CIVIL

Of Superstition – Mestrius Plutarchus-100 CE

OF SUPERSTITION

Λούκιος Μέστριος Πλούταρχος (46–127)

The ignorance and want of true knowledge as touching the gods divided even from the beginning into two branches, meeting on the one side with stubborn and obstinate natures, as it were with a churlish piece of ground, hath in them engendered impiety and atheism; and on the other side, lighting upon gentle and tender spirits like a moist and soft soil, hath bred and imprinted therein superstition: now as all error in opinion and judgment, and namely in these matters, is hurtful and dangerous enough; so if it be accompanied with some passion of the mind it is most pernicious. For this we must think, that every one of these passions resembleth a deception that is feverous and inflamed; and like as the dislocations of any joints in a man’s body out of their place joined with a wound be worse than others to be cured; even so the distortions and errors of the mind meeting with some passion are more difficult to be reformed. As, for example, set case that one do think that the little motes and indivisible bodies called atomi, together with voidness and emptiness, be the first elements and principles whereof all things are made; certainly this is an erroneous and false opinion of his; howbeit the same breedeth no ulcer, no fever causing disordinate pulse in the arteries, nor yet any pricking and troublesome pain. Doth some one hold that riches is the sovereign good of man? This error and false opinion hath a rust or canker and a worm that eateth into the soul and transporteth the same besides itself, it suffereth it not to take any repose, it stingeth, it pricketh it and setteth it a-gadding, it throweth it down headlong (as it were) from high rocks, it stifleth and strangleth it, and in one word, it bereaveth it of all liberty and frank speech. Again, are there some persuaded that virtue and vice be substances corporal and material? this haply is a gross ignorance and a foul error, howbeit not lamentable nor worthy to be deplored: but there be other judgments and opinions like unto this:

O virtue, wretched and miserable.
Nought else but words and wind variable;
Thee serv’d I daily with all reverence,
As if thou hadst been some real essence:
Whereas injustice neglected I have,
Which would have made me a man rich and brave;
Intemperance eke have I cast behind:
Of pleasures all, the mother dear and kind.

Such as these verily we ought to pity, yea, and withal to be offended at, because in whose minds they are once entered and settled they engender many maladies and passions like unto worms and such filthy vermin.

But now to come unto those which at this present are in question: impiety or atheism, being a false persuasion and lewd belief that there is no sovereign nature most happy and incorruptible, seemeth by incredulity of a Godhead to bring miscreants to a certain stupidity, bereaving them of all sense and feeling, considering that the end of this misbelief that there is no God, is to be void altogether of fear. As for superstition, according as the nature of the Greek word (which signifieth fear of the gods) doth imply, is a passionate opinion and turbulent imagination, imprinting in the heart of man a certain fearfulness, which doth abate his courage and humble him down to the very ground, whiles he is persuaded that they be gods indeed, but such as be noisome, hurtful, and doing mischief unto men: In such sort, that the impious atheist, having no motion at all as touching the Deity and divine power, and the superstitious person moved and affected thereto after a perverse sort, and otherwise than he should, are both out of the right way. For ignorance, as it doth ingenerate in the one an unbelief of that sovereign nature which is the cause of all goodness, so it imprinteth in the other a misbelief of the Deity, as being the cause of evil: so that as it should seem, impiety or atheism is a false judgment and opinion of the Godhead; and superstition a passion proceeding from an erroneous persuasion. True it is that all maladies of the soul are foul and the passions naught; howbeit in some of them there is a kind of (I wot not what) alacrity, haughtiness, and jollity, proceeding from the lightness of the mind; and to say in a word, there is in manner not one of them all destitute of one active motion or other, serving for action; but a common imputation this is and a blame laid generally upon all passions, that with their violent pricks (as it were) they incite, provoke, urge, compel, and force reason; only fear, which being no less void of audacity and boldness than of reason, carrieth with it a certain blockishness or stupidity, destitute of action, perplexed, idle, dead, without any exploit or effect whatsoever; whereupon it is named in Greek δεῖμα, that is to say, a bond, and τάρβος, that is to say, trouble, for that it both bindeth and also troubleth the mind. But of all sorts of fear there is none so full of perplexity, none so unfit for action as that of superstition. The man who saileth not is not afraid of the sea; neither feareth he the wars who followeth not warfare; no more than he who keepeth home and stirreth not out of doors is afraid of thieves that rob by the highway-side; or the poor man that hath nought to lose, of the sycophant or promoter; nor he that liveth in mean estate, of envy; no more (I say) than he that is in Gaul feareth earthquake, or in Ethiopia thunder and lightning: but the superstitious man that stands in fear of the gods, feareth all things, the land, the sea, the air, the sky, darkness, light, silence, and his very dreams. Servants whiles they be asleep forget the rigour and hardness of their masters. Sleep easeth the chains, gyves, and fetters of those that lie by the heels bound in prison; dolorous inflammations, smart wounds, painful ulcers and marimuls that eat and consume the flesh, yield some ease and alleviation unto patients whiles they be asleep, according as he saith in the tragedy:

