Superstition has had different meanings in different cultures and epochs. One thing binding these meanings together is that they are usually negative—superstition is a concept defined principally by its self-declared opponents. A second is that superstition is defined as the opposite of something praiseworthy—usually true religion or true science.
The ancient Greeks referred to superstition as deisidaimonia —fear of the spirits or daimons. This term was originally used positively, in the sense of "God-fearing." The first known negative use occurred around the fourth century b.c.e. in Theophrastus's Characters. His character of the superstitious man shows a person so obsessed with carrying out rituals to ward off the gods' anger that he could not lead a normal life. After Theophrastus, negative uses of deisidaimonia became much more common, although positive uses never entirely ceased. Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 c.e.), in his essay on superstition in the Moralia, used the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue as a means to distinguish between atheism and deisidaimonia, opposite vices in the field of religion. He argued that atheism was in every way superior to superstition, as it was a lesser insult to the gods to assert that they did not exist than to assert that they were cruel. The atheist was insensitive, but the superstitious person lived in constant terror. Plutarch included a wider range of religious behavior in the category of superstition than had Theophrastus, including human sacrifice, Jewish observance of the Sabbath, fear of punishment in the afterlife, and belief in the literal truth of Greek myth. Unlike Theophrastus and many other ancient writers, Plutarch emphasized the grim rather than the comic aspects of superstition. The consequences of superstition could be disastrous not only for the superstitious person but for everyone—Plutarch's life of the Athenian general Nicias ascribes the Athenian disaster at Syracuse in large part to Nicias's timorous fear of a lunar eclipse.
The word superstition itself originates with the ancient Romans, who used the term superstitio mainly as a pejorative for those religions and religious practices they found barbarous, including Judaism and Christianity. Superstition was the opposite of religion, the decorous and pious worship of the gods. The antiquary Varro distinguished between the superstitious man, who feared the gods as his enemies, and the religious man, who was devoted to them as his parents.
Christians countered accusations of superstition by accusing their pagan opponents of both superstition and deisidaimonia. Christian polemicists particularly emphasized the superstitious nature of pagan "idolatry." Saint Augustine (354–430), in a particularly influential passage of On Christian Doctrine, explicitly linked idolatry with divination as superstitious practices, essentially reducing all of pagan religion to superstition. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century and the growing Christianization of Roman institutions led by the fifth century to Roman laws referring to all non-Christian religions as "superstition." Christian authorities for a long time ascribed the superstitious practices of Christians themselves to lingering paganism.
Superstition and the Medieval and Early Modern Catholic Church
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) provided a meticulous and influential definition of superstition in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas followed Plutarch in claiming that superstition was a vice of excess of religion, as impiety was a vice of deficiency of religion. Varieties of superstition included erroneous worship of the true God (Aquinas gives the example of someone in the Christian era who worships according to the old Law, i.e., a Jew) or unsanctioned by the church. Another variety of superstition was idolatry, worship directed to inappropriate objects—that is, anything other than God. Divination and other magical practices, which Aquinas claimed involved an implicit or explicit agreement with demons, were also superstitious in violating the religious precept that man should learn from and trust in God. Even practices outwardly pious, such as wearing the relic of a saint, were superstitious if they relied on practices having nothing to do with piety, such as the particular shape of the reliquary.
The Catholic campaign against superstition in the Middle Ages and early modern periods were not merely theoretical. Church reformers preached and campaigned against what they identified as superstitious religious practices, the wearing of charms and talismans and other non-Church sanctioned activities. Catholic authorities defined superstitious practices as those that did not rely either on nature or on divine power for their effectiveness. Superstition was not only a threat to the laity. Parish priests were often seen as tolerating superstition or even practicing it themselves, and many of the leading campaigners against it were friars operating outside the diocesan hierarchy of the church.
Early modern Spain produced a particularly rich literature on superstition from the pens of Catholic priests, ranging from the vernacular works of the sixteenth-century friars Pedro Ciruelo (1470–1548) and Martin de Castanega to the Scholastic Latin writings of the eminent Jesuit theology professor Francisco Suarez (1548–1617). Ciruelo's influential Treatise Reproving All Superstitions, aimed at ordinary Spaniards whose souls were threatened by superstition, identified it almost completely with magic. All superstition, Ciruelo claimed, was based either on the desire for illicit knowledge or material gain. Superstitions aimed at gaining knowledge were necromancy and divination; those aimed at gain were enchantment and witchcraft. Like much of the early modern Catholic literature, Ciruelo's work focused on questions of causation, claiming that events could be caused either by direct divine intervention, as in the case of miracles, the actions of good or evil angels, or natural causes. Ascribing outcomes to other causes was superstitious. The general tendency of the Spanish literature on superstition from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century was to circumscribe the area of direct divine action and ascribe more and more events to natural causes.
