The Role of Superstition


Click below for more information

Home Page - Index
Authorities Assessed
Old Testament
New Testament
Apostolic Traditions
Church Fathers
General Church Councils
Early Christian History
What Jesus Believed
Who Founded Christianity?
Creation of Doctrine
Origin of Ideas & Practices
The Concept of Orthodoxy
Origin of the Priesthood
Maintaining Deceptions
Suppress Facts
Selecting Sources
Fabricating Records
Retrospective Prophesy
Ambiguous Authorities
Ignore Injunctions
Invent, Amend and Discard
Manipulate Language
Case Studies
Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
Managing Inconvenient Texts
Christianity & Science
Traditional Battlegrounds
Modern Battlegrounds
Rational Explanations
Religion in General
Christianity in Particular
Divine Human Beings
Ease of Creating Religions
Arguments for and Against
Popular Arguments
Philosophical Arguments
Moral Arguments
Supernatural Arguments
  • Miracles
  • Revelation
  • Faith
  • Practical Arguments
    Record of Christianity
    Social Issues
  • Slavery
  • Racism
  • Capital Punishment
  • Penal Reform
  • Physical Abuse
  • Treatment of Women
  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Divorce
  • Family Values
  • Children
  • Romanies
  • The Physically Ill
  • The Mentally Ill
  • The Poor
  • Animals
  • Ecology
  • Persecution
  • Persecutions of Christians
  • Persecutions by Christians
  • Church & State
  • Symbiosis
  • Meddling in Governance
  • Interference in Politics
  • Abuse of Power
  • Church Law and Justice
  • Exemption from the Law
  • Unofficial Exemption
  • Financial Privileges
  • Control Over Education
  • Human Rights
  • Freedom of Belief
  • Religious Toleration
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Freedom of Enjoyment
  • Attitudes to Sex
  • Celibacy
  • Sex Within Marriage
  • Sex Outside Marriage
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Homosexuality
  • Transvestism
  • Prostitution
  • Pederasty
  • Bestiality
  • Sadomasochism
  • Necrophilia
  • Consequences
  • Science & Medicine

  • Ancient Times
  • Dark and Middle Ages
  • Sixteenth Century
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Nineteenth Century
  • 20th and 21st Centuries
  • Medical Records Compared
  • Violence & Warfare
  • Crusades
  • God's Wars
  • Churches' Wars
  • Christian Atrocities
  • Cultural Vandalism
  • The Classical World
  • Europe
  • The Wider Modern World
  • Possible Explanations
    Summing up
    Marketing Religion
    Marketing Christianity
    Continuing Damage
    Religious Discrimination
    Christian Discrimination
    Moral Dangers
    Abuse of Power
    A Final Summing Up
    Search site
    Bad News Blog
    Religious Quotations
    Christianity & Human Rights
    Christian Prooftexts
    Social Media


    Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.
    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 and nationality.

    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 Elmo's fire.

    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.

    In 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 disappear altogether*. 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.


    Buy the Book from



    Buy the Book from
    Beyond Belief: Two Thousand (2000) Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church
    More Books





    §. The theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, come from 1 Corinthians (13:13). The four cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance come from Plato's Republic (4:427ff).

    §. The theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, come from 1 Corinthians (13:13). The four cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance come from Plato's Republic (4:427ff).

    §. Job 28:22, cf. Proverbs 15:11 and 27:20.

    §. The witch-hunters" infamous handbook Malleus Maleficarum devoted considerable space to the question of whether genitals really disappeared or only appeared to disappear. Amongst the serious evidence presented in support of the first theory were the many stories of clutches of live dismembered penises found hidden in boxes or birds" nests. The inquisitors favoured the opinion that disappearing and dismembered male genitalia were devilish illusions or "glamours". Malleus Maleficarum, Pt II, q1, c7.

    §. The term Catholic pagan is one used by sociologists to describe professed Roman Catholics who believe in a range of non-Christian concepts such as the evil eye. Around a third of all Italians for example qualify as "Catholic pagans".


    •     ©    •     Further Resources     •    Link to Us    •         •    Contact     •