O sweet repose, O sleep so gracious,
That dost allay our maladies,
How welcome art thou unto us,
Bringing in season remedies!

Thus said he: But superstition will not give a man leave thus to say: For it alone maketh no truce during sleep; it permitteth not the soul at any time to breathe and take rest, no nor suffereth it to pluck up her spirits and take heart again by removing out of her the unpleasant, tart, and troublesome opinions as touching the divine power; but as if the sleep of superstitious folk were a very hell and place of damned persons, it doth present unto them terrible visions and monstrous fancies; it raiseth devils, fiends, and furies, which torment the poor and miserable soul; it driveth her out of her quiet repose by her own fearful dreams, wherewith she whippeth, scourgeth and punisheth herself (as if it were) by some other, whose cruel and unreasonable commandments she doth obey; and yet here is not all; for, that which worse is, such superstitious persons, after they be awakened out of their sleep and risen, do not as other men, despise their dreams, and either laugh thereat or take pleasure therein, for that they see there is nothing true in all their visions and illusions which should trouble and terrify them; but being escaped out of the shadow of those false illusions, wherein there is no harm or hurt at all, they deceive and trouble themselves in good earnest, spending their substance and goods infinitely upon magicians, jugglers, enchanters, and such-like deceivers whom they light upon, who bear a man in hand and thus say unto him:

If frighted thou be with fancies in sleep,
Or haunted with Hecate that beneath doth keep,

call for an old trot that tends thy backhouse, and plunge thyself in the sea water, and sit a whole day upon the ground,

O Greeks, you that would counted be most wise.
These barbarous and wicked toys devise;

namely, upon a vain and foolish superstition, enjoining men to begrime and bewray themselves with dirt, to lie and wallow in the mire, to observe sabbaths and cease from work, to lie prostrate and grovelling upon the earth with the face downward, to sit upon the ground in open place, and to make many strange and extravagant adorations.

In times past the manner was, among those especially who would entertain and observe lawful music, to command those that began to play upon the harp or cittern, to sing thereto with a just mouth, to the end they should speak no dishonest thing; and even we also require and think it meet to pray unto the gods with a just and right mouth, and not to pry in the beast sacrificed, to look into the entrails, to observe whether the tongue thereof be pure and right, and in the meantime perverting and polluting our own tongues with strange and absurd names, infecting and defiling the same with barbarous terms, offending thereby the gods, and violating the dignity of that religion which is received from our ancestors and authorised in our own country. The comical poet said pleasantly in one comedy, speaking of those who laid their bedsteads thick with gold and silver: Why do you make your sleep dear and costly unto yourselves, which is the only gift that the gods have given us freely? even so may a man very well say (and with great reason) unto those that are superstitious: Seeing that the gods have bestowed upon us sleep, for the oblivion and repose of our miseries, why makest thou it a very hell and place of continual and dolorous torment to thy poor soul, which cannot fly nor have recourse unto any other sleep but that which is troublesome unto thee? Heraclitus was wont to say: That men all the whiles they were awake, enjoyed the benefit of no other world, but that which was common unto all; but when they slept, every one had a world by himself: but surely, the superstitious person hath not so much as any part of the common world, for neither whiles he is awake hath he the true use of reason and wisdom, nor when he sleepeth is he delivered from fear and secured; but one thing or other troubleth him still: his reason is asleep, his fear is always awake; so that neither can he avoid his own harm quite, nor find any means to put it by and turn it off. Polycrates the tyrant was dread and terrible in Samos, Periander in Corinth, but no man feared either the one or the other who withdrew himself into any free city or popular state; as for him who standeth in dread and fear of the imperial power of the gods, as of some rigorous and inexorable tyranny, whither shall he retire and withdraw himself? whither shall he fly? where shall he find a land, where shall he meet with sea, without a god? into what secret part of the world (poor man) wilt thou betake thyself, wherein thou mayst lie close and hidden, and be assured that thou art without the puissance and reach of the gods?

