Imitative Magic, Necromancy, Cleromancy, Oneiromancy & Cledonomancy in the Old Testament (Solomon Nigosian, 1978)

NOTE: The following article is taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT , pp. 41-46

Occultism in the Old testament (1978)

A practice based on the assumption that certain actions performed between a person and some material object will produce certain desired effects is known as imitative magic (also referred as sympathetic or mimetic). There are numerous interesting instances of imitative magic connected with the prophet Elisha. It is recounted that a man once dropped his iron axe head into the water, whereupon Elisha cut a piece of stick and threw it into the water at the spot the axe head fell. Just as a piece of wood would float, so the iron axe head floated on the surface of the water (2 Kings 6:5-7). Another striking narrative of imitative magic is recounted in 2 Kings 2:19-22. Here it is related how the people of a certain city complained to Elisha about the bad water; Elisha having asked for a new bowl with some salt in it, went to the source of the water and threw the salt in the water, uttering the following incantation: “I have cured this water, henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”

The idea here is of course parallel to that of the wood and iron: because the wood floats the iron will imitate it; because salt is curative it will cure the bad water. One is reminded of the bitter water restored by Moses; he threw a piece of wood into the water and it immediately became drinkable (Exod. 15:25).

Similarly, Elisha’s followers were one day brewing a pottage from the herbs gathered by one of the disciples. Among the herbs gathered there happened to be some poisonous gourds, and this became apparent when the band of prophets began to partake of the pottage. Elisha immediately called for some meal and cast it into the pot and the effect of the meal was to make the poison innocuous (2 Kings 4:38-41). Thus, just as the meal was harmless, so too, the poisonous herb became harmless. One wonders if a magical formula of some sort was not uttered by Elisha, just as in the former case.

Another piece of imitative magic is described in 2 Kings 13:14-19. The prophet Elisha told King Josiah of Israel in Samaria to take a bow and arrows; next he placed his hands upon the king’s hand (which constituted a magical act) and bid him open the window eastward (i.e. in the direction of Syria—the foe), and told the king to shoot an arrow while he uttered the following incantation: “A victory arrow from YHWH! A victory arrow against Aram! And you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek, until you have wiped them!” This was the first part of the ritual; next came the imitative magical act. The prophet ordered the king to smite the ground with the arrows; he did so three times. Elisha rebuked the king for doing so only three times; he ought to have done it five or six times; for each time that the king struck the ground would bring one victory over Syria (2 Kings 13:14-19).

Προφήτης Ελισσαίος

There are several other incidents that indicate Elisha’s magical powers. The wife of one of the prophets, who was a widow, found herself in some kind of financial difficulty. Having sought Elisha’s assistance, she was told to borrow as many vessels as she could, and use the oil in her possession to fill up the vessels. Because one vessel contained oil, so would all the other vessels (2 Kings 4:1-7).

 Elisha and Shunammite son - The Shunammite's Son Is Raised
Elisha and Shunammite son – The Shunammite’s Son Is Raised

Another type of imitative magic is shown when Elisha is represented as being able to raise the dead by means of a somewhat elaborate ritual. He lay himself upon the dead body of a Shunammite boy and put his mouth upon the boy’s mouth, his eyes upon the boy’s eyes, and his hands upon the boy’s hands. Just as Elisha, the living, was alive, so the dead body of the boy became alive (2 Kings 4:32-35). A similar story is told of Elijah, though with less detail (1 Kings 17:21-22).

In the eyes of many Israelites, Elisha must have been regarded as a magician-prophet; not only did he perform many wonders during his lifetime, but even after his death, contact with his bones brought life to a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-21).

moses aaron hur

There are a number of other instances of imitative magic being employed for the purpose of victory in war. Moses enabled his people to conquer the Amalekites by keeping his hands raised, or, according to another version, by keeping his rod stretched out during the entire battle (Exod. 7:8-13). At the urging of his Judean ally Jehoshaphat, King Ahab of Israel consulted the four hundred prophets of Samaria about the chances of the proposed expedition against the Aramaens at Ramoth-gilead (1 Kings 22:1-28; cf. 2 Chron. 18:1-27). These four hundred prophets, who had gathered outside the city on a threshing floor, at first acted as one group chanting an incantation of victory (1 Kings 22:10). Then, as the ecstatic activity of the group intensified, Zedekiah stood out from his companions, and producing a pair of iron horns (symbol of great power; cf. Deut. 33:17), uttered the following incantation: “With these you shall trust the Arameans until they are destroyed!” (1 Kings 22:11). In the meantime the rest of the prophets kept repeating the ecstatic refrain: “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and prosper! YHWH will give it into the hand of the king!” (1 Kings 22:12). Thus, the prophet ensured the success of his sovereign’s mission.

