
“Like religion, magic and superstition have their origin in a belief in mysterious forces that can affect human life [Shelton, As the Romans Did at 417].”
“The term magic cannot be defined in isolation because of its broad parameters … distinctions between magic and religion or science are harder to make in practice than in theory; scholars therefore use labels such as magico-religious to describe activities or persons who cross this artificial dividing line. Similarly, the boundary between magic and science is permeable, since the modern scientific method (observation and experimentation) evolved from forms of scientific magic such as alchemy and astrology [britannica.com].”
Thus, engagement and belief in magic should not ipso facto be cast as superstitio. On the other hand, the widespread practice of, and belief in, magical practices throughout the Roman era does not necessarily lend credibility to their efficacy, for naturally we need to use our spirit of enquiry to establish the truth of any practice.
What the philosophers say
The Hellenic word deisidaimonia, which is partly analogous to the Latin superstitio, offers further insight as to what constituted superstition in the ancient world. Oxford Reference defines the word as:
“… mainly pejorative and denotes an excessive pietism and preoccupation with religion … Theophrastus … defines deisidaimonia as ‘cowardice vis‐à‐vis the divine’ and gives the following characteristics: an obsessive fear of the gods, a penchant for adoration and cultic performance, superstitious awe of portents both in daily life and in dreams, and the concomitant inclination to ward off or prevent possible mishaps by magical or ritual acts, esp. through continuous purifications [oxfordreference.com].”
So basically superstitio is taking religio too far. But one could arguably go too far with this definition too, for what constitutes going too far? The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote:
“If men could see that there is a definite termination point for their troubles [death], they would in some way have the strength to withstand religious superstitions and the threats of prophets [Shelton, As the Romans Did at 421].”
According to Lucretius the antidote to superstitio is the pursuit of scientific knowledge; he went so far as to assert that the Gods do not concern themselves in human affairs and so do not intervene in them – this is not atheism but is somewhat close to it for, taken to its logical extreme, it suggests that religious action is essentially futile. According to this point of view religio and superstitio are close to each other, rather than standing in opposition to each other, as per Seneca’s view. So we see that one man’s religio is another’s superstitio. Countering the Epicurean position Cicero wrote:
“I do not recognise fortune-tellers, or those who prophesy for money, or necromancers, or mediums … for my part, believing as I do that the Gods do care for man, and that they advise and often forewarn him, I approve of divination which is not trivial and is free from falsehood and trickery … it is a duty to weed out every root of superstition … no one who believes in them can ever remain in a tranquil state of mind [Cicero, On Divination].”
He quotes with approval these lines by Ennius:
“… superstitious bards, soothsaying quacks, averse to work, or mad, or ruled by want, directing others how to go, and yet what road to take they do not know themselves; from those to whom they promise wealth they beg a coin [cited in Cicero, On Divination].”
Over 2000 years later it is not hard to recognise the successors to the “superstitious bards [and] soothsaying quacks” of our own age. The harder task is to recognise superstitio in oneself. The following definition may provide guidance:
“Superstition usually involves an unreasoning fear of the unknown and a false concept of causation (that a black cat, for example, may be the cause of bad luck) [Shelton, As the Romans Did at 417].”
Turcan tells us that from the (educated and elite) Roman perspective superstitio is essentially a case of exaggerating mysticism and a lack of self-control so that imagination, emotion and a dread of the supernatural predominate (Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 10-11). If we accept these definitions then we may see that if fear of the Gods becomes stronger than our admiration for them then that is probably a good indicator that we are sinking into superstitio. Likewise, if we become neurotically obsessed with the slightest ambiguous sign, especially when those signs seem to be frequently occurring, and we start perceiving omens every other day, then perhaps we are sliding towards superstitio. If we cease to trust in the fundamental benevolence of the Gods then, surely, we have travelled too far down the road of superstitio. In The Nature of the Gods Cicero suggests that it is not in the nature of a God to be grudging and if it were that God would not be worth venerating. These wise and philosophic words may guard us well. Do we like, trust and/or admire the Gods or do we fear them? If, overwhelmingly, we fear them then how can we achieve pax Deorum (peace with the Gods), and how can we, as Cicero suggests, experience any kind of peace at all? Indeed, how can we truly call ourselves free men and women if we enslave ourselves to irrational fears?
All of the above suggests that superstitio is best understood as a case of religio, which includes what some might call magic, being taken to extreme lengths; that is to say it is essentially over the top (OTT). A contemporary example of superstitio might be observed in the concept of Satan; it is one thing to say there is malevolence in the world, another to stitch together a super being such as “the devil”, who is thought to be wholly evil and very powerful. This is a case of being OTT. The Old Testament story of Moses’ reaction to the idol of the golden calf is another. The idea of a God being so intensely jealous and malicious that he effectively orders you to murder 3000 of your fellow people (Exodus 32) is to paint that God in a grotesque light – neither Lucretius, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius or Plotinus (the greatest philosophers of the Roman era, representing the major philosophical schools of ancient Europe) would have approved of such an extreme show of religious fear and superstitio. This is not to make claims that Abrahamic faiths have a particular affinity for superstition, for there are many sensible (ie, moderate) Jews and Christians. Judeo-Christians are referred to only because their practices and beliefs are well known. Superstitio does not necessarily arise because one is a Jew, a Christian or a Pagan, it arises when one engages in OTT actions as a result of harbouring OTT fears and beliefs. Not only does it insult the Gods, and the universe in its sacred totality, but it degrades the person, both in her ability to reason, to keep emotion and imagination in check, and in her ability to take responsibility for her actions. We should not both credit and blame the Gods for every small thing that happens to us. If we are religious we allow for interaction between deities and humans, and we do not ignore divine signs and omens, for to be indifferent to them is to be impious, but on the other hand, though we ask the Gods to look favourably upon us, we recognise that it is also what we do, our hard work (or lack thereof), that goes toward determining the outcome. I will let Turcan have the final word.
“Superstitio concerned … the exaggerations or aberrations of an uncontrolled mysticism. In Rome, people had always steered clear of imagination and the surge of emotions in religious matters, [including] fringe prophesying … The Romans certainly asked their Gods to look favourably upon them, but above all to reassure them in their plans and back them in their actions. The adage ‘God helps them who helps themselves’ exactly suited their inveterate pragmatism [Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 10-11].”