There is a law that provideth for miserable slaves, who being so hardly intreated by their masters, are out of all hope that they shall be enfranchised and made free, namely, that they may demand to be sold again and to change their master, if haply they may by that means come by a better and more easy servitude under another: but this superstition alloweth us not that liberty to change our gods for the better, nay, there is not a god to be found in the world whom a superstitious person doth not dread, considering that he feareth the tutelar gods of his native country, and the very gods protectors of his nativity: he quaketh even before those gods which are known to be saviours propitious and gracious; he trembleth for fear when he thinketh of them at whose hands we crave riches, abundance of goods, concord, peace, and the happy success of the best words and deeds that we have. Now if these think that bondage is a great calamity, saying thus:

O heavy cross and woeful misery,
Man and woman to be in thrall-estate:
And namely, if their slavery
Be under lords unfortunate,

how much more grievous, think you, is their servitude which they endure who cannot fly, who cannot run away and escape, who cannot change and turn to another. Altars there be unto which bad servants may fly for succour; many sanctuaries there be and privileged churches for thieves and robbers, from whence no man is so hardy as to pluck and pull them out. Enemies, after they are defeated and put to flight, if in the very rout and chase they can take hold of some image of the gods, or recover some temple and get it over their heads once, are secured and assured of their lives; whereas the superstitious person is most affrighted, scared and put in fear by that wherein all others who be afraid of extremest evils that can happen to man repose their hope and trust. Never go about to pull perforce a superstitious man out of sacred temples, for in them he is most afflicted and tormented.

What needs many words? In all men death is the end of life; but it is not so in superstition, for it extendeth and reacheth farther than the limits and utmost bounds thereof, making fear longer than this life, and adjoining unto death an imagination of immortal miseries; and even then, when there seemeth to be an end and cessation of all sorrows and travails, be superstitious men persuaded that they must enter into others which be endless and everlasting: they dream of (I wot not what) deep gates of a certain Pluto, or infernal god of hell, which open for to receive them; of fiery rivers always burning; of hollow gulfs and floods of Styx to gape for them; of ugly and hideous darkness to overspread them, full of sundry apparitions; of ghastly ghosts and sorrowful spirits, representing unto them grizzly and horrible shapes to see, and as fearful and lamentable voices to hear: what should I speak of judges, of tormentors, of bottomless pits and gaping caves, full of all sorts of torture and infinite miseries. Thus unhappy and wretched superstition, by fearing overmuch and without reason that which it imagineth to be nought, never taketh heed how it submitteth itself to all miseries; and for want of knowledge how to avoid this passionate trouble, occasioned by the fear of the gods, forgeth and deviseth to itself an expectation of inevitable evils even after death.

The impiety of an atheist hath none of all this gear; most true it is, that his ignorance is unhappy, and that a great calamity and misery it is unto the soul, either to see amiss or wholly to be blinded, in so great and worthy things, as having of many eyes the principal and clearest of all, to wit, the knowledge of God, extinct and put out; but surely (as I said before) this passionate fear, this ulcer and sore of conscience, this trouble of spirit, this servile abjection is not in his conceit; these go always with the other, who have such a superstitious opinion of the gods. Plato saith that music was given unto men by the gods, as a singular means to make them more modest and gracious, yea, and to bring them as it were into tune, and cause them to be better conditioned, and not for delight and pleasure, nor to tickle the ears: for falling out as it doth many times, that for default and want of the Muses and Graces there is great confusion and disorder in the periods and harmonies, the accords and consonances of the mind, which breaketh out otherwhiles outrageously by means of intemperance and negligence; music is of that power that it setteth everything again in good order and their due place; for according as the poet Pindarus saith:

To whatsoever from above,
God Jupiter doth cast no love,
To that the voice melodious
Of Muses seemeth odious.