Imitative magical acts performed by priests and seers were also employed for the banishing of evils and misfortunes such as sickness, sin and uncleanness. One of the methods used was to transfer the evil to an animal, which was then either driven out or put to death. For the expiation of a person’s guilt or iniquities, an animal was selected, and after the guilty person had laid both hands on the animal’s head, a confessional incantation was uttered in order to transmit his guilt to the animal (Lev. 1:2-9; 3:1-17; Num.8:12). Then, the animal was either sent away into the wilderness (Lev. 16:21), or killed and sacrificed (Lev. 4:15). Similarly, the elaborate magical ritual required for the cure of leprosy entailed the killing of one bird, and the dipping of a second live bird, along with some other materials, into the blood of the first bird (Lev. 14:4-7). Thus, the disease passed from the leper to the living bird, which was then let to fly away.

In another ritual, blood was sprinkled (Lev. 14:7) in order to restore to the person vitality, or virtue, which was affected by the evil. Similarly, the same magical procedure was performed for the cleansing of of an unclean or contaminated house, affected by disease.

The act of imitative magic was also used to avert vengeance—presumably by the spirits—for an unknown murderer’s crime (Deut. 21:1-9). In this case, a heifer was selected and led down to a valley which had running water, and there it’s neck was broken. Whether the purpose was to appease the spirit of the murdered person, or to transfer the unknown guilt of the murderer to the animal, or both, the killing of the animal represents an imitative magical act.

Somewhat different, yet a symbol of imitative magic, was the bronze serpent on the pole, made by Moses. It had the effect of curing people who were bitten by a serpent (Num. 21:8-9). This brazen serpent was used for centuries as a magical instrument until the reign of King Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.) whose reforms included, among other destructive acts, the shattering of the brazen serpent (2 Kings 18:4).

"Moses and the Bronze Serpent", by William Dyce, ca. 1860
“Moses and the Bronze Serpent”, by William Dyce, ca. 1860

Naturally, the early prophets were not the only experts in imitative magic. Some of the latter prophets too performed the practices of mimetic magic.

The activity of the sensitive and passionate prophet Jeremiah was directed against two major contemporary concerns: the imminent invasion of the enemy from the north, and the prevailing religious corruption of Judah. In regard to the latter problem, Jeremiah performed a mimetic act with a linen waistcloth which demonstrated the present corruption of his people (Jer. 13:1-11). He wore the linen waistcloth for some time, and then hid it in the cleft of a rock. After an interval he went and brought it back—and behold, “the waistcloth was spoiled and good for nothing.” In the same way, the Israelites who used to belong to YHWH were now following after other gods and their cultic rites, and therefore were like the waistcloth: “good for nothing.”

Another imitative performance was Jeremiah’s purchase of a potter’s earthen flask (Jer. 19:1-13). He went to the valley of Ben-hinnom (a place where human sacrifices were made), taking with him some of the senior priests and elders of the people. There in the presence of all he broke the flask and uttered the incantation: “So will I break this people and this city! Just as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be repaired again” (Jer. 19:11).

To demonstrate dramatically the coming siege of Jerusalem, its terrible economic condition during the siege, and its hideous final fate, the prophet Ezekiel performed an elaborate three-part mimetic act (Ezek. 4:1-5:12). First, he took a brick and upon it portrayed the city of Jerusalem with a siege wall around it, a mound, camps, and battering rams. Then, he took an iron plate and placed it between him and the brick. Turing his face towards the brick, he moved the iron plate gradually towards the brick as a sign of Israel’s next siege (Ezek. 4:1-3).

Next, he prepared a barley cake from a mixture of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt baked in cow’s dung. This was to be his meal for an assigned number of days to indicate that the Israelites were to “eat their bread unclean among the nations” during the siege (Ezek. 4:9-17). With bare arms and cords tied around him, he lay down on his side upon the brick in the sight of all the people. Symbolizing the number of years of punishment, he remained on the brick first for “three hundred and ninety days” on his left side, and then for “forty days” on his right side, daily eating his prepared barley cake (Ezek. 4:4-8).

