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
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;
iv. p. 426 B; Soph. Aj.
, with Jebb's note; Hermann-Blümner,
): 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
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.
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,
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
20.34; though the words βασκαίνω
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
539, 1034, 5858b: in Newton's History of
Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidae,
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.
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
Tac. Hist. 1.22
, &c.). The
death of Germanicus (Tac. Ann. 2.69
) 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,
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.
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
Wachsmuth, Von der Zauberkunst der Griechen und
in the Athenaeum
Berlin (2.209 sqq.
); Rochas d'Aiglun, La
Science des Philosophes et l'Art des Thaumaturges dans
Paris, 1882, &c.; J.
A. Hild, Étude sur les Démons . . . des
Paris, 1881; Maury, La Magic et l'Astrologie dans
&c., 1860; and Marquardt,
3.108--114. To the latter book this
article is much indebted.