Insomuch as they fall into fits of rage therewith, and be very fell and angry; like as it is reported of tigers, who if they hear the sound of drums or tabours round about them, will grow furious and stark mad, until in the end they tear themselves in pieces: so that there cometh less harm unto them who by reason of deafness or hard hearing have no sense at all of music, and are nothing moved and affected therewith: a great infortunity this was of blind Tiresias, that he could not see his children and friends, but much more unfortunate and unhappy were Athamas and Agave, who seeing their children, thought they saw lions and stags. And no doubt when Hercules fell to be enraged and mad, better it had been and more expedient for him, that he had not seen nor known his own children than so to deal with those who were most dear unto him, and whom he loved more than all the world besides, as if they had been his mortal enemies.
Think you not, then, that there is the same difference between the passions of atheists and superstitious folk? Atheists have no sight nor knowledge of the gods at all; and the superstitious think there are gods, though they be persuaded of them amiss; atheists neglect them altogether as if they were not; but the superstitious esteem that to be terrible which is gracious and amiable; cruel and tyrant-like which is kind and father-like; hurtful and damageable unto us which is most careful of our good and profit; rough, rigorous, savage and fell of nature which is void of choler and without passion. And hereupon it is that they believe brass-founders, cutters in stone, imagers, gravers and workers in wax, who shape and represent unto them gods with bodies to the likeness of mortal men, for such they imagine them to be, such they adorn, adore, and worship, whiles in the meantime they despise philosophers and grave personages of state and government, who do teach and shew that the majesty of God is accompanied with bounty, magnanimity, love, and careful regard of our good: So that as in the one sort we may perceive a certain senseless stupidity and want of belief in those causes from whence proceed all goodness; so in the other we may observe a distrustful doubt and fear of those which cannot otherwise be than profitable and gracious. In sum, impiety and atheism is nothing else but a mere want of feeling and sense of a deity or divine power, for default of understanding and knowing the sovereign good; and superstition is a heap of divers passions, suspecting and supposing that which is good by nature to be bad; for superstitious persons fear the gods, and yet they have recourse unto them; they flatter them, and yet blaspheme and reproach them; they pray unto them, and yet complain of them. A common thing this is unto all men, not to be always fortunate, whereas the gods are void of sickness, not subject to old age, leither taste they of labour or pain at any time: and as Pindarus saith:

Escape they do the passage of the firth
Of roaring Acheron, and live alway in mirth.

But the passions and affairs of men be intermeddled with divers accidents and adventures which run as well one way as another, Now consider with me first and foremost the atheist in those things which happen against his mind, and learn his disposition and affection in such occurrences: if in other respects he be a temperate and modest man, bear he will his fortune patiently without saying a word; seek for aid he will and comfort by what means he can; but if he be of nature violent, and take his misfortune impatiently, then he directeth and opposeth all his plaints and lamentations against fortune and casualty; then he crieth out that there is nothing in the world governed either by justice or with providence, but that all the affairs of man run confusedly headlong to destruction: but the fashion of the superstitious is otherwise, for let there never so small an accident or mishap befall unto him, he sits him down sorrowing, and thereto he multiplieth and addeth other great and grievous afflictions, such as hardly be removed; he imagineth sundry frights, fears, suspicions, and troublesome terrors, giving himself to all kind of wailing, groaning, and doleful lamentation; for he accuseth not any man, fortune, occasion, or his own self; but he blameth God as the cause of all, giving out in plain terms that from thence it is that there falleth and runneth over him such a celestial influence of all calamity and misery, contesting in this wise, that an unhappy or unlucky man he is not, but one hated of the gods, worthily punished and afflicted, yea, and suffering all deservedly by that divine power and providence: now if the godless atheist be sick, he discourseth with himself and calleth to mind his repletions and full feedings, his surfeiting upon drinking wine, his disorders in diet, his immoderate travail and pains taken, yea, and his unusual and absurd change of air, from that which was familiar, unto that which is strange and unnatural: moreover, if it chance that he have offended in any matter of government touching the state, incurred disgrace and an evil opinion of the people and country wherein he liveth, or been falsely accused and slandered before the prince or sovereign ruler, he goeth no farther than to himself and those about him, imputing the cause of all thereto and to nothing else, and thus he reasoneth:

