xvii This book is devoted to those human beliefs that fall in the “gray zone” between science, religion, and everyday life—call them super­ stitious, supernatural, magical, or just wrong. In an often incomprehensible world where lightning or plague could end life quickly or drought condemn a poor family to agonizing death, superstitious beliefs gave people a feeling of understanding or even control. However, superstition could also make the world an even more terrifying place, haunted by vampires and other monsters as well as ominous signs of a variety of shadowy future dangers. “Superstition” does not have fixed mean- ing, but it has had different meanings in dif- ferent cultures and epochs. One thing connecting different uses of superstition is that they are usually negative—superstition has had few defenders or advocates and is a concept defined principally by its enemies. Much of our knowledge of superstition in other times and places, particularly before the nineteenth century, comes from its oppo- nents. Calling someone “superstitious” is not usually meant as a compliment, and to define a belief as “superstitious” is an exercise of cultural power. It is no coincidence that sub- ordinated populations—women (particularly older women), the uneducated, the poor and working class, colonized populations, and members of marginalized ethnic groups— are particularly likely to be viewed by domi- nant groups as foolishly superstitious. A second is that superstition is defined as the opposite of something praiseworthy. In the West, superstition began as the opposite of true religion and became the opposite of true science. Despite the attempts of many to define it, however, “superstition” remains a fuzzy category, and what distinguishes a superstitious belief from a religious one or a belief that may be held for perfectly rational reasons but is just wrong, such as geocen- trism, remains a subject to debate. The related category of “magic” is also difficult to define, with religion on one side and technology on another. Superstition in Greece and Rome Although what we would now call supersti- tious beliefs and practices are found in all human societies on record, the first people to discuss concepts such as that of supersti- tion were the Greeks. The ancient Greeks and Romans defined “superstition” (origi- nally a Latin word—the Greek concept was “deisdaimonia” or fear of the gods) as bad religion. The philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287 BCE) defined it as “cowardice in relation to the supernatural” and painted the superstitious man as living a life dominated Introduction
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