Theory of Magic

Anthropology of Magic III: Superstitions in Antiquity and Today – Nothing Has Changed

Even those who consider themselves to be “rational” sometimes slip and fall into the pit of superstition. Some of us, however, happily dwell in it. Nonetheless, calling a particular belief a “superstition” can have terrible, even life-threatening, consequences. One who believes in what others may call superstition, generally takes it seriously and does not consider it some “erroneous belief”, but a matter-of-fact.

Fortune cookie. Wikimedia Commons.

The Merriam-Webster gives two definitions of superstition: “(1) a belief or practice resulting from ignorance (…) and (2) an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.” A contemplation of this emotionally burdened term is called for, due to the two, starkly different approaches to it. The terms belief, religion, magic and superstition often appear together in the same context, when intellectuals and academics try to define them and create definite boundaries between them. In this post, we will look at how the term “superstition” was understood in antiquity, and what implications it has today.

The English term comes from the Latin superstitio, “standing still over or by a thing”, meaning standing in amazement, astonishment or dread. Some Hellenistic and later authors viewed superstition as an inversion of religion. It was, for example, Lactantius, a Roman Christian theologian (260-317 CE), who wrote that “religio veri dei cultus est, superstitio falsi” (Lact. 4, 28, 11), loosely translatable as “religion is the true worship, superstition the false.” Lactantius thus delineated a boundary between Christianity and pagan religions (Armstrong 2014: p. 54). Seneca (ca. 4 BC-65 AD) wrote a whole book – of which only fragments survive – on superstitions, De Supersitione. Several decades later, Plutarch (46-120 CE) wrote Peri deisidaimonia on the same topic. Both Seneca and Plutarch (although, of course, they were non-Christians) were cited by Augustine (354-430 CE) several times, in his own treatises on the topic, and as we shall see, some of the ideas of these philosophers were considered and referred to by later Christian authors. But first, let’s explore Roman beliefs about superstitions a bit closer.

Rather than explaining what each philosopher thought about superstition, I will turn to a more general analysis of the topic by Richard Gordon. Gordon describes several “types of cognitive interests” explaining why, in Roman imperial context (and by a Roman elite), a distinction was made between traditional, legitimate religion and non-traditional religious practices, within which fell magic and superstition, as well as Christianity in its early centuries). All of the reasons Gordon gives for this boundary definition have to do with the assertion of the legitimacy and unity of the traditional community – while distracting from areas of dispute among this community – and, as a result, presenting the non-traditional community as invalid (see Gordon 2008: p. 75ff for the discussion). To understand this difference a bit more, I include a quote from a letter by Pliny the Younger (61-113 CE), a Roman magistrate and lawyer, writing a letter to Emperor Trajan. Pliny seeks advice from the Emperor regarding the treatment and punishment of Christians, who were persecuted at the time. In the letter, Pliny talks about how the traditional religious rites – visiting temples and sacrificing animals – were being neglected by the Christians, who practiced superstition.

“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent (…). For the contagion of this superstition [meaning Christianity] has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” (Pliny, Letters 10.96–97, retrieved from

Persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero. Christian Dirce, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki [Public domain though Wikimedia Commons].

Gordon’s ideas on this distinction made by Roman authors (although Gordon states that the Roman elite may not be necessarily have been aware of its function) also reflect the biases that are in our own society. In recent anthropology, a tendency to examine one’s own position in approaching the material studied has become almost obligatory. What I propose here stems from the idea that modern anthropology has turned itself into an ethnographic object (Jones 2017: p. 143, citing Herzfeld 1989). In this manner, the following question could be asked: “Don’t Gordon’s ideas reflect not only the Roman material, but also the current way of thinking about superstitions?” What has lead me to ask this question is the observation that in Western contemporary society, there also exists this concept of “illegitimate” religious actions – New Age or neo-pagan traditions, superstitions and so on. In contrast to Roman conceptions, the “illegitimacy” of religious activities today is not defined in an opposition to a united, solid tradition, as was the Roman state religion, but in an opposition to (a) established religions and (b) a so-called “rational” way of thinking, which is yet to be defined, but seems to be based on the idea of being up-to-date with discoveries of the natural sciences.

