The divine are benevolent and good. As such, people who themselves strive to be closer to the Good have nothing to fear from the Gods; and fear of the Gods is a sign of superstition rather than religion. Réligió (Threskia) is the collection of practices that expresses a renewal of the primordial partnership between the divine and mortals: peace. This is called the Páx Deórum (Adkins 2005, 309), and maintaining this peace is the central goal of the Roman religion, as it keeps us within the benevolent light of the Gods and safeguards our own welfare.
In honouring the Gods, the soul is elevated closer to the Good and as such is able to receive their providential gifts (e.g. happiness, courage, and fortitude). The Gods are perfect, and thus they need nothing, and as such they bestow such gifts to mankind without diminishing themselves for the simple reason that their nature is providential and totally beyond our material reality. Being perfect, they don’t need us; we can offer them no service they require, for they already have everything. Being infinite, and thus always in the same state of goodness, they cannot be angered – for to be angered is a passion; nor can they be appeased by gifts – for if they were, they would be conquered by pleasure. When we give gifts to get closer to the Gods it ultimately only benefits us by bringing us closer to the divine; because there is nothing we can offer them that they don’t already have.
Seneca wrote, “religio honours the Gods, superstitio wrongs them” (Beard 1998, 216). By contrast to Religio, Superstitió (Deisidaimonia in Greek) is best understood as a perversion of Religio. It is when you fear the Gods as your enemies. Some examples of superstitio are:
- Irrational Fear of the Gods: Thinking of the Gods as vengeful, jealous or to be feared is superstitio. This is often followed by excessive and slavish attempts to appease them. A reasonable person who undertakes in good faith to honour the Gods have absolutely nothing to fear from them; they only have everything to gain.
- Excessive dependency on the Gods: A total dependence on the Gods is superstitio; for the Gods help those who help themselves. By no means should one be faithless to the Gods; absolutely one should have faith in the Gods, however good faith should be defined as the honour that obliges mortals to adhere to our commitments, rather than blindly throwing oneself into the hands of the Gods. The Gods help those who help themselves.
- Sorcery: Engagement in practices that can be deemed goetia, or sorcery (which is the opposite of theurgy) is also superstitio. Examples include necromancy, cursing, and contemporary witchcraft. The divine Plato wrote that necromancy was fraudulent and could have harmful results, and advocated for penalties for practitioners (Plato Laws, 909B) (Plato Laws, 933A-E) (Luck 2006, 211). He also remarks disapprovingly of people appropriating ancient texts for magical use, referring to the “books of Musaeus and Orpheus” from which “begging priests and soothsayers” have obtained “spells and enchantments” (Plato Republic, 364b-e).
- Believing you can command the Gods: Believing you can command and direct the Gods is superstitio that also commits a sin— hubris. Plato writes that no Gods or Daimons can be influenced by spells and rituals (Plato Republic, 364B–E) (Plato Laws, 905D–907D). Modern witchcraft is an example of this, which defines a lot of spiritual practice generally as magic and defines magic’s main purpose being to change things with your will. This essentially reduces the divine to tools or pools of energy that can be merely manipulated towards magical ends, and thus is seen as superstitio.
Adkins, Lesley, and Roy Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Facts on File, 2005.
Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
“NATURE OF THE GODS.” Nature of the gods – Deo Mercurio. Accessed September 12, 2017. http://www.deomercurio.be/en/natura.html.
Figula, M. Sentia. “Superstition.” Roman Pagan. January 02, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2017. https://romanpagan.wordpress.com/superstition/.
Nova Roma. “Roman Religion” NOVA ROMA Dedicated to the restoration of classical Roman religion, culture and virtues. Accessed August 17, 2017. http://www.novaroma.org/nr/Roman_religion.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf