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SUPERSTI´TIO In a certain sense, all Greek and Roman religion may be reckoned as superstition: for none of it was free from error. But it is right to make a distinction between such religious beliefs and practices: as were accompanied with lofty thoughts and sound moral tendencies, and others which were merely malevolent or foolish. To the latter alone can the word “superstition” be properly applied. It is impossible, however, to draw any sharp line between religion and superstition; error lies close to truth on these difficult subjects. How far acts positively harmful, such for instance as human sacrifices, were at any time mingled with the official religion of Greece and Rome, is a question not easy to decide, nor does it form the subject of this article. [See SACRIFICIUM; OSCILLA; THARGELIA.]

Our subject here is superstition in the sense of the unlawful and guilty dealing with supernatural powers,!a practice which is ex vi termini not religion, and of which the popular name is witchcraft. We find, it is true, in early literature the union of medicine with incantation (Hom. Od. xix. 457; Pind. P. 3.51), which lasted, though with less credence from educated men, into later times (Plat. Charmid. p. 155 E; Rep. iv. p. 426 B; Soph. Aj. 582, with Jebb's note; Hermann-Blümner, Privatalt. 355; MEDICINA): but this was beneficent action and belonged to the medical practice of the day; and moreover it was to some extent connected with a religious idea of prayer to the gods for recovery (cf. Pind. l.c.; Plin. Nat. 28.10). Of what would strictly be called witchcraft there is but rarely any mention in the great Greek authors down to the end of the 5th century B.C. There is, of course, the legendary Circe of the Odyssey: but even she is too much a goddess to be a witch; her powers are supposed rightfully to belong to her. Medea comes more near to the idea of a witch (in the ordinary stories of her, which date as early as Pherecydes and Simonides, and the author of the Νόστοι as at least the argument to the [p. 2.728]Medea of Euripides affirms); but Medea also is legendary, and, which also is to be noticed, she comes of a barbarous non-Greek race. The Works and Days of Hesiod is a poem in which we might certainly expect to find notice of witchcraft, if it existed in his day; but there is none. There are indeed some perfectly trivial superstitions in Hesiod, parallel to ours of the unluckiness of “spilling the salt;” but of serious superstition there is none. In Herodotus witchcraft is just mentioned (2.33; 4.105; 7.191); but in the two former passages it is mentioned in connexion with purely barbarous tribes, in the last passage in connexion with Persia. The Magi of Persia are not, properly speaking, magicians, though the word “magic.” is derived from them; they are the priests of a lawful and regular worship, supposed to enjoy certain supernatural powers. Neither in Aeschylus or Sophocles, nor yet in Aristophanes, is there any mention of witchcraft, though in the last-named writer there are passages in which it might most naturally have been introduced; e. g. a wizard might have been one of the visitors to Peisthetaerus in the “Birds,” just as the oracle-monger is; or again, in the “Clouds,” Socrates might have been accused of witchcraft, whereas on the contrary he appears there as a sort of positivist. In Euripides there is mention of the γόης (sorcerer) and the ἐπῳδός (mutterer of incantations, Hippolyt. 1038; Bacch. 234); and the connexion of incantations with Asia, the “Lydian land,” in the last passage, is notable, as pointing to the natural home of magic in the estimation of the Greeks. Yet the mention is of the barest, in both these passages. In Antiphon, at the very end of the 5th century, there is the charge of poisoning brought by a man against his own stepmother; and the stepmother would seem to have defended herself by alleging that she gave the poison as a “philtre,” to bring back her husband's love (Antiph. Κατηγορ. Φαρμακ. 9). Here is an approximation to witchcraft, though of a mild sort. Plato, again, mentions sorcerers, e. g. in Symp. 203 D; but the extraordinarily vague mixture of words in that passage, γόης Καὶ φαρμακεὺς καὶ σοφιστής ( “sorcerer and poisoner and sophist” ) is against the view that sorcery was a well--developed or specialised occupation at that date. In another place he speaks (Gorg. p. 513 A) of the Thessalian women who “are said” to draw down the moon from heaven. In [Demosth.] c. Aristogeit. p. 793.79, we have what is perhaps the earliest historical instance (apart from the biblical one, 1 Sam. 28.3, 9) of a woman being condemned to death on the charge of witchcraft; and here, again, the accusation of poisoning is mixed up with the more mysterious offence; though, to the common mind, poisoning was then as mysterious as witchcraft. It will be observed that the close of the 5th century, which is the date when “sorcerers” begin, however vaguely, to be mentioned as moving about in Greece, is exactly the era when that sincere religious belief which we find in Aeschylus and Pindar begins to fail, and scepticism, though abhorrent to the multitude, takes a somewhat wide range among inquisitive and thinking men. Pliny, indeed (H. N. 30.1), says that a Persian, Osthanes, introduced magic into Greece about the time of the Persian wars; but even if this was so, it was but a seed that was then sown.