Finally, he performed another mimetic ordeal to indicate YHWH’s judgement over Jerusalem. He took a sharp sword and cut some hair from his head and beard. Then he weighed the hair on a balance and divided it into three equal parts. One portion he burned in the midst of the miniature city on the brick; the second part he stoked with sword over the city, while the third part he scattered to the wind. Thus one third of the Israelites were to “die of pestilence and be consumed with famine” in the besieged city; another part was to “fall by the sword,” while the third part was to be “scattered to all the winds” (Ezek. 5:1-12).

Saint Elias in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Saint Elias in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
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Occultism, Occult Functionaries & Demonology in the Old Testament (Solomon Nigosian, 1978)

NOTE: The following article is taken from OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, pp. 9-15

Occultism in the Old testament (1978)

From the early origins of the settlement of the Old Testament people in Palestine up to the Babylonian captivity, their religious practices included magic, sorcery, witchcraft, demonology and divination. There is no better evidence for this than the words of the author who recorded the cause for the defeat and exile (in 586 B.C.) of the southern kingdom, Judah:

And he [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, according to the abominable practices of the nations…he rebuilt the high places…he erected the altars for Ba’al…worshipped all the host of heaven…burnt his son as an offering, and practised witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted the mediums and the wizards. [2 Kings 21:2-6]

The situation in the northern kingdom, Israel, was similar. Less than a century and a half before Judah’s downfall, Israel too had gone to exile (in 721 B.C.). And its religious practices also included the magical and divinatory arts.

And…the children of Israel sinned against YHWH their god…and feared other gods…and did secretly things that were not right…and made their sons and daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and sorcery. [2 Kings 17:7-17]

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule
Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule

These arts were practiced by various skilled functionaries: the sorcerer, the soothsayer, the medium, the necromancer, the wizard, the charmer, the auger, the diviner, the dream-expert, the seer, the vision-expert, the priest, and the prophet. The importance attached to such qualified practitioners by the Old Testament people is seen in the statement by Isaiah (3:2-3), who places the expert in charms, the skillful magician and the diviner on the same plane as the mighty man and soldier, the judge, the elder, and the prophet. Isaiah was merely stating a known fact—namely, the high prestige that such practitioners enjoyed within their society (cf. also Isa. 8:19). Similarly, when Jeremiah (27:9) tells the public, “do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers or your sorcerers,” he is simply reiterating the importance attached to these practitioners in the life of the people of the state.

Incidentally, Jeremiah’s distinctive use of the second masculine plural form—your—is very significant, for it indicates that there were at least two types of practitioners: the false and the true. When Jeremiah accuses “your prophets, your diviners, your dream-experts, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers,” it is obvious that his accusation is not directed against all persons who performed such practices, since he himself was one of them. Rather, Jeremiah was accusing only those whose practices he considered to result in false victims, omens, and oracles, because they were not performed by consulting YHWH.

προφήτης Ιερεμίας

It was not just the ordinary people who sought help from the skilled functionaries; the kings did likewise. King Manasseh made public use of soothsayers, augers, sorcerers, medium-experts and wizards (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron. 33:6). Similarly, King Ahab had qualified practitioners in his palace who were also experts in the art of cleromancy (1 Kings 20:30-34). Moreover, he consulted some 400 prophets, experts who performed their magical imitative art in order to ensure the success of his mission (1 Kings 22:1-28). That Ahab had 950 prophets who possessed and controlled the mystical knowledge of Ba’al and Asherah (1 Kings 18:19) surely indicates the importance attached to such men by the Israelite sovereigns.

Furthermore, King Saul made use of the services of mediums, wizards, dream-experts, cleromancers, prophets, and necromancers (1 Sam. 14:36-46; 28:3-19). When David succeeded Saul as king he inherited from his predecessor not only the court officials, but also the court experts in magical practices and divinatory arts. He often consulted them, especially in time of national raids and attacks (2 Sam. 5:17-25). On the other hand, King Solomon not only inherited these court experts, but added a host of qualified functionaries whose deities were other than YHWH: Sidonians, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Hittites (1 Kings 11:1-10). These functionaries performed the various magical practices and divinatory arts connected with their respective deities, Ashtoreth, Milcom, Molech and Chemosh. They must have been in sharp conflict with the group who performed their arts in the name of YHWH. More will be said about this conflict presently.

Prophet Solomon
Prophet Solomon

The so-called attempted reforms of both King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4; 2 Chron. 29:3-31:20) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:4-24; 2 Chron. 34:1-7) indicates, at least, how deeply rooted was the belief in the efficacy of magical practices and divinatory arts. But there is more than that! The Old Testament people had built on certain hilltops and valleys, as well as beside various trees, waters, rocks and stones, altars or sanctuaries. It was only natural that the people should continue to go to such “sacred” sites not only to burn incense and worship idols, molten images, and all the host of heaven, but to practice magic, sorcery, human offerings and divination (2 Kings 17:7-18). They persisted in such practices even during Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s so-called reform, and performed the magical customs of the surrounding nations (2 Kings 17:8).

The settling of the Old Testament people in Canaan involved, both culturally and religiously, the establishment of close relations—if not complete fusion—with the native people and the surrounding neighbors:

So the people of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons. And they served their gods…forgetting YHWH their god, and serving the Ba’als and the Asheroth. [Judges 3:5-6]

Thus the practice of magical and divinatory arts in Israel had developed from various sources. Nevertheless there appears to have developed an intense power struggle between those that practiced the art in the name of YHWH and those who practiced in the name of a number of other deities, collectively known as Ba’alim. These latter were regarded as “false” through and through by the former—false deities, false practitioners and false messages (Jer. 14:14; 27:9-10). While the struggle may have existed from the first on a small scale between the practitioners themselves, eventually it came into the open and became a political power struggle on a national scale.

Righteous Hezekiah
Righteous Hezekiah

Thus, the reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah should perhaps not be regarded as attempts to abolish magical and divinatory practices, but rather to suppress the so-called false practitioners in favor of true practitioners. Both these two kings used their political powers to overthrow the false functionaries, whose practices were regarded as abominable. In contrast, King Ahab and King Manasseh used all possible means of political pressure to uphold and support such false practitioners. Consequently, these two latter kings “rebuilt the high places…erected the altars for Ba’al and made an Asherah…worshipped all the host of heaven and served them…practised witchcraft and did sorcery, and consulted the medium and the wizards” (2 Kings 21:2-6).

A number of early propjets—Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elisha, Elijah, and a host of seers, dream-experts, priests, and prophets, all tried to suppress the so-called practitioners who used the sacred arts in the name of Ba’alim. Thus, Isaiah (57:5-9) condemned the public not because they practiced the magical rite of cereal offering and libation, but because they exchanged YHWH’s power for other deities (cf. also Ezek. 16:19-22). Again, it was commonly believed by the YHWHistic group that those who consulted “foreign” gods stirred YHWH to jealousy and provoked him to anger (Deut. 32:16).

Prophet Samuel
Prophet Samuel

Furthermore, the YHWHistic group believed that the so-called false practitioners offered sacrifices, not to their respective deities, but to demons (Deut. 32:17). However, much to their frustration, the public continued to seek the practices of these false functionaries.

Consequently, the YHWHistic group strongly opposed and openly condemned those who performed the practices of the art considering them to be not only evil or abominable (Deut. 18:9), but “playing the harlot” (Exod. 34:15-17; Lev. 17:7; 20:2-6; Deut. 31:16; Judges 2:17, 8:33; Psalm 106:39). As a matter of fact the metaphor of harlotry was commonly used by the YHWHistic group who regarded all practices of the art that excluded YHWH as being an improper intercourse, prostitution and fornication (Isa. 1:21; 57:3; Jer. 2:20; 31:1-8; Ezek. 16:15-25; Hos. 2:5; 3:3; 4:15).

It became the strong conviction of the YHWHistic group that the cause of the defeat and exile of the northern kingdom, Israel, and similarly of the southern kingdom, Judah, was that the state and the public performed the practices of the false functionaries (2 Kings 17:7-20; 21:1-14). And if for a moment one were to accept this perspective, then obviously one is not only accepting that magic and divination were integral parts of the society, but is in fact saying that the false functionaries had the upper hand and the majority of the society sought their aid, since “YHWH sent them to exile.”

