Superstition is the religion of feeble
Edmund Burke (1729-1794), Reflections
on the Revolution in France
To ancient and medieval peoples, the world was a perplexing
place. Explanations were needed to satisfy the curiosity of
enquiring minds, and these explanations are for the most part
what we now call superstitions. Superstition is often founded
in pre-scientific attempts to provide explanations for natural
phenomena, and many superstitious beliefs found their way into
Christianity, sometimes through Judaism and sometimes directly.
Ancient peoples practised various types of divination. They
inspected the entrails of sacrificial victims, threw dice, scattered
bundles of arrows, watched the flight of birds, observed the
shapes of clouds or flames, and consulted oracles. The Bible
suggests that at least some forms of divination worked. Joseph
made a name for himself foretelling the future by interpreting
dreams (Genesis 41). The sailors on Jonah's ship discovered
that he was the cause of God's displeasure by casting lots
(Jonah 1:7). Other methods of divination included the inspection
of livers, communication with the dead, and consulting wooden
idols and sticks of wood*.
The influence of heavenly bodies was also taken for granted
in the Old Testament (e.g. Job 38:31: "Canst thou bind
the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?").
The New Testament describes how the disciples chose Judas's replacement by casting lots.
The Romans had been keen interpreters of chance occurrences.
Almost any chance event could be interpreted as a divine message.
We have already seen that in the third century a man called
Fabian was elected Bishop of Rome because a dove happened to
land on his head. This sort of superstition persisted. In 1604
a parliamentary Bill was rejected in Britain because a jackdaw
flew through the Chamber during a speech by the Bill's sponsor.
The heavens were a source of amazement. There was a great deal
of prestige to be won by anyone who could provide an adequate
explanation for eclipses and other celestial phenomena. The
ability to predict them would have been even more impressive.
Accurately foretelling an eclipse of the Sun seemed preternatural.
Columbus succeeded in cowing Native Americans by foretelling
an eclipse and making out that it was a sign of the power of
his Christian God, a missionary trick that had been used before,
and that has been used again since.
The distinction between Earth's atmosphere and the empty
cosmos beyond did not exist until the advent of modern science.
In the Middle Ages any phenomenon observed in the sky was called
a meteor. Rainbows were a particularly interesting type of meteor
that had interested mankind since prehistoric times. To the
Greeks the rainbow was Iris, personified as a messenger of the
gods, who travelled between Heaven and Earth. To peoples of
northern Europe it was Bifrost, a bridge between Earth and the
realm of the gods. To the ancient Jews it was a sign of the
covenant between God and mankind, guaranteeing that God would
never subject the world to another deluge like that experienced
in the time of Noah (Genesis 9:9-17).
Many ancient peoples personified the wind as a divinity, or
as a number of divinities, and this is particularly understandable
in places where whirlwinds or tornadoes are to be seen. Small
tornadoes are known as wind devils, which gives a clue
as to how they were regarded in earlier times. In the desert
regions tornadoes may suck up sand and form dust devils.
In the Middle East such devils were widely believed to be demigods
and were known to the Arabs as djinni. The Koran mentions
them numerous times and takes for granted their existence as
sentient beings. Devout Muslims still believe in them. The vaporous
Genii familiar through our Christmas pantomimes are really djinni,
nebulous shades of their desert predecessors. The God of the
Jews assumed a similar manifestation, for he is described in
the Bible as adopting the form of "a pillar of a cloud"
in the desert (Exodus 13:21). Ordinary clouds too could be seen
as supernatural manifestations, full of divine significance.
A cloud will occasionally resemble some fanciful being or terrestrial
object, and the temptation to read fancied meanings into such
resemblances has survived from ancient times to the present.
