Theophrastus, On Superstition

1 Introduction

The Characters of Theophrastus are little sketches of unfavorable character traits; one especially interesting for the history of religion, and especially the nature of purification or apotropaic rituals, is the chapter Of Superstition (Deisidaimonias).

We see here that avoidance of childbirth and death, although seen as excessive by some, was not limited to Pythagoreans (section 9), and also how purity could be restored after encountering a dead body (2; cf. 12 and 13 for methods of purification).

We also hear of some bad omens, and of apotropaic observances to avert the bad luck, like when a cat (of any color!) crosses the street (3), when an owl hoots (8), when something odd is seen in a dream (11), or one encounters a “mad person” (14). The superstitious person is not only too scrupulous in his observance of bad omens, but is also liable to see them when there in fact are none (6), and to consult more specialists than can have anything meaningful to say (11).

Some other popular notions alluded to are that the dead (“heroes”) appear as serpents (4); that a heap of stones at a crossroads (a hermax) functions as divine images, thus deserving to be worshipped with prostrations (5); that Hekate sometimes haunts a household (7); that certain days of the month are observed as holidays in the household (10).

2 Translation (Theophrastus, On Characters 16)

Of Superstition.

(1) Superstition, of course, would seem to be cowardice in regard to the divine (to daimonion), and the superstitious man is such (2) that when he encounters a funeral procession, he washes his hands and sprinkles himself, puts a bay laurel leaf from a temple into his mouth, and walks around with it for the rest of the day.

(3) And if a cat runs across the street, he will not go on until someone else walks past (the point where it crossed) or he has thrown three stones across the street.

(4) And if he sees a serpent in his house, if it is a reddish-bown one (pareias), he calls upon Sabazius, but if it is a “sacred one” (hieros), he immediately sets up a hero-shrine (hērōion) on the spot.

(5) And when he passes the anointed stones (set up) on crossroads (or rather ‘forks in the road’, trihodoi), he pours olive oil from his oil-flask (on it) and departs only after going down on his knees and prostrating before it.

(6) And if a mouse gnaws through a bag of barley-groats, he goes to the exegete (‘interpreter of omens’) to ask what he should do; and if the answer is to give it to a leatherdresser to patch, he does not heed that advice but only makes an apotropaic sacrifice (apotrapeis ekthysasthai).

(7) And he frequently purifies his household, saying that Hekate has attacked it (or ‘been sent against it’, epagōgēn gegonenai).

(8) And if owls hoot while he is about, he is terrified; he says, “Athena is great (Athēnâ kreíttōn)!”,* and thus walks away.

(9) He will not walk over a grave or come near a dead body or a childbed, but says that it behooves him not to be polluted.

(10) On the fourth and seventh days† of the month, he has wine mulled for the members of his household, goes out to buy myrtle, frankincense and a picture (? pínaka), and comes back inside to (sacrifice to) the Hermaphrodites and garland them all day.

(11) When he sees anything in a dream, he goes to the dream-interpreters (oneirokritai), to the diviners (manteis), to the bird-diviners (ornithoskopoi) to ask what god or goddess he should pray to.

(11a) And when he is about to be initiated,‡ he goes to the Orphic initiators (Orpheotelestai) every month, together with his children and his wife—or, if his wife does not have time, with the nanny.‖

(12) He would seem to be one of those people constantly going to the seaside to besprinkle themselves.§

(13) And if he ever sees one of those garlanded with garlic at the crossroads (trihodoi), he goes to have his head washed, and calls upon priestesses and has them purify him with squill (skilla) or a puppy (skylax).¶

(14) When seeing someone who is raving/mad (mainomenos) or an epileptic, he shudders and spits into the fold of his garment (=onto his chest?).

* More literally, “Athena is very great”, just like the Islamic takbir (Allāhu akbar = “God is very great/the greatest”). Kreíttōn is also a synonym for deity.
† Possibly not the seventh day of the lunar month but the 24th. In any case, the fourth day was sacred to Hermes.
‡ If Orphic initiations are meant, it is not clear to me why there is an extended period of meeting with initiators beforehand; perhaps the reference is to initiations that occur at a fixed date, like the Eleusinian mysteries. If so, then the superstitious man is piling private consultations onto a civic observance. But perhaps seeking out independent Orphic initiators in and of itself is a sign of bad taste for Theophrastus.
‖ The joke, probably, is that it ought to be the patriarch who is too busy to attend such rites, not the wife.
§ Sea water is supposed to be more purificatory, but using it for every aspersion, and going to the seaside for it each time, is excessive, especially if one asperges themselves as frequently as our superstitious man.
¶ It is not clear what “those garlanded with garlic” are. People? Apparitions of Hekate? There does not seem to be any parallel information to illuminate this passage. In any case, purification in this case involves surrounding or encircling (perikathar-); from parallels it seems that the squill might have been cut up and sprinkled with water by a priestess walking around the superstitious man, while the puppy would have been slain in sacrifice and cut into two parts, placed on either side of him. Of course such details cannot be reconstructed with certainty.