Of course, both groups engaged in various forms of the art and their practice was widespread. Many feared, worshipped, and through the help of practitioners, offered sacrifices with libation to numerous deities and demons (Deut. 32:17). Plagues, disease, and all sorts of mishap were attributed to demons and evil spirits (Ps. 78:49; 91:6; Job 3:8; cf. also Isa. 13:21; 30:6; 34:8-15). Not only were protective amulets worn in order to ward off evil but recourse was made to magical practices in order to remove or transfer the contagion.

Besides averting evil powers and influences, many performed various practices of a magical nature in order to seek the favor of deities and demons, or appease their wrath (for example, when social or religious taboos had been broken). One of the significant apotropaic acts was aimed at the protection of the living from harm which could be caused by the spirit of the departed.

The effectiveness of the “binding spell” and of the various genres of imitative magic performed either for the removal of evil, misfortune and disease, or for the purpose of war-victory, or to avert vengeance, or even to appease hostile spirits, will be discussed in the following pages. Similarly, the symbolic imitative performance of the prophets, as well as the restrictions and prohibitions imposed upon the society to protect themselves from hostile spirits, mysterious powers and evil influences will be cited to indicate that such magical practices were not only frequently performed but favorably looked upon as legitimate enterprises.

Thus in order to avert evil powers and influences, to appease the wrath or seek the favor of deities and demons, the Old Testament people resorted to magical practices. To find solutions to personal or national distress, to solve disputed questions, to discover the will of deities regarding various affairs, the people sought omens and resorted to the art of divination. Numerous qualified functionaries, such as sorcerers, soothsayers, seers, diviners, prophets and priests, all had important roles within the society, and their expert services in magical and divinatory practices were sought both by the public and by the state.

The art of cleromancy (divination by lot-casting) was considered a proper method of obtaining decisions regarding various affairs, assignment of duties, discovering guilty individuals and solving disputed questions. Again, strange as it may appear to us, there is not the least doubt that the Old Testament people firmly believed that certain expert functionaries had the power to evoke and communicate with the dead—an art known as necromancy. Moreover, they thought that a person could become the unconscious agent of a spirit of deity so that any pronouncement by such a person would instantly be seized by those skilled in the art as a clue of good or evil omen—the art of cledonomancy.

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament people believed that dreams and visions were messages emanating from supernatural powers, benevolent or malevolent spirits and deities. The “dream-expert,” the “vision-expert” (gazer), the “seer” and the “prophet” were among those who attached great importance to dreams and visions, regarding them as vehicles by which divine intentions were revealed. Such an art is known as oneiromancy.

Not all occult techniques, however, were considered approved methods to inquire of God. Inquiries performed by “a diviner, a soothsayer, an auger…a medium…or a necromancer” were unconditionally banned (Deut. 18:10; Lev. 20:6, 27). Despite this prohibition, however, and despite the efforts of King Saul (1 Sam. 28:3, 9) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:24) to eliminate from the society these so-called illegitimate practices of inquiry, the Old Testament people consulted “diviners, soothsayers, augers and mediums” (2 Kings 17:16-17; 21:6; Isa. 8:19; Jer. 27:9; Hos. 4:12).

Thus it is difficult to conceive how the Old Testament people regarded the practice of magic and divination “evil.” Probably, what was abominable to a certain group was that such practices were not done in the name of YHWH (who, in their view, was the only powerful and true deity) but in the name of other deities (who were absolutely false deities). It seems that magic and divination were not only permissible, but were legitimate religious enterprises—if performed correctly in the name of YHWH. Many naturally confused the issue with YHWH and performed their practices in the name of other deities. This must have brought them into sharp conflict, opposition, and condemnation. In fact, in the struggle, even political power was used (such as the reform of Josiah) in order to repress such non-YHWHistic activities.

At any rate, magic and divination were integral parts of the society and numerous practices were performed by skill functionaries.

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

Magic and the Occult (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In some of the monasteries, there is a belief that there exists a secret Himalayan organization of Satanists called the “Great White Lodge” or “Great White Brotherhood.” They are said to daily do black magic on Mount Athos and all monasteries in the world in an attempt to eliminate them and destroy the orthodox church. It is taught that Rasputin also belonged to this secret organization and his mission was to destroy Orthodox Tzarist Russia. Initially, it was also taught in the monasteries that the Tsar family could not be saints due to incest, the Tsaritsas involvement with Rasputin and the occult, and various issues in the life of Tsar Nicholas II. Their icons were not carried nor mounted for pilgrims. In the early 2000s, that started to change.