Superstition and Its Foes in the Islamic World
Campaigns against "superstitious" practices emerged independently in the Islamic world. Muslims who venerated shrines of deceased holy men or celebrated "mawlid"—the birthday of Muhammad—were condemned for practices that were non-Koranic and directed worship to persons other than God, the crime of "shirk" or idolatry. Among the most important medieval Muslim intellectuals to campaign against superstitious practices was the brilliant and uncompromising Syrian jurist of the Hanbali school of Sunni legal interpretation, Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), and his disciple Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292–1350). Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Jawziyya saw the first three centuries of Islam as free from superstitious practices but the Muslims of their own time as corrupted by them, linking prayer at graves with the practices of pre-Islamic Arab polytheists and contemporary Christians. Despite Ibn Taymiyya's influence, however, his opposition to shrine visits and other "superstitions" did not become the mainstream position in the Sunni ulama.
The Wahhabi movement of Islamic reform, which emerged in eighteenth-century Arabia, recognized Ibn Tayymiya as a precursor and carried on a vigorous struggle against the "superstitious" veneration of tombs and shrines, destroying many of them. Similar Islamic reform movements, such as the Indian movement founded by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (1786–1831), would also denounce superstition. Indian Islamic reformers often linked "idolatry" to the influence of Hinduism.
Superstition in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations
The concept of superstition as a religious error was very influential during the Reformation, when Protestants defined many aspects of traditional Catholic worship, including pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, the cult of the saints, and the veneration of the consecrated host, as superstitious. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in his essay on superstition quoted Plutarch and followed him in believing atheism preferable to superstition, a position he particularly emphasized by placing the essay on superstition immediately after the one on atheism. Bacon listed as superstitions "pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; [and] overgreat reverence of traditions," recapitulating common Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric. The charge of superstition was also a polemical weapon in intra-Protestant battles. Bacon also hinted that there was a "superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received" a veiled thrust at the extreme Protestants of his day (Bacon, p. 40).
Catholic accusations of superstition against Protestants were less common, as the principal charge they made was heresy. Heresy differed from superstition in that it resulted from willful error rather than ignorance. In common usage, superstition also differed from heresy in that it was focused more on practices than beliefs. The early modern period also saw more secular analyses of superstition in Sir Thomas Browne's (1605–1682) Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) and the works of other collectors and denouncers of "vulgar errors" who preceded and followed him. These writers included superstitions among other false beliefs. Although in many places endorsing the theory that superstitions had been handed down from ancient pagans, Browne and his successors had more interest in cataloging and analyzing individual superstitions than did the theologians and religious polemicists. Their work contributed to the later development of the anthropological study of superstition.
The Spectator on Superstition and Enthusiasm
In an issue of the Spectator dated 20 October 1711, Joseph Addison distinguished between superstition and enthusiasm, linking superstition with Catholicism, enthusiasm with Protestant Dissent, and "masculine piety" with the group he himself was a member of, the Church of England.
An Enthusiast in Religion is like an obstinate Clown, a Superstitious Man like an insipid Courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of Madness, Superstition of Folly. Most of the Sects that fall short of the Church of England have in them strong Tinctures of Enthusiasm, as the Roman Catholick Religion is one huge overgrown Body of childish and idle Superstitions.
The Roman Catholick Church seems indeed irrecoverably lost in this Particular. If an absurd Dress or Behaviour be introduced in the World, it will soon be found out and discarded: On the contrary, a Habit or Ceremony, tho' never so ridiculous, which has taken Sanctuary in the Church, sticks in it for ever. A Gothic Bishop perhaps, thought it proper to repeat such a Form in such particular Shoes or Slippers. Another fancied it would be very decent if such a Part of publick Devotions were performed with a Mitre on his Head, and a Crosier in his Hand. To this a Brother Vandal, as wise as the others, adds an antick Dress, which he conceived would allude very aptly to such and such Mysteries, till by Degrees the whole Office has Degenerated Into an empty Show.
Their Successors see the Vanity and Inconvenience of these Ceremonies; but instead of reforming, perhaps add others, which they think more significant, and which take Possession in the same manner, and are never to be driven out after they have been once admitted. I have seen the Pope officiate at St. Peter's where, for two Hours together, he was busied in putting on or off his different Accoutrements, according to the different Parts he was to act in them.
Nothing is so glorious in the Eyes of Mankind, and ornamental to Human Nature, setting aside the infinite Advantages which arise from it, as a strong, steady masculine Piety; but Enthusiasm and Superstition are the Weaknesses of human Reason, that expose us to the Scorn and Derision of Infidels, and sink us even below the Beasts that perish.
source: Donald F. Bond, ed., Spectator, 2:289–290.