From time to time national newspapers feature photographs of
clouds that appear to show a divine face in the sky. In the
seventeenth century Shakespeare poked fun at the ease with which
people could be tempted to see in the shape of a cloud anything
they wanted to:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape
of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and "tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet III, ii
To ancient peoples the assumption that the clouds might embody
coded messages was not unreasonable, since the sky was believed
to be the abode of the gods. It is no coincidence that the word
Heaven originally denoted no more than the sky, nor that in
Christian art cherubim are often represented in the form of
clouds. We have already encountered so-called sky gods. Greek
Zeus, Roman Jove, Norse Tew, and Jewish Shaddai were just a
few of many. The ancient Greeks believed lightning discharges
to be the thunderbolts of Zeus, just as Christians would later
attribute them to their God. Often the associated thunder was
identified with the voice of the wrathful god.
Terrestrial phenomena seemed equally mysterious, and it is
easy to see how people naturally ascribed volcanoes to divine
action. The Greek smith god Hephæstus was believed to
have his forges in volcanoes. The word volcano is closely
related to the name of his Roman counterpart, Vulcan, whose
forge was believed to be under Ætna, in Sicily. Volcanic
action was evidence of the smith-god at work. Now St Agatha,
the patron saint of volcanic eruptions, has replaced him. Earthquakes
were often attributed to divine displeasure. One of the chief
titles of the Greek god Poseidon was Earth shaker. He has now
given way to St Francis Borgia, the patron saint of earthquakes.
Ancient peoples personified abstract ideas as well as natural
forces. Thus, for example, the two attendants of the Greek god
of war were Deimos (fear) and Phobos (terror). The idea is so
powerful that some concepts are known in modern English by the
names of corresponding Greek Gods. The habit of personification
suffuses European culture so much that we hardly notice it:
Mother Nature, Jack Frost, John Barleycorn; even the original
Father Christmas, the spirit of Yuletide (now confused with
the European and American Santa Claus). Other examples include
Flora and Fauna, Fate, Lady Luck (also known as Dame Fortune),
and Death especially in his persona as the Grim Reaper.
The seven Virtues are traditionally represented as women: Faith,
Hope and Charity, along with (blind) Justice, Prudence, Fortitude
and Temperance*. So too
the seven deadly sins. Truth, the daughter of Time, is usually
shown as a young woman without clothes. In art she is often
represented with her parent, Father Time, drawing aside a veil
to reveal that she is naked Truth. Abstract, poetic personifications
are difficult to understand for those with literal minds. For
them these personifications become personalities. In many religions
they are acknowledged as gods. In professed monotheistic religions
they have to become lesser supernatural beings. We call Hubris
and Nemesis gods because they belonged to the Greeks, although
they were really only ever personifications of subtle ideas.
The Jews personified Death and Destruction in the same way and
even accorded to them power of speech*.
Virtue, Prudence and Power were represented as angelic beings,
but would easily pass as gods in a polytheistic religion. Sophia
(Wisdom) is, arguably, the Goddess Minerva with another name
Mysterious maritime phenomena were associated with gods or
other heavenly beings. The electrical discharge that occasionally
appears on ships" superstructures has fascinated sailors
throughout the centuries. On sailing ships it usually appeared
on the masthead, or on the yards or in the shrouds. It manifested
itself in the form of an inexplicable glowing light and put
the fear of God into Christian sailors. The Romans had called
it after the twins Castor and Pollux. Christians regarded it
as a holy body and it was therefore known as corpus sanctii,
a term that in English has been corrupted to corposant.
It was sometimes attributed to a patron saint of sailors, St
Elmo, so the phenomenon was, and still is, also known as St
On land there were more phenomena that apparently defied explanation.
In certain circumstances organic material will combust spontaneously,
a fact familiar to owners of large compost heaps. We now know
this to be attributable to bacterial activity, but such explanations
have been available only since recent times. For others spontaneous
combustion was evidence of the supernatural. In marshy areas
it is common for methane released by decaying organic matter
to ignite spontaneously. If it does so at night a distinctive
blue flame is clearly visible, and may be seen to flicker and
even move around. Such a light was known as a Will o" the
wisp, or ignis fatuus (fool's light), and was
believed to lead to their death any persons foolish enough to
follow it. The phenomenon was to be seen in many parts of the
world and was known by many different names. Not unnaturally
it would sometimes occur in graveyards, and witnesses often
misinterpreted what they had seen. Graveyard lights were widely
known and in Britain were called corpse lights or corpse candles.