The superstition of the “evil eye” is perhaps first mentioned in Aristotle, Problem. 20.34; though the words βασκαίνω and βάσκανος, in the sense of “to envy” or “envious,” occur frequently before that date, and in very early writers. (The story of Peisistratus, given by Hesychius, and mentioned under FASCINUM should, however, be noticed.)

It is not till we come to Theocritus, at the commencement of the 3rd century B.C., that witchcraft appears in full force, as in the wellknown second idyll of that writer. (For the remedy of “spitting thrice” for the evil eye, cf. Theocr. 6.39.) At this period, the mixture of religions over that vast area which was. governed by the successors of Alexander, the weakening of each religion as a separate force, and yet the inability of men to do without them, afforded the most favourable possible nidus for the birth of irregular superstitions.

At Rome, magical arts are mentioned as early as the laws of the Twelve Tables, which forbid the “charming-away” of another person's crops (cf. Seneca, Quaest. Nat. 4.7, “et apud nos in xii tabulis cavetur ne quis alienos fructus excantassit;” also Apuleius, de Magia, 47; Pliny, Plin. Nat. 28.17). In B.C. 329, we find a large number of Roman matrons accused and condemned of the practice of poisoning, and perhaps witchcraft as well (Liv. 8.18: the words recondita alia should be noticed): the first time, Livy says, that the offence of poisoning was known in Roman history. He adds, that it was. regarded as a prodigy, and as a frenzy on the part of the guilty persons; and to avert similar catastrophes in future, a dictator was appointed, who drove a nail into the right-hand wall of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (this place is mentioned in 7.3, where the custom is first recorded),--an ancient rite, originally adopted as a method of computing time, but afterwards employed superstitiously, as a means of warding off diseases bodily or mental. (See also Liv. 9.28; Plin. Nat. 28.63.)

All through Roman history we find amulets worn to avert the malign influence of witchcraft, or of the evil eye [AMULETUM; FASCINUM]; but this difference is noticeable between earlier and later times, that in the earlier times the amulet bears the symbol of the indigenous gods of Italy (Picumnus, Carna, &c.), whereas in the later times all sorts of foreign gods, Oriental and Egyptian, are indicated upon them.