It is important for the study of Coptic magic to have a look at how the understanding of superstition changed among the Christian authors of the Roman era. In 341 CE, the emperor Constantius II, as Gordon (2008: p. 93) has observed, used an inversion of the same rhetoric as his predecessors when talking about Roman state religion, as did Lactantius is the example quoted earlier: “Let superstition cease, let the madness of sacrifice be abolished” (Cod. Theod. 16.10.2.). Augustine, however, was the one who, according to Smith, defiend superstition in the Christian context for the centuries to follow (Smith 2008: p. 13). Although he used the term “superstition” in the same vein as his predecessors, that is to emphasize the difference between legitimate and illegitimate traditions, he incorporated it into his wider theory of “signs”, stemming from the Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean traditions. In Augustine’s own words:

“All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learnt by means of signs. I now use the word “thing” in a strict sense, to signify that which is never employed as a sign of anything else: for example, wood, stone, cattle, and other things of that kind (…) There are signs of another kind, those which are never employed except as signs: for example, words. No one uses words except as signs of something else; and hence may be understood what I call signs: those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else.”  (de Doctr. Christ. I. 2. 2.)

These signs, especially verbal ones, can be harmful for men, as they can be used by demons. Superstitions, according to Augustine, fall within the category of signs – humans can be easily misled by demonic forces. Superstitions and idolatry were both considered as the deceptions of demons (Armstrong 2014: p. 54). This idea of demonic deception was later refined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD, see Smith 2008: p. 13–14 for discussion). Interestingly, Augustine believed that demons, as well as magic, truly existed, and did not consider belief in them superstition in the same way that a modern Westerner probably would.

Wearing protective amulets with incipits was also viewed as erroneous by Augustine and other writers, which is relevant for our studies of Coptic amulets. Augustine writes that “evil spirits contrive certain semblances of honor for themselves that they may in this way deceive those who follow Christ. To such an extent, my brothers, that they (i.e., demons) themselves, who seduce through tied ritual objects, through spells, and through the artifices of the enemy, mingle the name of Christ in their spells; because they are no longer able to seduce Christians (…)” (In Io. tra.7.6.5; see Sanzo 2017: p. 236). In this passage, Augustine claims that erroneous religious practices are the result of deceiving demonic forces.

Centuries later, a Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204 AD), also had his ideas about beliefs and superstitions, and, as we shall see, his ideas are within the same vein as of the other authors we have discussed. In his letter to the wise men of Marseilles, he wrote:

“Know, my masters, that there are only three sound grounds for a man’s belief. Firstly, belief may be based on a proof that appeals to the reason, as in the case of arithmetic, geometry, or astronomy. Secondly, it may depend upon the evidence of one of the five senses, when we see that a thing is black or red, or taste that it is bitter or sweet, or feel that it is hot or cold, or hearthat a sound is clear or confused, or perceive that a smell is disagreeable or pleasant. Thirdly, belief may be based upon the traditions we have received from the prophets and the righteous. We should make a mental analysis of the subjects of our belief, and should trace them back to one of these three sources. Should anyone believe something for a cause other than these three, he is a simpleton who believes everything.” (Lewis 1905: p. 475–476)

In this case, Gordon’s reasoning as to the difference between traditional and non-traditional religions can be applied again: boundaries are defined between what is “good” to believe in and what is “bad” to believe, based on very similar principles as the principles that we have defined for the modern West – belief is illegitimate when (a) it is not in line with traditional religion, and (b) when it is not aligned with empirical observations. As we have seen, that not only have superstitions been with us for a long time, but so has thinking about them and reflecting on the origins and meaning of the term.

References and Further Reading

Armstrong, S. “The Devil, Superstition, and the Fragmentation of Magic.” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance Et Réforme 37.2 (2014): 49–80. URL

Gordon, R. “Superstitio, Superstition and Religious Repression in the Late Roman Republic and Principate (100 BCE–300 CE).” Past and Present 199 (2008): 72–94. URL

Herzfeld, M. Anthropology through the Looking Glass. Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. URL

Jones, G. M. Magic’s Reason. The Anthropology of Analogy. Chicago–London: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Lewis, H. S. “Maimonides on Superstition.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 17.3 (1905): 475–488. URL

Markus, R. A. “St. Augustine on Signs.” Phronesis 2.1 (1957): 60–83. URL

Rüpke, J. “De superstitione: Religious experiences best not had in temples.” In Religious Deviance in the Roman World: Superstition or Individuality?, by J. Rüpke, D. Richardson (trans.),  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 45–64. URL

Sanzo, J. “Magic and Communal Boundaries: The Problems with Amulets in Chrysostom, Adv. Iud. 8, and Augustine, In Io. tra. 7,” Henoch 39/2 (2017): 227–246. URL

Smith, S. A. “Introduction” Past & Present 199.3 (2008): 7–55. URL

Thorndike, Lynn. “The Attitude of Origen and Augustine Toward Magic.” The Monist 18.1 (1908): 46–66. URL

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