Superstition in the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods
Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume (1711–1776) and Joseph Addison (1672–1719) adapted the "virtue of the mean" model of superstition by defining the opposite extreme not as atheism or irreligion but as enthusiasm or fanaticism. Hume considered the different social consequences of the two extremes. Hume claimed that superstition originated in the fear of the unknown and that people undertook superstitious activities to propitiate unknown forces and thus protect themselves. Superstition sprang from excessive fear, enthusiasm from excessive confidence. However, Hume claimed that superstition was far more dangerous to society than enthusiasm. Superstitious people, afraid to approach the divine directly, handed over authority to priests, whereas enthusiasts refused to admit any intermediary between themselves and God. Superstition encouraged timorousness, and enthusiasm encouraged fearlessness—therefore despotic government and political passivity naturally accompanied superstition. Socially, eighteenth-century thinkers identified superstition with marginalized groups—peoples outside Europe, the European masses, and women, particularly old women.
Some radical Enlightenment philosophers broadened the concept of superstition until it described all organized religions. The entry on superstition in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary recounted how various Christian and non-Christian sects have accused each other of "superstition." By pointing out that there is no religion that has not been denounced by another as superstition, Voltaire discredited organized religion generally. Both Voltaire and Hume hinted that the inevitable superstition of the masses might not be altogether a bad thing, if it kept them quiescent.
The Romantic era saw a more positive valuation of superstition, part of the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and the growing interest in "folk" culture. The English poet John Clare (1793–1864) viewed superstition in his country as a remnant of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans and spoke of it almost rhapsodically. "Superstition lives longer than books; it is engrafted on the human mind till it becomes a part of its existence; and is carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled with the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with" (Clare, p. 301). The human sciences that emerged in the nineteenth century considered superstition and particular superstitions part of their subject matter, and anthropologists and folklorists collected and analyzed them while psychologists sought the root of superstition in the human mind.
Superstition in the Modern World
Superstition in the modern era is less likely to be contrasted with true religion and more likely to be viewed as the opposite of science, reason, or modernity. Campaigns to abolish superstition have continued but have not usually been motivated by interest in purifying religion. The early twentieth-century Chinese government in its efforts to modernize Chinese culture employed a new concept, mixin, usually translated as "superstition," to denote many aspects of popular religion previously called xie, "heterodoxy." This linguistic change accompanied a shift from the Neo-Confucian strategy of incorporating popular religion as a support for the established order to one of actively suppressing many aspects of it. The Chinese nationalist government's 1928 decree "Standards for Preserving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines," attacked superstition as opposed to science and progress. The decree distinguished between cults, which remained permissible, mostly those of deified humans such as Confucius and the Buddha, and "superstitious" cults, which were outlawed, mostly those of nature deities such as the god of rain. It was followed by several other antisuperstition edicts attacking divination and other magical practices.
Even when lacking the coercive power of a state or church, rationalist and scientistic polemicists continue to describe the beliefs of their opponents as superstitious. Psychologists have investigated the human propensity for superstitious beliefs, attempting to identify those populations most and least likely to adopt superstitions. The causes for superstition they have put forth include the human propensity to ascribe meaning to coincidence or to assert control over uncontrollable events. Much of this work has been placed in a context hostile to superstition, seeing the identification of superstition's causes as essential to fighting it and defending rational thought. The idea of "superstition" has even been broadened beyond human beings; B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), in his 1947 paper on "Superstition in the Pigeon," gave a behavioralist interpretation of superstition. Skinner claimed to have produced in pigeons a tendency to repeat behavior associated with food getting, even when there was no real causal connection between the behavior and the appearance of food. He suggested that superstitious beliefs in humans could originate in the same way.
Anthropologists and folklorists have continued their studies of superstition, producing a myriad of studies of superstitions in particular geographical areas, among particular subcultures such as actors or baseball players, and concerning particular subjects, such as cats or fertility.
See also Demonology ; Magic ; Miracles ; Religion ; Witchcraft .
Bacon, Francis. The Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral. Edited with an introduction and notes by Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Bond, Donald F., ed. The Spectator. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
Campagne, Fabian Alejandro. "Witchcraft and the Sense-of-the-Impossible in Early Modern Spain: Some Reflections Based on the Literature of Superstition (ca. 1500–1800)." Harvard Theological Review 96 (2003): 25–62.
Ciruelo, Pedro. Pedro Ciruelo's A Treatise Reproving All Superstitions and Forms of Witchcraft, Very Necessary and Useful for all Good Christians Zealous for Their Salvation. Translated by Eugene A. Maio and D'Orsay W. Pearson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977.
Clare, John. "Popularity in Authorship." European Magazine, n.s., 1, no. 3 (November 1825): 300–303.
Duara, Prasenjit. "Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China." Journal of Asian Studies 50 (1991): 67–83.
Moellering, H. Arnim. Plutarch on Superstition: Plutarch's De Superstitione, Its Place in the Changing Meaning of Deisidaimonia and in the Context of His Theological Writings. Rev. ed. Boston: Christopher, 1963.
Parish, Helen, and William G. Naphy, eds. Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Taylor, Christopher S. In the Vicinity of the Righteous: Ziyra and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999.