They were popularly believed to be the souls of unbaptised children.
The animal world was another source of wonder. Many animals
have abilities that human beings do not, and each of these must
have seemed magical. Homing pigeons, electric eels and fireflies
were all sources of amazement to those who knew of them. Familiar
abilities were no less inexplicable. It was difficult to see
how a bat could find its way around so well in stygian darkness.
Without sonar as an option the best explanation was supernatural,
and so it was that the bat got its bad reputation. The natural
ability of many animals to move around silently in the night
was also regarded with suspicion, especially if the animal happened
to be black. So it was that black cats were popular candidates
for the role of witches" familiars.
In addition to the unfathomed workings of nature there were
many human experiences that invited a supernatural explanation.
Many people even today try to read into their dreams clues to
predestined events. In the Middle Ages such inclinations were
even more common, for the Bible showed that God communicated
through dreams (Genesis 37:10). Even if dreams did not contain
premonitions they might still be otherworldly. Erotic dreams
for example were explained by recourse to supernatural forces
in the form of witches or demons that took advantage of unwilling
but helpless sleepers. Nightmares were also ascribed to supernatural
influences, as the very word shows, for mare in this
sense denotes an evil spirit. The familiar feeling of being
unable to move, or even being oppressed or crushed, was ascribed
to a mare sitting on the sleeper's chest. Demons attacked
Christians from outside their bodies (obsession), or if they
could gain entry they would do so from the inside (possession).
Many illnesses, and particularly mental illnesses, were ascribed
to demonic possession. Since the Churches enjoyed unfettered
power, it was natural that such ideas should be universally
accepted in the Middle Ages, especially since sporadic madness
and the occasional case of Turette's syndrome and split
or multiple personality would have seemed to confirm them. Delirium
experienced during fevers would also be interpreted as the result
of some inner battle between the sufferer and some supernatural
force seeking to usurp the physical body.
Insanity has been ascribed in many cultures to supernatural
possession. Comas and other catatonic states could also be attributed
to malign occult forces. Even mentally healthy people experienced
altered states of consciousness. The effects of alcohol were
well enough known, but other drugs were more of a mystery. The
fungi now generally known as "magic mushrooms" must
have provided many an unsuspecting rustic with a doorway to
another world, as would hyacin, extracts of mandrake, and hashish
brought from the East. Even bread could induce unworldly experiences.
The condition known as ergotism is now known to have been caused
by eating rye bread made from flour infected by a particular
fungus. Many people must have been condemned as witches on evidence
obtained during hallucinatory experiences induced by ergotism.
Conveniently, priests rarely suffered from it because they generally
ate bread made from the best flour.
the Middle Ages physical afflictions were often attributed to
the machinations of malign spirits. The Devil had a range of
nasty tricks, from causing a stroke (literally by stroking his
victim with an invisible hand), through inserting invisible
skewers to cause sharp shooting pains, and shooting invisible
arrows to cause disease, right down to placing his invisible
tail in a position where people would trip over it. Impotence
was another evil that was thought to have supernatural causes.
In fact witches were thought to be able to make male genitals
Spontaneous abortions were attributed to witchcraft, and monstrous
births were seen as divine warnings (the word monster is derived
from the Latin word for a warning). We now think of child prodigies
as natural enough, but in the Middle Ages prodigies were regarded
in a similar light to monstrous births. The first definition
given under the word prodigy in the Oxford English
Dictionary is "Something extraordinary from which omens
are drawn; an omen, a portent". Any sort of exceptional
talent was liable to give rise to suspicions of divine warning
or diabolic assistance. Arithmetic feats of idiots savant were
regarded with suspicion, as were any exceptional abilities.
As late as the nineteenth century it was commonly believed that
Paganini owed his musical talent to the assistance of the Devil.
In early times the ability to read and write had been regarded
as magical. Up to recent times the lay population lived in a
world full of mystery and magic. Anything out of the ordinary,
or anything for which no good rational explanation could be
found, was automatically attributed to supernatural powers.
Interventions from God, saints, angels, the Devil, demons, spirits,
witches or fairies provided easy answers for difficult questions.
