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Nearly 2000 years’ ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote “religio honours the Gods, superstitio wrongs them” (cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 216). In ancient Rome “religio” was a word associated with conspicuous, but not excessive, reverence for and piety towards the Gods. Seneca’s comment suggests that religio stands in contrast to superstitio. But what is superstitio? In the propaganda war against Paganism, Christians claimed that anything that was Pagan was superstitio. In an earlier age it was the other way around. To some extent superstitio was, originally, any religious practice which seemed thoroughly strange, unappealing and inexplicable, thus Jews were condemned for superstitio for engaging in the seemingly bizarre practice of circumcision, among other things. But there is much more to the word than xenophobia. Superstitio implies a lack of self-control, excessive devotion, and perhaps an inappropriate desire for knowledge, such as might be thought to be obtained via certain magical rites (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 217).
“[The] use of the term superstitio seems to have widened over the first century AD, both conceptually and geographically ... the concept of magic emerged as the ultimate superstitio ... [However] the definition of magic is famously contentious and and debated ... According to the encyclopedia of the Elder Pliny, magic was a heady combination of medicine, religion and astrology, originating in Persia, and meeting human desires for health, control of the Gods and knowledge of the future. The system was, in his view, totally fraudulent. He recounts, for example, how Nero (‘whose passion for magic was no less than his passion for the lyre and the tragic song’) lavished massive resources on magical arts wanting to give orders to the Gods – but dropped them when they failed to work: ‘that the craft is a fraud there could be no greater or more indisputable proof.’ And he frequently points to the mendacious claims concerning the magical properties of particular animals and plants made by the ‘magi’ (the title of Persian priests, but extended in the Greco-Roman world to include all ‘magicians’): a cure for toothache, for example, that prescribed burning the head of a dog dead from rabies, before dropping the ash (mixed in cyprus oil) into the ear that was closer to the painful tooth [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 218-219].”