Where have I been? what good have I done ? and what have I not done?
Where have I slipp’d? what duty begun is left by me undone?

whereas the superstitious person will think and say, that every disease and infirmity of his body, all his losses, the death of his children, his evil success and infortunity in managing civil affairs of state, and his repulses and disgraces, are so many plagues inflicted upon him by the ire of the gods, and the very assaults of the divine justice; insomuch as he dare not go about to seek for help and succour, nor avert his own calamity; he will not presume to seek for remedy, nor oppose himself against the invasion of adverse fortune, for fear (forsooth) lest he might seem to fight against the gods, or to resist their power and will when they punish him: thus when he lieth sick in bed, he driveth his physician out of the chamber, when he is come to visit him; when he is in sorrow, he shutteth and locketh his door upon the philosopher that cometh to comfort him and give him good counsel: Let me alone (will he say) and give me leave to suffer punishment as I have deserved, wicked and profane creature that I am, accursed, hated of all the gods, demigods, and saints in heaven. Whereas if a man (who doth not believe nor is persuaded that there is a God) be otherwise in exceeding grief and sorrow, it is an ordinary thing with him to wipe away the tears as they gush out of his eyes and trickle down the cheeks, to cause his hair to be cut, and to take away his mourning weed. As for a superstitious person; how should one speak unto him, or which way succour and help him? without the doors he sits clad in sackcloth, or else girded about his loins with patched clothes and tattered rags; oftentimes he will welter and wallow in the mire, confessing and declaring (I wot not) what sins and offences that he hath committed; to wit, that he hath eaten or drunk this or that which his god would not permit; that he hath walked or gone some whither against the will and leave of the divine power. Now, say he be of the best sort of these superstitious people, and that he labour but of the milder superstition; yet will he at leastwise sit within house, having about him a number of all kinds of sacrifices and sacred aspersions; ye shall have old witches come and bring all the charms, spells and sorceries they can come by, and hang them about his neck or other parts of his body (as it were) upon a stake, as Bion was wont to say.

It is reported that Tyribasus, when he should have been apprehended by the Persians, drew his cimeter, and (as he was a valiant man of his hands) defended himself valiantly; but so soon as they that came to lay hands on him cried out and protested that they were to attach him in the king’s name and by commission from his majesty, he laid down his weapon aforesaid immediately, and offered both his hands to be bound and opinioned. And is not this whereof we treat the semblable case? whereas others withstand their adversity, repel and put back their afflictions, and work all the means they can for to avoid, escape and turn away that which they would not have to come upon them. A superstitious person will hear no man, but speak in this wise to himself: Wretched man that thou art, all this thou sufferest at the hands of God, and this is befallen unto thee by his commandment, and the divine providence; all hope he rejecteth, he doth abandon and betray himself, and look, whosoever come to succour and help him, those he shunneth and repelleth from him. Many crosses there be and calamities in the world, otherwise moderate and tolerable, which superstition maketh mischievous and incurable.

That ancient king Midas in old time being troubled and disquieted much in his mind (as it should seem) with certain dreams and visions, in the end fell into such a melancholy and despair, that willingly he made himself away by drinking bull’s blood. And Aristodemus, king of Messenians, in that war which he waged against the Lacedaemonians, when it happened that the dogs yelled and howled like wolves, and that there grew about the altar of his house the herb called dent de chien, or dog’s grass, whereupon the wizards and soothsayers were afraid (as of some tokens presaging evil), conceived such an inward grief and took so deep a thought, that he fell into desperation and killed himself. As for Nicias, the general of the Athenian army, haply it had been far better that by the examples of Midas and Aristodemus he had been delivered and rid from his superstition, than for fear of the shadow occasioned by the eclipse of the moon to have sitten still as he did and do nothing, until the enemies environed and enclosed him round about; and after that forty thousand of Athenians were either put to the sword or taken prisoners, to come alive into the hands of his enemies, and lose his life with shame and dishonour: for in the darkness occasioned by the opposition of the earth just in the midst, between the sun and the moon, whereby her body was shadowed and deprived of light, there was nothing for him to fear, and namely at such a time when there was cause for him to have stood upon his feet and served valiantly in the field; but the darkness of blind superstition was dangerous, to trouble and confound the judgment of a man who was possessed therewith, at the very instant when his occasions required most the use of his wit and understanding:

The sea already troubled is
With billows blew within the sound,
Up to the capes and cliffs arise
Thick misty clouds which gather round
About their tops, where they do seat,
Fore-shewing shortly tempests great.