William E. Burns
SUPERSTITION . Superstition is a judgmental term traditionally used by dominant religions to categorize and denigrate earlier, less sophisticated or disapproved religious attitudes and behavior. A belief is perceived as superstitious by adherents of a particular religious orthodoxy, and it is from their perspective that the category acquires its meaning. An anthropological description of the same belief would use different, nonjudgmental language drawn from the perspective of people engaged in the beliefs and practices condemned as superstitious by others. The use of the term superstition is inevitably pejorative rather than descriptive or analytical, for superstition is defined in opposition to a given culture's concept of true religion. Its specific meanings vary widely in different periods and contexts, so that a survey of its historical application rather than an abstract definition is the best approach to the concept of superstition.
Origin and Classical Usage
The classical world criticized certain religious behaviors as irrational, or as reflecting an incorrect understanding of both nature and divinity. Greek writers from Theophrastus to Plutarch mockingly described a cringing, obsessive fear of the gods (deisidaimonia ) as an inappropriate religious attitude. Roman philosophers sometimes echoed this theme, but the etymology of the Latin word superstitio (from superstes, "surviving, witnessing") indicates a separate evolution from a possibly neutral meaning of divination to a pejorative term. According to Émile Benveniste, superstitio included the idea of surviving an event as a witness and referred originally to divination concerning the past, the power to witness a distant event as though it were present. In its earliest Latin literary usage by Plautus and Ennius, superstitio was already a negative term describing divination, magic, and "bad religion" in general. Cicero gives a concrete example, explaining that "those who spent whole days in prayer and offered sacrifices, that their children might outlive them, are called superstitious" (On the Nature of the Gods 2.28). For classical Roman observers like Seneca, Lucretius, and Cicero, superstitio meant erroneous, false, or excessive religious behaviors stemming from ignorance of philosophical and scientific truths about the laws of nature. Such ignorance was associated with the common people (vulgus ) and with the countryside (pagus ), so that superstitious behavior had a social locus in the uneducated, lower orders of Roman society. As the empire expanded, the term superstitio was applied to exotic foreign religions of which the Romans disapproved, such as the Egyptian cult of Isis and later the Jewish sect of Christianity. Its meaning became more collective, referring to the "religion of others" in pejorative terms rather than to an individual Roman's inappropriate or exaggerated religious attitudes.
The early Christians adopted this collective meaning, turning the category of superstition back on the Romans. In the period after the second century, pagans and Christians reciprocally condemned each other's religious beliefs and ceremonial practices as the superstitious cult of false deities. But the militant monotheism of Christianity intensified the negative meanings of these charges. The church fathers interpreted Roman statues as idols, their sacrifices as offerings to the devil, and their oracles as the voices of demons. Such false beliefs did not deserve the name of religion, for, as Lactantius explained, "religion is the worship of the true, superstition is that of the false" (Divine Institutes 4.28). Wishing to condemn the pagans out of their own mouths, Augustine of Hippo quoted Cicero's description of superstitious attitudes among the Romans, but he rejected Cicero's distinction between religion and superstition as an inadequate attempt "to praise the religion of the ancients which he wishes to disjoin from superstition, but cannot find out how to do so" (City of God 4.30). This use of superstitio to categorize the whole of classical pagan religion as idolatrous and even demonic constitutes a basic core of meaning that persists throughout the common era.
The religions of the Germanic tribes were perceived in a similar way by the Christian missionaries who undertook the conversion of these so-called barbarians in the period following the fall of the Roman Empire. The cure for their idolatry and superstition was baptism and the acceptance of Christianity as the true religion. But even after the evangelization of whole tribes, attitudes, beliefs, and practices associated with pre-Christian religions persisted. Early medieval denunciations of such paganizing observances in sermons and treatises against the superstitiones rusticorum were frequent. The epistle On the Correction of Rustics (c. 572) by Bishop Martin of Braga condemned popular magical practices, divination, and the worship of "rocks, trees and springs" as apostasy to the devil. Not all superstition was rustic, however. Martin also rejected the use of Latin calendrical vocabulary, since the days of the week were named after pagan gods (in his view demons) like Mars, Jove, and Venus. The limited, local success of such polemics is witnessed by the fact that Portuguese, alone among the emergent European vernaculars, purged this ancient vocabulary under church pressure.
The difficulties of weaning newly evangelized peoples from their old ways led Pope Gregory I (590–604) to suggest a gradualist approach to their conversion. Writing to Augustine of Canterbury, a missionary in England in the early seventh century, he acknowledged that "it is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds" (Bede, History of the English Church and People 1.30). Gregory proposed that heathen shrines be reconsecrated as churches and that existing days of celebration be adapted to the Christian calendar. The Feast of Saint John the Baptist, for instance, was fixed on the former date of a midsummer festival. These syncretic fusions of old and new religious observances were often the target of later reformers' campaigns against "pagan survivals" within Christianity. Throughout the medieval period, church councils and synods condemned paganizing and superstitious observances in an effort to complete the process of Christianization by enforcing more orthodox standards.
