Superstition and the Supernatural

Mon Feb 18 11:30:48 2008
Runciman, in his series on the Crusades, states that for “the men of the Middle Ages the supernatural was not considered impossible nor even very rare.” Many of the examples we see documented involve the Western armies which perhaps suggests that the Westerners were more superstitious than their Byzantine counterparts. But I am afraid I don’t buy that argument. Gibbon believed that for eight centuries the Byzantines all walked “in the same path of servitude and superstition: their views are narrow, their judgment is feeble or corrupt: and we close the volume of copious barrenness, still ignorant of the causes of events…” Not exactly an endorsement of their clear-headed rationality. He may have been biased but not without some reason. This is the land of relics, icons, poking people’s eyes out and the veneration of people who sit on top of poles. They practically invented visions here. The founding myth of the Empire is based on one (Constantine’s). The hagiographic literature is full of them. We are not just talking about the ignorant masses either. Nicephorus, the Patriarch of Constantinople—obviously a member of the educated elite—writes a History that is full of plagues, portents, prodigies and other misfortunes of God’s wrath. It’s more like he is writing the fulfillment of the book of Daniel than a history of the Byzantine Empire. Granted their best writers tend to be less superstitious, but then that’s the criteria we use to evaluate them—so it’s a rather circular argument.


~ by severalfourmany on February 18, 2008.

2 Responses to “Superstition and the Supernatural”

  1. Mon Feb 18 13:12:05 2008
    Well, there were no witchcraft trials in the Byzantine Empire as there were in Europe.

    I think perhaps we’re talking about different things: superstition and religious fervor. No, that last isn’t the right term.

    On Gibbon: He didn’t much care for the Byzantines, did he? From the site, Byzantium:

    “It would be wrong then to present the later history of Byzantium as a “thousand year history of decline”, leading inevitably to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday 29th May 1453. This perception, promoted disastrously by the English historian Edward Gibbon, reflects the origins in the classical studies of Byzantine studies. The classic periods of ancient cultures [the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and the late republican/early imperial period in Rome] have long appealed to modern Western sensibilities because – as times of rapid change and innovation in art and literature – echoes and origins of the present have been seen there. In comparison, Byzantine political culture changed slowly, and continuity was valued over change. Furthermore, classical secularism, so attractive to Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars, had no place in Byzantine thought worlds. As a result Byzantine culture was subjected to centuries of abuse as a time of barbarism and superstition.”

  2. Mon Feb 18 19:39:21 2008
    Well, at least the witches got a trial in the West.

    Surely there were witches in the Byzantine Empire. Unless this is a later anachronism, Byzantine Saints provide protection from evil spirits, demons, and witchcraft (St. Theodore Sykeote, St. Anastasia, St. Mitrophan of Voronezh, St. Basil the Great, St. Niphon, St. Maruthas and my favorite—the great sorcerer Bishop of Antioch: St. Cyprian and his cohort St. Justina). There is an established literature on Byzantine magic and plenty of amulets and potions, evidently including one for protection from child-stealing witches (“Two Thousand Years of a Charm against the Child-Stealing Witch” by M. Gaster Folklore Vol. x, 1900).

    Aren’t superstition and religious belief just different sides of the same coin? If you belong to the group you call it devotion and fervor. If you belong to some other belief system it appears as superstition and nonsense.

    Ironic that the classical secularism so dear to our Renaissance and Enlightenment might not have been available had not the maligned Byzantines spent hundreds of years recopying the documents.

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