In the monasteries, it is also believed that organizations like The Church of Satan, do daily black masses that contain specific curses for various Orthodox hierarchs.

image0001_5

In the monasteries, it is also taught that curses do not stick to clergymen but rather bounce back onto the one giving the curse. The monastics are not allowed to pray for those who are witches or dabble in the occult, etc. either in their own personal prayer or during the proskomide. It is taught that Elder Ephraim of Katounakia use to pray for them in his personal prayer and one day he received an invisible slap across the face and heard a voice, “Do not pray for these people.”

The monasteries encourage pilgrims not to buy fylakta from anywhere other than the monasteries, especially in Greece. This is because they claim many times witches mimic the fylakta of Orthodoxy (though the fylakta/talisman concept is a rural pagan tradition) and make cursed fylakta using black magic. The monasteries claim they know the people who make their fylakta, and also “bless them on the altar for 40 days” (blessing things like icons, etc. on the altar for 40 days is forbidden by the Canons and this practice is censured by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite). Though, those pilgrims who suspect they may have a cursed fylakta are to bring it to the monasteries so it can be disposed of properly.

There is also a story that circulated from monastery to monastery about a certain Greek Orthodox priest from Pennsylvania, the late Fr. Anthony. Apparently, he was a secret Satanist and would do his liturgies backwards and insert anti-Christian aspects into his services. It is rumored that the parishioners would see the roof of the church open up and angels flock in and have many wonderful visions and experiences. It turns out they were all demonic illusions and many of his parishioners became demon-possessed and started hallucinating outside of the church as well. Many of these parishioners went to the monasteries seeking exorcisms. The parishioners who were “baptized” by Fr. Anthony were also rebaptized in the monasteries as his priesthood status  and the sacraments he performed were considered invalid.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite.

The following article is taken from The Rudder:

Superstition (Stuart A. Vyse, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition:

Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]
Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines superstition as “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.

In a 1956 essay, psychiatrist Judd Marmor proposed a definition of superstition: “beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs.”

Although everyday experience suggests that superstitious beliefs and behavior are widespread, it is probably impossible to determine accurately the extent of their popularity. Undoubtedly many believers are reluctant to confess their superstitions for fear of ridicule. Furthermore, some superstitions are exercised infrequently or in private, making it difficult to observe them directly. Superstitious behavior is as widespread and various as humanity itself.

Superstitions Forming Part of a Cosmology or Coherent Worldview

Some behavioral scientists believe that all religion is superstitious, a misguided faith born of ignorance. Others hold that only “pagan” religion, with its magical rites and rituals, is superstitious. Although science and religion have traditionally been cast as antagonists, in reality they speak different languages. Religious faith exists without need of proof, while science is built upon proof. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould adopted a similar view when he described science and religion as two “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated as NOMA) both leading to profound but differing fields of knowledge. For our purposes, this means that basic questions about the existence of god or heaven do not fall within the domain of science because they are inherently untestable. Anyone who adopts these beliefs must take them “on faith.”

Other Socially Shared Superstitions

The great majority of superstitions come to us as part of our culture. People teach us rules, such as “black cats bring bad luck,” that were once taught to them. Many of these rules are concerned with important human events: birth, marriage, illness, and death. A number of popular and scholarly books catalogue these common superstitions—for example, Anthon Cannon assembled a list of 13,207 superstitions and folk beliefs indigenous to the state of Utah. With cultural superstitions, the primary challenge for psychology is to identify the factors that influence our acceptance and explain why these beliefs persist in the face of conflicting evidence.

“Occult” Experiences of Individuals

Many people accept the validity of ESP and communication with the dead. Assuming they are not supported by science, mere endorsement of these things represents paranormal belief, but if you actually employ these ideas in your life—for example, to communicate with your deceased grandmother—then by our definition these occult beliefs would be superstitious. In the case of ESP, we are particularly fortunate because the scientific community has given it considerable attention.

In the late 19th century, societies of “parapsychology” were established in Britain and the United States, and soon a number of parapsychological laboratories began investigating such phenomena as mental telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis. From 1935 to 1965, Duke University maintained a famous department of parapsychology, and in 1969 the Parapsychology Association was admitted to membership in the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Yet despite its outward appearance as a reputable science, parapsychology has failed the crucial test. Years of research have produced no conclusive support for the existence of ESP; many of the studies have contained serious methodological flaws, or have produced results impossible to replicate. Therefore, ESP is either paranormal or superstitious, depending upon the role it plays in the believer’s life. Other experiences that fall into this category are ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists, and premonitions.