Scholastic theologians brought the analysis of superstitious error to a new level of thoroughness and sophistication. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) defined superstition as "the vice opposed to the virtue of religion by means of excess … because it offers divine worship either to whom it ought not, or in a manner it ought not" (Summa theologiae 184.108.40.206). The idea of "undue worship of the true God" revived the classical meaning of exaggerated or overscrupulous religious behavior, now seen as occurring within Christianity rather than wholly or partially outside of it. Aquinas's systematic exposition also classified idolatry, divination, and magical practices in general as superstitious by virtue of the inappropriate object (demons rather than God) toward which they were directed. The Scholastic theory of the diabolical pact as the causative mechanism behind magical effects assured that superstition in its medieval version was perceived as neither "harmless" nor inefficacious. Even if a magical procedure did not directly invoke the power of the devil to gain its ends, it nevertheless drew on forces outside those controlled or sanctioned by the church and was therefore presumptively diabolical.
The gradual extension of the medieval Inquisition's jurisdiction to include cases of superstition as well as heresy was a turning point in the European attitude toward magical beliefs. Founded in the early thirteenth century to combat organized heretical groups such as the Waldensians and the Albigensians, the Inquisition was initially empowered to hear only those cases that involved an explicit diabolical pact and therefore "manifestly savored of heresy." Infrequent fourteenth-century sorcery trials involved literate men accused of conjuring demons or casting spells by using the techniques of learned, ritual magic associated with handbooks like the Key of Solomon. By the fifteenth century, however, the theory of the implicitly diabolical pact was invoked to extend inquisitorial jurisdiction to the magical activities of the illiterate population. As a result, the "new crime" of witchcraft emerged in this period, combining existing peasant beliefs in the possibility of magical harm (maleficium ) with the scholastic theory of the implicit diabolism of all magical effects.
While customary law in many parts of Europe had treated magical harm (maleficium ) like any other crime causing physical harm to persons, livestock, or crops, without attention to the fact that such harm was alleged to have occurred through magical means, the new theological approach focused directly on the means employed, not the end pursued. All magical activity implied that the perpetrator had obtained the power to achieve those effects by apostasy to the devil. Superstitious offenses were no longer simply the topic of pastoral reprimand by bishops and synods. By the late Middle Ages such activities had been criminalized, and they were increasingly prosecuted in both secular and church courts during the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century.
This campaign against popular magic emphasized those activities that were, in Aquinas's terms, superstitious by virtue of their presumptively diabolical object. The humanist and Protestant reform movements of the early sixteenth century stressed another meaning of the term superstition. Many traditional Catholic religious observances were now judged superstitious because of the "inappropriate manner" in which they offered worship to God. The Catholic humanist reformer Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) denounced the externalized ceremonialism of the late medieval church as a superstitious deformation of the true religion. His Praise of Folly satirized clerical attachment to repetitious prayer, fasting, and other ascetic practices as well as popular devotion to relics, saints, and shrines. A character in his Colloquies observes that "Of all Our Ladies, I like best Our Lady of Walsingham," to which his companion replies, "And I Our Lady of Mariastein." These attitudes constituted, in Erasmus's view, a series of distractions from the central moral teachings of Christianity. People might travel to see a saint's bones, he complained, but they did not attempt to imitate the saint's holy life.
Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation intensified humanist critiques of Roman Catholicism. Starting with Martin Luther's attack on indulgences in the Ninety-Five Theses (1517), the new theology of justification by faith rather than by works provided the theoretical basis for rejecting Roman Catholic reliance on external devotions as "works righteousness." To John Calvin, superstition was the "pharisaical opinion of the dignity of works" maintained by the "false religion" of Rome. Having rejected most of the ceremonial aspects of Catholicism, from holy water and saints' cults to transubstantiation and the Mass, Protestants of all denominations agreed in their denunciations of the papist religion as magical and superstitious. The term was also used to describe backsliding within the reformed camp, whether high-church fondness for vestments and incense or lingering attachments to rosaries and shrines among the less advanced segments of the population. In the extensive vocabulary of sixteenth-century religious polemics, one of the most common charges was that of super-stition.
Although the Roman Catholic Church had finer lines to draw in deciding what was and was not superstitious, a parallel effort to identify and eliminate popular "ignorance and superstition" became a major preoccupation after the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Responding in part to humanist criticism, the church discouraged exaggerations of orthodox observances, such as the "desire for fixed numbers of candles and Masses" described as superstitious in the Tridentine decrees. The definition adopted by the Council of Malines in 1607 expressed the Counter-Reformation position: "It is superstitious to expect any effect from anything, when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institution, or by the ordination or approval of the Church." This ultimately jurisdictional approach left intact the indulgences and exorcisms condemned as "ecclesiastical magic" by the Protestants, but it rejected popular magic by asserting an institutional monopoly on access to the supernatural.