A good and skilful pilot seeing this, doth well to pray unto the gods for to escape the imminent danger, and to invocate and call upon those saints for help which they after call saviours: but all the while that he is thus at his devout prayers he holdeth the helm hard, he letteth down the cross sail-yard:

Thus having struck the mainsail down the mast,
He ‘scapes the sea, with darkness overcast.

Hesiodus giveth the husbandman a precept, before he begin to drive the plough or sow his seed:

To Ceres chaste his vows to make,
To Jove likewise god of his land,
Forgetting not the while to take
The end of his plough-tail in hand.

And Homer bringeth in Ajax being at the point to enter into combat with Hector, willing the Greeks to pray for him unto the gods; but whiles they prayed he forgat not to arm himself at all pieces. Semblably, Agamemnon after he had given commandment to his soldiers who were to fight:

Each one his lance and spear to whet.
His shield likewise fitly to set,

then, and not before, prayeth unto Jupiter in this wise:

O Jupiter, vouchsafe me of thy grace.
The stately hall of Priamus to race;

for God is the hope of virtue and valour, not the pretence of sloth and cowardice. But the Jews were so superstitious, that on their sabbath (sitting still even whiles the enemies reared their scaling-ladders and gained the walls of their city) they never stirred foot, nor rose for the matter, but remained fast tied and enwrapped in their superstition as it were in a net. Thus you see what superstition is in those occurrences of times and affairs which succeed not to our mind, but contrary to our will (that is to say) in adversity: and as for times and occasions of mirth, when all things fall out to a man’s desire, it is no better than impiety or atheism; and nothing is so joyous unto man is the solemnity of festival holidays, great feasts and sacrifices before the temples of the gods, the mystical and sacred rites performed when we are purified and cleansed from our sins, the ceremonial service of the gods when we worship and adore them; in which all, a superstitious man is no better than the atheist: for mark an atheist in all these, he will laugh at them until he be ready to go beside himself; these toys will set him (I say) into a fit of Sardonian laughing, when he shall see their vanities; and otherwhiles he will not stick to say softly in the ear of some familiar friend about him: What mad folk be these? how are they out of their right wits and enraged who suppose that such things as these do please the gods! Setting this aside, there is no harm at all in him. As for the superstitious person, willing he is, but not able, to joy and take pleasure: for his heart is much like unto that city which Sophocles describeth in these verses:

Which at one time is full of incense sweet,
Resounding mirth with loud triumphant song,
And yet the same doth shew in every street
All signs of grief, with plaints and groans among,

he looketh with a pale face, under his chaplet of flowers upon his head; he sacrificeth, and yet quaketh for fear; he maketh his prayers with a trembling voice; he putteth incense into the fire, and his hand shaketh withal; to be short, he maketh the speech or sentence of Pythagoras to be vain and foolish, who was wont to say: That we are then in best case when we approach unto the gods and worship them. For verily even then it is when superstitious people are most wretched and miserable, to wit, when they enter into the temples and sanctuaries of the gods, as if they went into the dens of bears, holes of serpents and dragons, or caves of whales and such monsters of the sea. I marvel much, therefore, at them who call the miscreance and sin of atheists impiety, and give not that name rather to superstition. And yet Anaxagoras was accused of impiety; for that he held and said that the sun was a stone: whereas never man yet called the Cimmerians impious or godless because they suppose and believe there is no sun at all.