Personal Superstitions

The last category includes superstitions held only by an individual. This encompasses a large group of beliefs and actions that are neither learned from nor taught to others. Wade Boggs’s pre-game ritual is an example, as are the lucky shirts, hats, numbers, and colors common to athletes, gamblers, businesspeople, and others. Although this classification scheme provides a simple lexicon of superstition, it is not without inconsistencies. For example, many superstitions—not just Jahoda’s “socially shared” category—are at least partially shaped by social influence. The mere popularity of lucky hats and other magical clothing belie a social or cultural contribution to personal superstitions, and many reported occult experiences also share common elements. Superstitious beliefs of all kinds are undoubtedly encouraged by a social environment rich in believers. Nevertheless, these categories help to structure the discussion that follows…

THE SUPERSTITIOUS PERSON

For any given individual, feelings about superstition may range from complete rejection to total endorsement, and the people who fall at opposite ends of this continuum may differ in other important ways.

Common folk wisdom holds that a number of subcultures are by nature particularly superstitious. These people are said to practice superstitions that are either unique to, or characteristic of, their group.

The reputation of superstitiousness extends to a variety of sports, both professional and nonprofessional. Other traditionally superstitious groups include gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.

The popularity of sport combined with the fact that its participants are a traditionally superstitious group make athletes, particularly professional athletes, the most famous of all superstitious people.

College students are not famous for their superstitions. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers. Yet superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure, and when it comes to examinations, many college students are genuinely fearful.

Gamblers

Most games of chance are just that. Their outcomes are random events, completely out of the player’s control. The lottery player cannot will a “lucky number” to come up; the roulette player has no power over the spinning ball. Nevertheless, many gamblers act as though they were playing games of skill. In some games, such as blackjack and draw poker, the player uses a strategy to decide when it is best to draw a card and when it is not. Furthermore, by understanding the odds, one can become a skillful bettor. But most gambling games do not involve skill.

Yet gambling is as old as human civilization itself. It was popular in ancient Egypt, Persia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. In England, dice-playing appeared during the Roman occupation, and by the 18th century gambling had been institutionalized in public gaming houses. Historically, many gamblers have put faith in “luck” and the belief that chance events are, to some extent, under their control. Today similar beliefs are found in various “systems”—some published in popular books—for winning the lottery or betting on horse races, as well as in many personal and social superstitions of the gambling subculture.

Craps is a game of pure chance. There is no skill involved in throwing dice. The movements of the clicking, tumbling cubes conform only to the laws of physics and probability, and as long as the dice are not weighted or rigged, every throw is a random event.

The influence of social structure on superstition

Students, athletes, and gamblers are social groups that involve varying degrees of group activity. The differing social structures of these groups parallel the kinds of superstitions they adopt. Group activities produce socially shared superstitions.

THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF SUPERSTITION

Athletes, college students, and gamblers provide interesting examples of superstition among narrowly defined social groups, but they are also relatively small segments of the population. What about the rest of us? Who are the most and least superstitious among us?

Gender

A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups; however, there are some exceptions.

Age

Many studies of age differences have shown that older people are more skeptical than young people, but others have found the opposite relationship… Taken in total, the relationship between age and superstitious or paranormal beliefs appears to be complicated; it is safest to say that, at this time, no general statement can be made about age on magical beliefs.

Education

Obviously, education does not make one immune to superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Indeed, most published studies of paranormal belief have used college students as subjects. Yet we might expect that higher education, particularly in the sciences, would lead to increased critical thinking and greater skepticism. The research on this point is somewhat mixed, but there is some evidence that formal education does lead to skepticism. In addition, there is evidence that certain academic fields are associated with greater skepticism than others. Although research suggests that education plays an antagonistic role in relation to superstition and the paranormal, the results are not clear cut.

Religion

There are some similarities between religious and superstitious belief. Although one is celestial and the other terrestrial, both can involve an act of faith. As we have seen, even the scientifically minded person must oft en trust an educated authority. Furthermore, the border between these concepts is blurred when religious groups promote testable practices, such as faith healing, that fall within the domain of science. The evidence suggests there is a relationship between religious and paranormal belief, but it is complicated.

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