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The best exemplification of what the ancients meant by superstition is to be found in the lively and dramatic words of Aristotle’s great pupil Theophrastus.

The superstitious man, according to him, after having washed his hands with lustral water–that is, water in which a torch from the altar had been quenched–goes about with a laurel-leaf in his mouth, to keep off evil influences, as the pigs in Devonshire used, in my youth, to go about with a withe of mountain ash round their necks to keep off the evil eye. If a weasel crosses his path, he stops, and either throws three pebbles into the road, or, with the innate selfishness of fear, lets someone else go before him, and attract to himself the harm which may ensue. He has a similar dread of a screech-owl, whom he compliments in the name of its mistress, Pallas Athene. If he finds a serpent in his house, he sets up an altar to it. If he pass at a four-cross-way an anointed stone, he pours oil on it, kneels down, and adores it. If a rat has nibbled one of his sacks he takes it for a fearful portent–a superstition which Cicero also mentions. He dare not sit on a tomb, because it would be assisting at his own funeral. He purifies endlessly his house, saying that Hecate–that is, the moon–has exercised some malign influence on it; and many other purifications he observes, of which I shall only say that they are by their nature plainly, like the last, meant as preservatives against unseen malarias or contagions, possible or impossible. He assists every month with his children at the mysteries of the Orphic priests; and finally, whenever he sees an epileptic patient, he spits in his own bosom to avert the evil omen.

I have quoted, I believe, every fact given by Theophrastus; and you will agree, I am sure, that the moving and inspiring element of such a character is mere bodily fear of unknown evil. The only superstition attributed to him which does not at first sight seem to have its root in dread is that of the Orphic mysteries. But of them Muller says that the Dionusos whom they worshipped “was an infernal deity, connected with Hades, and was the personification, not merely of rapturous pleasure, but of a deep sorrow for the miseries of human life.” The Orphic societies of Greece seem to have been peculiarly ascetic, taking no animal food save raw flesh from the sacrificed ox of Dionusos. And Plato speaks of a lower grade of Orphic priests, Orpheotelestai, “who used to come before the doors of the rich, and promise, by sacrifices and expiatory songs, to release them from their own sins, and those of their forefathers;” and such would be but too likely to get a hearing from the man who was afraid of a weasel or an owl.

Now, this same bodily fear, I verily believe, will be found at the root of all superstition whatsoever.

But be it so. Fear is a natural passion, and a wholesome one. Without the instinct of self-preservation, which causes the sea- anemone to contract its tentacles, or the fish to dash into its hover, species would be extermined wholesale by involuntary suicide.

Yes; fear is wholesome enough, like all other faculties, as long as it is controlled by reason. But what if the fear be not rational, but irrational? What if it be, in plain homely English, blind fear; fear of the unknown, simply because it is unknown? Is it not likely, then, to be afraid of the wrong object? to be hurtful, ruinous to animals as well as to man? Any one will confess that, who has ever seen, a horse inflict on himself mortal injuries, in his frantic attempts to escape from a quite imaginary danger. I have good reasons for believing that not only animals here and there, but whole flocks and swarms of them, are often destroyed, even in the wild state, by mistaken fear; by such panics, for instance, as cause a whole herd of buffaloes to rush over a bluff, and be dashed to pieces. And remark that this capacity of panic, fear–of superstition, as I should call it–is greatest in those animals, the dog and the horse for instance, which have the most rapid and vivid fancy. Does not the unlettered Highlander say all that I want to say, when he attributes to his dog and his horse, on the strength of these very manifestations of fear, the capacity of seeing ghosts and fairies before he can see them himself?