What say you then? Shall he who thinketh that there be no gods at all be taken for a profane person and excommunicate? and shall not he who believeth them to be such as superstitious folk imagine them, be thought infected with more impious and wicked opinions? For mine own part, I would be better pleased and content if men should say of me thus: There neither is nor ever was in the world a man named Plutarch, than to give out of me and say: Plutarch is an unconstant man, variable, choleric, full of revenge for the least occasion that is, or displeased and given to grieve for a small matter; who, if when you invite others to supper, he be left out and not bidden, or if upon some business you be let and hindered, so that you come not to his door for to visit him, or otherwise do not salute and speak unto him friendly, will be ready to eat your heart with salt, to set upon you with his fangs, and bite you, will not stick to catch up one of your little babes and worry him, or will keep some mischievous wild beast of purpose to put into your cornfields, your vineyard or orchards, for to devour and spoil all your fruits. When Timotheus the musician one day in an open theatre at Athens chanted the praises of Diana, giving unto her in his song the attributes of Thyas, Phœbas, Mænas and Lyssas, that is to say, furious, possessed, enraged, and stark mad, as poets are wont to do, Cinesias, another minstrel or musician, rose up from out of the whole audience, and said thus aloud unto him: Would God thou haddest a daughter of those qualities. And yet these superstitious folk think the same of Diana, yea, and worse too: neither have they a better opinion of Apollo, Juno and Venus; for all of them they fear and tremble at. And yet what blasphemy uttered Niobe against Latona, like unto that which superstition hath persuaded foolish people to believe of that goddess? to wit, that she being displeased with the reproachful words that Niobe gave her, killed with her arrows all the children of that silly woman:

Even daughters six, and sons as many just,
Of ripe years all, no help, but die they must:

so insatiable was she of the calamities of another, so implacable was her anger. For grant it were so, that this goddess was full of gall and choler; say, that she took an hatred to lewd and wicked persons, or grieved and could not endure to hear herself reproached, or to laugh at human folly and ignorance; certes, she should have been offended and angry, yea, and discharged her arrows upon these who untruly impute and ascribe unto her that bitterness and exceeding cruelty, and stick not both to deliver in words and also to set down in writing, such things of her. We charge Hecuba with beastly and barbarous immanity for saying thus in the last book of Homer’s Iliad:

O that I could his liver get
Amid his corpse, to bite and eat.

As for the Syrian goddess, superstitious folk are persuaded that if any one do eat enchoises or such little fish as aphyæ, she will likewise gnaw their legs, fill their bodies with ulcers, and putrefy or rot their liver.

To conclude, therefore, is it impiously done to blaspheme the gods and speak badly of them; and is it not as impious to think and imagine the same, considering that it is the opinion and conceit of the blasphemer and foul-mouthed profane person which maketh his speech to be reputed naught and wicked? For even we ourselves detest and abhor foul language, for nothing so much as because it is a sign of a malicious mind, and those we take for to be our enemies who give out bad words of us, in this respect that we suppose them to be faithless and not to be trusted, but rather ill affected unto us, and thinking badly of us. Thus you see what judgment superstitious folk have of the gods, when they imagine them to be dull and blockish, treacherous and disloyal, variable and fickle-minded, full of revenge, cruel, melancholic and apt to fret at every little matter: whereupon it must needs follow, that the superstitious man doth both hate and also dread the gods; for how can it otherwise be, considering that he is persuaded that all the greatest calamities which either he hath endured in times past, or is like to suffer hereafter, proceed from them; now whosoever hateth and feareth the gods, he is no doubt their enemy; neither is it to be wondered at for all this, that although he stand in dread of them, yet he adoreth and worshippeth them, he prayeth and sacrificeth unto them, frequenteth duly and devoutly their temples, and is not willingly out of them; for do we not see it ordinarily that reverence is done unto tyrants, that men make court unto them, and cry: God save your grace; yea, and erect golden statues to the honour of them: howbeit as great devotion and divine honour as they do unto them in outward appearance, they hate and abhor them secretly to the heart. Hermolaus courted Alexander, and was serviceable about him: Pausanias was one of the squires of the body to King Philip, and so was Chæreas to Caligula the emperor; but there was not of these but even when he served them said thus in his heart:

Certes, in case it did now lie in me,
Of thee (thou tyrant) revenged would I be.

