Sunday, April 7, 2024

Superstitious Survivals from the Ancient Past

What is superstition, anyway? According to one dictionary it is “any belief, based on fear or ignorance, that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is generally considered in the particular society as true and rational; esp. such a belief in charms, omens, and the supernatural, etc.”1 Hence superstitions are beliefs or actions that violate rational thought as conceived in a particular society—which makes superstition relative to what passes as critical thinking in a given community.

Since the rise of human reason in the 18th century many of the superstitious survivals of antiquity have generally lost their influence in our scientific based Western culture—particularly with the rise of modern Western secular education. Yet many superstitions still survive in a kind of underground way in the modern Western world—similar to the survival of paganism in the ancient Roman world. Paganism was edged-out by Christian ascendancy around the fifth century. After 440 CE no pagans are listed among the elite of the City of Rome.2 Yet the ancient religions and superstitions of the Greek and Roman worlds survived in the countryside away from the population centers of the cities, where Christianity had established itself.

            I was reminded of the fact that ancient superstitions still survive in modern society upon reading a sentence from Homer’s Iliad. In a speech Achilles made before the assembled Achaean warriors on the occasion of a pandemic caused by the God Phoebus Apollo over a slight by Agamemnon to Apollo’s priest, Chryses. The Achaeans were pondering why Apollo had sent his arrows of pestilence among them. Achilles suggested that they “should consult some seer (mantis), or priest (iereus), or interpreter of dreams (oneriopolos) to discover the cause.3

A seer in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who divines the future and answers other questions from various means, such as observing the flights of birds, for example.4 A priest in the ancient world (and in the Bible) is one who was authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as an agent of mediation between people and God.”5 Oneiromancy, the interpretation of dreams, was prevalent throughout the ancient world (and in the Bible). Gods of the ancient world were thought to communicate with people through dreams (Matt 1:20-21; 2:13).

There was a prohibition of such practices in ancient Israel: there should not be found among you “anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Deut 18:10-12 RSV), but such figures were consulted anyway (1 Sam 9:9-12, 18-19).

These three supernatural practices still survive in modern Western society in various forms.  A psychic is a spiritual medium who answers questions dealing with matters beyond the physical world (check their availability on the internet). Priests are in the employ of certain modern religions. They are believed to have the power to mediate between God and people, particularly in the more ritualistic religious traditions (ascribing the divine presence to the elements of the Mass/Eucharist, for example). Dream interpretations are offered by psychics or mediums, who are believed to have the power to interface with the spirit world. Dream interpretation, however, has now also gone mainstream, and is a technique used by medically trained psychotherapists (hopefully not through the powers of spirits).6

Is Christianity’s Holy Spirit, perhaps, only another ancient superstition from the ancient past? It would seem, on the surface, that there is little difference between the ancient pagan belief that certain people communicated with and through spirit (not Holy Spirit) and Christianity’s belief that modern Christians communicate with God through Holy Spirit. Both groups access their Gods through the medium of spirit, what they both channel is a spiritual “reality,” and they are both pre-critical survivals from the ancient past.7 In what way is Christianity’s belief in Holy Spirit not also a survival from the ancient past? Why is it not also superstition, if pagan beliefs in spirit are superstition? If there can be one spirit (Holy Spirit), why can there not be more (pagan spirits)? Luke seemed to think so, when he described Paul as exorcising a spirit of the Pythia (Acts 16:16-18).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition, 2002), s. v. “superstition.”

2Charles Hedrick, Jr., History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin: University of Texas, 2000), 57.

3Homer, The Iliad, Book 1, lines 62-63.

4See Charles W. Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination and Fate,” The Fourth R 36.2 (March-April 2023), 15-18, 10. For other appearances of a seer in the Bible see 2 Sam 24:11; 2 kgs 17:13; 1 Chron 25:5; 2 Chron 9:29; Isa 29:10; Amos 7:12; Mic 3:7.

5Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. “priest.”

6National Library of Medicine:

See also Charles W. Hedrick, “Does God Communicate in Dreams,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, May 16, 2013:

7Hedrick, “Laying on Hands, to Pass on the Holy Spirit,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion, July 8, 2021:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love both these posts! I have often thought the concept of "spirit" to be problematic in many ways, and so I have written and preached on it many times. The distinction I would make about whether it is superstitious or not is this: If spirit talk is in reference to a power outside of ourselves that inserts itself into our lives from time to time or on special occasions, that is superstition. If spirit talk is a way of describing the human experience of non-verbal awareness of realities beyond words and normal experiences, that is an aspect of doing theology. If spirit is spoken of as the reception of a certainty or truth, that is superstition, as opposed to an attempt at understanding human experience. So when I pray I speak of speaking from the deepest part of ourselves to the deepest part of ourselves, to explain how this involves that which we do not understand about ourselves. I define spirit as what transpires between us in relationship with others.

Denny Maher