Following the anti-Protestant heresy trials of the mid-sixteenth century, the Holy Offices of Spain and Italy turned their attention to the suppression of popular beliefs and practices categorized as superstitious. Trials for magical healing, divination, and love magic occupied a prominent place in inquisitorial prosecution throughout the seventeenth century. This campaign against superstition occurred in different forms in both Protestant and Catholic countries as part of a wider "reform of popular culture," a systematic attempt by members of the clerical and lay elites to raise the religious and moral level of the European population. Historical studies of early modern Europe have shown that these efforts to suppress popular magical beliefs were not wholly successful; the persistence of magical assumptions among the peasantry has also been documented by twentieth-century anthropological field studies.
Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Attitudes
If the Protestant Reformation viewed the entire Roman Catholic religion as superstitious, the radical anticlerics of the French Enlightenment used the term in an even wider sense, dismissing all traditional religions as superstitious. Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764) asserts that "superstition was born in paganism, adopted by Judaism and infested the Christian church from the beginning." In place of the fanaticism and intolerance associated with organized religion, the philosophes proposed a "natural religion" that would acknowledge a supreme being but regard his creation as sufficient revelation. The scientific study of nature was thus proposed as a new cultural orthodoxy, and the concept of superstition was redefined to fit this frame of reference. From "bad religion" it came to mean "bad science," assuming its modern sense of misplaced assumptions about causality stemming from a faulty understanding of nature. Thus magical beliefs and practices continue to be regarded as superstitious, although the original religious sense of the diabolical efficacy of such practices has been replaced with a scientific sense of the impossibility of magical effects in a universe governed by natural law.
A general history of Western concepts of superstition has yet to be written. Such a history can be reconstructed with the aid of the primary materials presented by Lynn Thorndike in A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York, 1923–1958), and by Henry C. Lea in Materials toward a History of Witchcraft, 3 vols. (New York, 1939).
A succinct, careful review of the etymology and history of the term in classical Roman literature is provided by Denise Grodzynski in "Superstitio," Revue des études anciennes 76 (January–June 1974): 36–60. In The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Antiquity (Chicago, 1981), Peter Brown argues convincingly against interpreting the cult of saints as a superstitious deformation of the original Christian message.
The uses of the concept in medieval canon law and ecclesiastical literature receives thorough, systematic attention in Dieter Harmening's Superstitio: Überlieferungs- und theoriege-schichtliche Untersuchungen zur kirchlich-theologischen Aberglaubensliteratur des Mittelalters (Berlin, 1979). The medieval condemnation of learned and popular magic as superstitious is the subject of Edward Peters's The Magician, the Witch, and the Law (Philadelphia, 1978).
The Protestant expansion of the term during the Reformation to include Roman Catholicism is described by Jean Delumeau in "Les réformateurs et la superstition," in Actes du Colloque l'Amiral de Cologny et Son Temps (Paris, 1974), pp. 451–487. Keith Thomas provides a magisterial analysis of the survival and suppression of magical beliefs after the Reformation in Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (New York, 1971). The sixteenth-century effort to achieve a "reform of popular culture" is described as a "battle between Carnival and Lent" by Peter Burke in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York, 1978). The Roman Catholic campaign against superstition is examined by M. O'Neil, "Sacerdote ovvero strione: Ecclesiastical and Superstitious Remedies in Sixteenth Century Italy," in Understanding Popular Culture, edited by Steven L. Kaplan (New York, 1984).
E. William Monter chronicles the prosecution of superstitious offenses by post-Reformation religious orthodoxies and describes also the Enlightenment assault on superstition and religious intolerance in Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe (Athens, Ohio, 1983). A study of the meaning of superstition in the modern world is undertaken by Gustav Jahoda in The Psychology of Superstition (London, 1969).
Meyer, Birgit, and Peter Pels. Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment. Stanford, Calif., 2003.
Parish, Helen, and William G. Naphy, eds. Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe. Manchester and New York, 2002.
Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (1939). Philadelphia, 2004.
Mary R. O'neil (1987)
In 1875, a frustrated Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) noted that "these [black servants] downstairs believe in ghosts, luck, horse shoes, cloud-signs, witches, and all other kinds of nonsense, and all the argument in the world couldn't get it out of them" (Oden 1978, p. 38). Indeed, the superstitions of many blacks often seemed silly, quaint, and backward to white observers. Mark Twain's (1835–1910) youthful protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, is willing to believe, but the narrator himself offers descriptions that are clearly tongue-incheek: "Miss Watson's nigger, Jim, had a hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything" (Twain 2003, p. 30).
Such beliefs were hardly silly to slaves, however; they were quite serious. Gloria Oden wrote that conjure, for example, "filled a deep need in the slave's life for a weapon to invoke against the arbitrary and often violent circumstances that made up his existence. It compensated for the powerlessness he felt, and, consciously or unconsciously, it gave him the vitality of his African heritage" (Oden 1978, p. 39). What Europeans interpreted as superstitions were usually reflections of an African worldview. It was a worldview centered on connections and harmony, as described by Mambo Ama Mazama:
The major articulation of African metaphysics is the energy of cosmic origins that permeates and lives within all that is—human beings, animals, plants, minerals and objects, as well as events. This common energy shared by all confers a common essence to everything in the world, and thus ensures the fundamental unity of all that exists (Mazama 2002, pp. 219-220).