Thus you see the atheist thinketh there be no gods; but the superstitious person wisheth that there were none; yet he believeth even against his will that there be, nay, he dare not otherwise do for fear of death. Now if he could (like as Tantalus desired to go from under the stone that hung over his head) be discharged of this fear which no less doth press him down, surely he would embrace, yea, and think the disposition and condition of an atheist to be happy, as the state of freedom and liberty: but now the atheist hath no spark at all of superstition, whereas the superstitious person is in will and affection a mere atheist, howbeit weaker than to believe and shew in opinion that of the gods which he would and is in his mind. Moreover, the atheist in no wise giveth any cause or ministereth occasion that superstition should arise; but superstition not only was the first beginning of impiety and atheism, but also when it is sprung up and grown, doth patronise and excuse it, although not truly and honestly, yet not without some colourable pretence: for the sages and wise men in times past grew not into this opinion, that the world was wholly void of a divine power and deity, because they beheld and considered anything to be found fault withal in the heaven, some negligence and disorder to be marked, some confusion to be observed in the stars in the times and seasons of the year, in the revolutions thereof, in the course and motions of the sun round about the earth, which is the cause of night and day, or in the nouriture and food of beasts or in the yearly generation and increase of the fruits upon the earth; but the ridiculous works and deeds of superstition, their passions worthy to be mocked and laughed at, their words, their motions and gestures, their charms, sorceries, enchantments and magical illusions, their runnings up and down, their beating of drums and tabours, their impure purifications, their filthy castimonies and beastly sanctifi cations, their barbarous and unlawful corrections and chastisements, their inhuman and shameful indignities, practised even in temples; these things (I say) gave occasion first unto some for to say that better it were there had been no gods at all than to admit such for gods who received and approved these abuses, yea, and took pleasure therein, or that they should be so outrageous, proud and injurious, so base and pinching, so easy to fall into choler upon a small cause, and so hard to be pleased again. Had it not been far better for those Gauls, Scythians, or Tartarians in old time to have had no thought, no imagination, no mention at all delivered unto them in histories of gods, than to think there were gods delighting in the bloodshed of men, and to believe that the most holy and accomplished sacrifice and service of the gods was to cut men’s throats and to spill their blood: and had it not been more expedient for the Carthaginians by having at the first for their law-givers either Critias or Diagoras to have been persuaded that there was neither God in heaven nor devil in hell, than to sacrifice so as they did to Saturn, who not (as Empedocles said) reproving and taxing those that killed living creatures in sacrifice:

The sire lifts up his dear beloved son.
Who first some other form and shape did take:
He doth him slay, and sacrifice anon,
And therewith vows and foolish prayers doth make;

but witting and knowing killed their own children indeed for sacrifice; and look, who had no issue of their own, would buy poor men’s children, as if they were lambs, young calves, or kids, for the said purpose. At which sacrifice the mother that bare them in her womb would stand by without any shew at all of being moved, without weeping or sighing for pity and compassion; for otherwise, if she either fetched a sigh or shed a tear, she must lose the price of her child, and yet notwithstanding suffer it to be slain and sacrificed. Moreover, before and all about the image or idol to which the sacrifice was made, the place resounded and rung again with the noise of flutes and hautboys, with the sound also of drums and timbrels, to the end that the pitiful cry of the poor infants should not be heard. Now if any Tryphones or other such-like giants, having chased and driven out the gods, should usurp the empire of the world and rule over us, what other sacrifices would they delight in, or what offerings else and service besides could they require at men’s hands? Amestries, the wife of the great monarch Xerxes, buried quick in the ground twelve persons, and offered them for the prolonging of her own life unto Pluto; which god (as Plato said) was named Pluto, Dis and Hades, for that being full of humanity unto mankind, wise and rich besides, he was able to entertain the souls of men with persuasive speeches and reasonable remonstrances.

Xenophanes the naturalist, seeing the Egyptians at their solemn feasts knocking their breasts and lamenting piteously, admonished them very fitly in this wise: My good friends, if these (quoth he) be gods whom you honour thus, lament not for them; and if they be men, sacrifice not unto them. But there is nothing in the world so full of errors, no malady of the mind so passionate and mingled with more contrary and repugnant opinions, as this of superstition; in regard whereof, we ought to shun and avoid the same, but not as many who whiles they seek to eschew the assaults of thieves by the highway-side, or the invasion of wild beasts out of the forest, or the danger of fire, are so transported and carried away with fear that they look not about them, nor see what they do or whither they go, and by that means light upon byways, or rather places having no way at all, but instead thereof bottomless pits and gulfs, or else steep downfalls most perilous; even so, there be divers that seeking to avoid superstition, fall headlong upon the cragged rock of perverse and stiff-necked impiety and atheism, leaping over true religion which is seated just in the midst between both.


Of Superstition – Translated by Philemon Holland in  Plutarch’s Moralia (Holland) (1911)

Categories: CIVIL

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