It is when we come to the closing years of the Roman republic, and to the times of the emperors, that we find the most extraordinary development of magical arts which the ancient world affords. The irreligious character of the art is then vividly borne in upon us by the fact that the magician threatens, instead of supplicating, the demons which he invokes (Lucan 6.441-492). It is impossible to doubt that at this period attempts were made to injure enemies, and to obtain private advantages, through supernatural means, in such a way as to exhibit magic as a really malevolent, if not also a maleficent, practice. Any injury which it really effected must have been through the fascination which it exerted on its victims; and perhaps such an instance as that in C. I. L. 8.2756 [p. 2.729]may be of this sort: “Eunia hic sita est Fructuosa. . . . Quae non ut meruit ita mortis sortem retulit. Carminibus defixa jacuit per tempora multa, ut ejus spiritus vi extorqueretur [prius] quam naturae redderetur; cujus admissi vel Manes vel Di caelestes erunt sceleris vindices.” It is certain that savage tribes have often supplied examples of the disastrous weakness here supposed. Numerous tablets of contents similar to the above have been found (C. I. G. 538, 539, 1034, 5858b: in Newton's History of Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidae, 2.719, and others). The method of witchcraft implied in the words “carminibus defixa” in the last-quoted passage speaks for itself. Other methods were, the writing of the name of obnoxious persons on tablets, and marking them with magical signs and characters; the forming of waxen images of a person, and causing them to melt away or destroying them in some other gradual manner, in order that the person himself might share the fate of the image (Verg. Ecl. 8.80; Hor. Sat. 1.8, 32); the collection of magical herbs and animal matter: in this last we are at the point where magic touches upon poisoning. Several incantations have been recently found in Cyprus in subterranean tombs (dating probably from the 1st century A.D.), which may now be seen in the British Museum. They consist of thin strips of lead (cf. “plumbeae tabulae,” Tac. Ann. 2.69), on which the incantation is scratched, beginning in some such way as “καταδέω So-and-so, his shop and all his property.” Often words of unintelligible magic jargon are inserted. The strips have been rolled up and nailed on the walls within the tomb: in some cases the material is different, papyrus or a flat piece of talc. It must be observed that the essential point was to effect an entrance into somebody's tomb, no matter whose; since the spirits would then be sure to receive the message, and work the evil. If the tablet could be placed in a temenos of the Furies, it might be laid above ground without so much trouble or risk of fine [see VECTIGALIA TEMPLORUM; TYMBORUCHIA]: but otherwise the interior of a tomb was the only sure place. The same opportunity could doubtless be utilised also for obtaining bones to place under the house of the doomed man (Tac. l.c.) or use in other ways (Hor. Sat. 2.8, 22; cf. Rhein. Mus. xviii. p. 568; Wessely, Gr. Zauberpapyrus). Besides the malevolent aims above indicated, magic also had for its object the obtaining the love of an unwilling person, the search into futurity, and the making of gold (Plin. Nat. 33.79).

Few Roman writers from Cicero's time onwards are without some mention of witchcraft. The passages in Virgil and Horace are too well known for detailed reference. In Juvenal and Tacitus the astrologers (mathematici) are subjects of frequent mention (Juv. 6.562, 14.248; Tac. Hist. 1.22, &c.). The death of Germanicus (Tac. Ann. 2.69 sqq.) is one of the most curious problems in history for the doubt which it affords as to what exactly caused the fatal result; but, if we are to believe Tacitus (L. C.), the enemies of the prince had recourse to magic as one of the means of removing him. The notices of magic in Lucian are well known.

Christian emperors endeavoured, as Pagan emperors had done, to put down all magical arts; but the result was by no means equal to their success in putting an end to the regular heathen worship (cf. Beugnot, Destruction du Paganisme, 1.243).

How far the philosophers of Greece and Rome countenanced magic has been a subject of question. Of course such persons as Apollonius of Tyana, whose life is a collection of myths, and Alexander of Abonotichos, who was an arrant knave, are not here in question. But when Pliny, for instance, affirms that Pythagoras practised magic, we must, considering all that we know of Pythagoras from other quarters, withhold our assent. Indeed, the grounds for affirming it of any true philosopher are very slight. Aristotle, according to Origen (c. Gels. i. p. 19), clearly rejected it. So also did the celebrated physician Galen (de Simpl. vi.), who laments the disposition of a certain Pamphilus to go after sorcery and incantations while picking herbs, and declares that such practices are entirely outside the art of medicine.

The principal writers who may be referred to on this subject are Tiedemann, Dissertatio quae fuerit artium magicarum origo; Wachsmuth, Von der Zauberkunst der Griechen und Römer, in the Athenaeum of Berlin (2.209 sqq.); Rochas d'Aiglun, La Science des Philosophes et l'Art des Thaumaturges dans I´Antiquité, Paris, 1882, &c.; J. A. Hild, Étude sur les Démons . . . des Grecs, Paris, 1881; Maury, La Magic et l'Astrologie dans l'Antiquité, &c., 1860; and Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, 3.108--114. To the latter book this article is much indebted.


hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Sophocles, Ajax, 582
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.69
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 1.22
    • Lucan, Civil War, 6.441
    • Lucan, Civil War, 6.492
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 28.10
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 28.17
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 28.63
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, 18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 28
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