Lawrence Levine described African spirituality thus:
Man was part of, not alien to, the Natural Order of things, attached to the Oneness that bound together all matter, animate and inanimate, all spirits, visible or not … Survival and happiness and health depended on being able to read the signs that existed everywhere, to understand the visions that recurrently visited one, to commune with the spirits that filled the world (Levine 1977, p. 58).
Therefore, slaves who were alert for omens or other interactions from the spirit world made manifest in the physical were—rather than being backward, fearful, and childlike—respectful toward and cognizant of the relations that bind the universe together. Past and present were bound together as well, and a traditional awareness of one's ancestors' spirits often translated into a belief in ghosts or haunts, as well as the necessary means to avoid angering them.
For some slaves, signs and omens were everywhere. Here are some examples:
I've heard if a turkle dove, when de season first starts, comes to your house and starts moanin', it's a sign you is goin' to move out and somebody else goin' move in.
If a squinch owl starts howlin' 'round your house and if you turn your shoe upside down at the door, they sure will hush. Now I know that's so.
I used to run myself nearly to death tryin' to get to the end of the rainbow to get the pot of gold.
And I've heard the old folks say if you start any place and have to go back, you make a circle in the ground and spit in it or you'll have bad luck.
Clark Hill, a former slave (part 3, p. 251)
I was born with a caul over my face. Old miss said it hung from the top of my head half way to my waist.
She kept it and when I got bog enough she said, 'now that's your veil, you play with it.'
But I lost it out in the orchard one day.
They said it would keep you from seein' h'ants.
Annie Page, a former slave (part 5, p. 238)
In slavery times you used to carry a rabbit foot in your pocket to keep old massa from whippin' you.
Eda Harper, a former slave (part 3, p. 166)
SOURCE: Works Progress Administration. Born in Slavery: Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, parts 3 and 5.
Ex-slave Cora Torian was a fount of information about the role of superstition in slaves' lives:
I has dreamed of fish and dat is a sure sign I would get a piece of money, an I always did. Dreamed of buggy and horse an it was a sign of death in family and I no's hits tru. Dream of de ded hit always rains … I hang horse shoes oer my door to keep the Evil Spirits away … I sho no dar is ghosts, I seed one once hit was a man wid no head on standin in my house and pullin the crammin out of de house and puttin hit on de table. Oooh I no's dat is so cause I seed hit wid my own eyes … My Mammy had a woman dat lived wid us and she died, and sometimes afterwards … she slowly ris up and went thru a crack about two inches wide. Now dat's a fak! … You can find things by spitting in yer han and de way the spit goes if youse will go dar you will be sho to find hit … When de moon changes if youse see hit thru de bresh you sho will have bad luck … if youse sneeze wen you eats you will shorely die (Kentucky Narratives, pp. 103-110).
Another ex-slave, "Mad" Griffin of South Carolina, told a Works Progress Administration (WPA) writer about his experiences with spirits. He and his friends would occasionally steal one of the master's pigs and hold a secret barbecue on Saturday nights in a wooded gulley. The trip to the gulley, though, was often "screechy"—eerie shadows in the moonlight, strange animals calling, and occasionally a spirit showing itself with a weird light "jes like dese 'lectric lights out dar in dat street." Sometimes only one or two of the slaves would see it, and sometimes the whole group would. "Dats zactly how it is wid de spirits," Griffin said. "De[y] acts real queer all de way round." He had little patience for younger, "eddicated" blacks who claimed there was no such thing as spirits. "I rolls my old eyes at dem an' axes dem how comes dey runs so fas' through de woods at night. Yes sirree, dem fool niggers sees dem jes as I does. Realy de white folks doesn't have eyes fer sech as we darkies does; but dey bees dare jes de same" (South Carolina Narratives, pp. 1-4).
Elliott Gorn has noted that, like other forms of oral tradition, "ghostlore offered a way of stepping back, a way of observing one's situation and, through symbols and metaphors, a way of commenting on life … ghostlore helped Afro-Americans cope with oppression, retain their self-esteem, and survive as a people" (Gorn 1984, p. 565).
Omens and ghostlore reinforced the knowledge that past, present, and future were intimately connected, as were all beings and objects (living, dead, or inanimate) and that there were definite causes and effects in the world slaves inhabited. Or, as Mississippi ex-slave Howard Divinity—who was known to carry on conversations with Jesus, St. Peter, and trees—put it: "Men ain't all" (Gorn 1984, p. 553).
Gorn, Elliot J. "Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves." American Quarterly 36 (1984): 549-565.
Mazama, Mambo Ama. "Afrocentricity and African Spirituality." Journal of Black Studies 33, no. 2 (2002): 218-234.
Oden, Gloria C. "Chesnutt's Conjure as African Survival." Critical Approaches to Ethnic Literature 5, no. 1 (1978): 38-48.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "Cora Torian." Kentucky Narratives: 103-110.
Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative Project. "'Mad' Griffin." South Carolina Narratives 14, part 1: 1-4.
Troy D. Smith
An irrational or abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God, proceeding from ignorance, unreasoning fear of the unknown or the mysterious, or from morbid scrupulosity; a belief in magic or chance; or any misdirected or misinformed attitude toward nature that would be subversive of true or pure religion.
Scope. The moralist confines the concept of superstition to the vice that is contrary to religion and considers contempt for the things associated with the worship of God as the vice of irreligion. Aquinas thought that since religion is a moral virtue especially concerned with common or public worship, its contrary would involve any falsehood either on the part of the worshipper or in the manner in which worship is offered (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 92.1). He further subdivided the species of superstition into those involving an undue mode in the act of worship and those involving an undue object such as idolatry, divination by spirits, or religious observances contrary to the precepts of God regarding the object of worship (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 92.2).
Practical moralists further confine their interest in superstition to sins of commission rather than omission since the latter are nothing but the neglect of a given religious duty. Among sins of superstition are classed actions that involve either undue cult of the true God or some superfluity in the matter of cult. False cult includes such things as liturgical ceremonies of the Old Testament, which pointed to a Messiah to come and hence would now be meaningless from the viewpoint of time signified; the proposal of false miracles or spurious revelations offered to confirm the faith; and the offering of false relics for veneration.
Morality. Generally speaking, all such acts of false cult would be seriously sinful, for they attempt a grave injustice to God, falsify the honor due to Him, or have a deleterious effect on the true religion. For the most part, vain or superfluous acts that are superstitious per se would be only slightly sinful for the simple reason that no grave irreverence to God or the Church is intended. Superfluity would include such things as the veneration of images that are not approved by the Church, the addition by the priest of private prayers and rubrics in the celebration of Mass, the odd predilection of some of the faithful for Masses celebrated by a particular priest, or some singularity about just what candles are to be lighted. To this list of oddities one might add eccentricities of a more common but less serious nature, such as incongruous devotions that do not have the approval of the Church, or the unwarranted conviction that unusual stances during prayer or particular numerical sequences or accumulations of devotions are especially effective with the divinity.
It is conceivable that the ordinary faithful would be unaware of the odious tinge the Church attaches to such superfluities and would thus be exempt from moral fault of any kind. As a matter of fact, such superstitions can be practiced on a national scale. However, when the clergy are superstitious there is a possibility that their super-fluities, especially private rubrics and prayers during the Canon of the Mass, can be seriously scandalous and looked upon with grave displeasure by the Church.
Apparently human nature has a fundamental need for the tangible things of sense in relating to God and things divine. This is one of the traditional explanations for Christ's provision of the sacramental system. Through the years the Church also has appreciated this basic human need and the possibility that it will sometimes seek expression in unreasonable practices. Some of the more usual symptoms of typical superstition are fascination for the primitive, illogical reasoning, a false conception of the powers of nature, a blind obsession with the sinister powers of fate, a fear of ungodly forces that threaten one's life, and an antisocial and egotistical attitude that leads one to view commonly accepted practices of religion as inadequate.
See Also: magic; idolatry; divination; spiritism.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 92–96. l. g. fanfani, Manuale theoretico-practicum theologiae moralis ad mentem S. Thomae, 3 v. (Rome 1950–51) 3:142–155. d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch (Freiburg-Barcelona 1955) 500–525.
[j. d. fearon]
su·per·sti·tion / ˌsoōpərˈstishən/ • n. excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings: he dismissed the ghost stories as mere superstition. ∎ a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief: she touched her locket for luck, a superstition she had had since childhood. DERIVATIVES: su·per·sti·tious / -ˈstishəs/ adj. su·per·sti·tious·ly / -ˈstishəslē/ adv. su·per·sti·tious·ness / -ˈstishəsnəs/ n.
A belief or attitude that does not correspond to what is generally believed to be true or rational.
The study of psychology generally does not include any emphasis on these seemingly irrational beliefs that motivate behavior. Nevertheless, superstitious actions are common in our society. Avoiding walking under ladders in order to ward off disaster, crossing fingers for good luck, and knocking on wood surfaces to ensure continued prosperity or avoid tragedy are examples of commonplace superstitions that have permeated society since ancient times. Sigmund Freud called such superstitions "faulty actions." Some psychologists consider them expressions of inner tensions and anxieties. Others believe intense superstitious feelings indicate some sort of mental disorder. However, there has been no reliable clinical correlation between superstitious beliefs and mental illness .
Lorie, Peter. Superstitions. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Rachleff, Owen S. The Secrets of Superstitions: How They Help, How They Hurt. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
Superstition ★½ The Witch 1982
A reverend and his family move into a vacant house despite warnings about a curse from the townsfolk. Some people never learn. 85m/C VHS, DVD . James Houghton, Albert Salmi, Lynn Carlin; D: James Robertson.