Anyone who knew more than his neighbours was liable to be seen
as benefiting from divine or diabolic assistance, and could
expect to be treated accordingly. A considerable amount of empirical
knowledge was available, although in practice it was often restricted
to small circles of initiates. Anyone who studied herbs and
other plants might know how to cure many illnesses, or at least
to relieve pain. On the other hand such people were likely to
know about poisons as well. Noxious witches" brews are
more common in popular mythology than history, but to the extent
that they existed at all they probably owed their efficacy more
to certain fungi, or plants like belladonna, than to eyes of
frogs and toes of newts. Knowledge associated with the disciplines
that we now know as gynaecology and obstetrics was often limited.
The mysteries of midwifery were always regarded with suspicion,
and the ability to induce abortions was considered magical.
As we have seen, midwives were especially popular victims of
witch-finders. Again, the ability to predict the weather was
evidence of supernatural assistance. To sailors and farmers
it would be largely a matter of watching the clouds and noting
changes in the wind, and possibly combining these clues with
knowledge of local weather patterns for the time of year. Humidity
and pressure could be gauged by observing any number of items
from dried seaweed to pine cones. The height at which certain
birds flew also provided clues and then, as now, farm animals
would often anticipate bad weather by moving to sheltered areas,
sometimes days before the bad weather materialised. To those
familiar with such clues the business of prediction is simply
a matter of common sense. To someone unfamiliar with such techniques,
they would seem preternatural. If a countryman informed a city
dweller on a perfect summer day that he could expect a great
storm soon, and if the storm duly materialised, what was the
city dweller to deduce? To him it was as likely that the countryman
caused the storm as that he foretold it. Either way the countryman
was likely to be invested with great and mysterious powers.
No doubt the overwhelming majority of the magical occurrences
reported in medieval times had perfectly natural explanations.
In addition, however, there were inevitably a number of deliberate
deceptions. We now enjoy conjuring tricks in the knowledge that
they are no more than illusions. In medieval times they might
well be interpreted as being genuinely magical. We all know,
at least roughly, how ventriloquism works, so its mystery has
evaporated; and even though we may not know the precise mechanics
of most stage magic we nevertheless understand that it is based
on clever tricks, and that what we are apparently seeing is
no more than illusion. Such views are perfectly reasonable since
most stage magicians will willingly confirm that they are illusionists,
and those stage magicians who lay claim to paranormal powers
do not last long under scientific scrutiny. In the Middle Ages
the Church used many simple illusions to provide proof of divine
intervention. A phial of dried holy blood, for example, would
be brought out of its reliquary on a certain date and mysteriously
it would liquefy in front of the adoring peasantry. Such events
persist to this day, and we have already mentioned the most
famous example, in Naples, where the miracle occurs no less
than 18 times each year.
The line between superstition and religion is difficult to
draw and undoubtedly subjective. Many Roman Catholics would
consider that belief in divinely inspired vegetables or milk-drinking
idols is superstitious, but belief in weeping statues of the
Madonna and other miracle-working relics is an integral part
of their religion. Educated Roman Catholics regard their less
educated fellow-believers as "Catholic pagans" and
regard them as superstitious for believing in communication
with the dead, for fearing the evil eye, and for holding that
curses really work*. Where
does faith fade into superstition? Are footballers who cross
themselves during football matches religious or superstitious?
Are people who pray to saints religious or superstitious? What
about those who carry medallions of saints who never existed,
like St Christopher? Our perceptions of what is religious and
what is superstitious are largely subjective. Many Protestants
regard even mainstream Roman Catholic beliefs as superstitious,
a view with which the Anglican Church agrees (notably in numbers
22 and 28 of the 39 Articles), although many Protestants believe
in biblical miracles. To many educated liberal Christians belief
in any miracles, even biblical ones, is superstition, yet they
still believe in God. To rationalists, God is the ultimate superstition.
The whole range of belief exists in modern society. You pays
your money and you takes your choice. But this is a recent development.
Not so long ago superstitions were an integral part of life
for everyone, because they provided the only explanations available.