Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE (cont)
by St Augustine of Hippo
30. All the arrangements made by men to the making and worshipping of idols are superstitious, pertaining as they do either to the worship of what is created or of some part of it as God, or to consultations and arrangements about signs and leagues with devils, such, for example, as are employed in the magical arts, and which the poets are accustomed not so much to teach as to celebrate. And to this class belong, but with a bolder reach of deception, the books of the haruspices and augurs. In this class we must place also all amulets and cures which the medical art condemns, whether these consist in incantations, or in marks which they call characters, or in hanging or tying on or even dancing in a fashion certain articles, not with reference to the condition of the body, but to certain signs hidden or manifest; and these remedies they call by the less offensive name of physica, so as to appear not to be engaged in superstitious observances, but to be taking advantage of the forces of nature. Examples of these are the earrings on the top of each ear, or the rings of ostrich bone on the fingers, or telling you when you hiccup to hold your left thumb in your right hand.
31. To these we may add thousands of
the most frivolous practices, that are to be observed if any part
of the body should jump, or if, when friends are walking
arm-in-arm, a stone, or a dog, or a boy, should come between them.
And the kicking of a stone, as if it were a divider of friends,
does less harm than to cuff an innocent boy if he happens to run
between men who are walking side by side. But it is delightful
that the boys are sometimes avenged by the dogs; for frequently
men are so superstitious as to venture upon striking a dog who has
run between them,--not with impunity however, for instead of a
superstitious remedy, the dog sometimes makes his assailant run in
hot haste for a real surgeon. To this class, too, belong the
following rules: To tread upon the threshold when you go out in
front of the house; to go back to bed if any one should sneeze
when you are putting on your slippers; to return home if you
stumble when going to a place; when your clothes are eaten by
mice, to be more frightened at the prospect of coming misfortune
than grieved by your present loss. Whence that witty saying of
Cato, who, when consulted by a man who told him that the mice had
eaten his boots, replied, "That is not strange, but it would have
been very strange indeed if the boots had eaten the mice."
32. Nor can we exclude from this kind of superstition those who were called genethliaci, on account of their attention to birthdays, but are now commonly called mathematici. For these, too, although they may seek with pains for the true position of the stars at the time of our birth, and may sometimes even find it out, yet in so far as they attempt thence to predict our actions, or the consequences of our actions, grievously err, and sell inexperienced men into a miserable bondage.
For when any freeman goes to an astrologer of this kind, he gives money that he may come away the slave either of Mars or of Venus, or rather, perhaps, of all the stars to which those who first fell into this error, and handed it on to posterity, have given the names either of beasts on account of their likeness to beasts, or of men with a view to confer honour on those men.
And this is not to be wondered at, when we consider that even in times more recent and nearer our own, the Romans made an attempt to dedicate the star which we call Lucifer to the name and honour of Caesar. And this would, perhaps, have been done, and the name handed down to distant ages, only that his ancestress Venus had given her name to this star before him, and could not by any law transfer to her heirs what she had never possessed, nor sought to possess, in life. For where a place was vacant, or not held in honour of any of the dead of former times, the usual proceeding in such cases was carried out. For example, we have changed the names of the months Quintilis and Sextilis to July and August, naming them in honour of the men Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar; and from this instance any one who cares can easily see that the stars spoken of above formerly wandered in the heavens without the names they now bear. But as the men were dead whose memory people were either compelled by royal power or impelled by human folly to honour, they seemed to think that in putting their names upon the stars they were raising the dead men themselves to heaven.
But whatever they may be called by men, still there are stars
which God has made and set in order after His own pleasure, and
they have a fixed movement, by which the seasons are distinguished
and varied. And when any one is born, it is easy to observe the
point at which this movement has arrived, by use of the rules
discovered and laid down by those who are rebuked by Holy Writ in
these terms: "For if they were able to know so much that they
could weigh the world, how did they not more easily find out the
33. But to desire to predict the characters, the acts, and the fate of those who are born from such an observation, is a great delusion and great madness. And among those at least who have any sort of acquaintance with matters of this kind (which, indeed, are only fit to be unlearnt again), this superstition is refuted beyond the reach of doubt. For the observation is of the position of the stars, which they call constellations, at the time when the person was born about whom these wretched men are consulted by their still more wretched dupes. Now it may happen that, in the case of twins, one follows the other out of the womb so closely that there is no interval of time between them that can be apprehended and marked in the position of the constellations.
Whence it necessarily follows that twins are in many cases born under the same stars, while they do not meet with equal fortune either in what they do or what they suffer, but often meet with fates so different that one of them has a most fortunate life, the other a most unfortunate. As, for example, we are told that Esau and Jacob were born twins, and in such close succession, that Jacob, who was born last, was found to have laid hold with his hand upon the heel of his brother, who preceded him. Now, assuredly, the day and hour of the birth of these two could not be marked in any way that would not give both the same constellation. But what a difference there was between the characters, the actions, the labours, and the fortunes of these two, the Scriptures bear witness, which are now so widely spread as to be in the mouth of all nations.
34. Nor is it to the point to say that the very smallest and
briefest moment of time that separates the birth of twins,
produces great effects in nature, and in the extremely rapid
motion of the heavenly bodies. For, although I may grant that it
does produce the greatest effects, yet the astrologer cannot
discover this in the constellations, and it is by looking into
these that he professes to read the fates. If, then, he does not
discover the difference when he examines the constellations, which
must, of course, be the same whether he is consulted about Jacob
or his brother, what does it profit him that there is a difference
in the heavens, which he rashly and carelessly brings into
disrepute, when there is no difference in his chart, which he
looks into anxiously but in vain? And so these notions also, which
have their origin in certain signs of things being arbitrarily
fixed upon by the presumption of men, are to be referred to the
same class as if they were leagues and covenants with devils.
35. For in this way it comes to pass that men who lust after evil things are, by a secret judgment of God, delivered over to be mocked and deceived, as the just reward of their evil desires. For they are deluded and imposed on by the false angels, to whom the lowest part of the world has been put in subjection by the law of God's providence, and in accordance with His most admirable arrangement of things. And the result of these delusions and deceptions is, that through these superstitious and baneful modes of divination, many things in the past and future are made known, and turn out just as they are foretold; and in the case of those who practice superstitious observances, many things turn out agreeably to their observances, and ensnared by these successes, they become more eagerly inquisitive, and involve themselves further and further in a labyrinth of most pernicious error.
And to our advantage, the Word of God is not silent about this species of fornication of the soul; and it does not warn the soul against following such practices on the ground that those who profess them speak lies, but it says, "Even if what they tell you should come to pass, hearken not unto them." For though the ghost of the dead Samuel foretold the truth to King Saul, that does not make such sacrilegious observances as those by which his ghost was brought up the less detestable; and though the ventriloquist woman in the Acts of the Apostles bore true testimony to the apostles of the Lord, the Apostle Paul did not spare the evil spirit on that account, but rebuked and cast it out, and so made the woman clean.
36. All arts of this sort, therefore, are either nullities, or are part of a guilty superstition, springing out of a baleful fellowship between men and devils, and are to be utterly repudiated and avoided by the Christian as the covenants of a false and treacherous friendship. Not as if the idol were anything," says the apostle; "but because the things which they sacrifice they sacrifice to devils and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils." Now what the apostle has said about idols and the sacrifices offered in their honour, that we ought to feel in regard to all fancied signs which lead either to the worship of idols, or to worshipping creation or its parts instead of God, or which are connected with attention to medicinal charms and other observances; for these are not appointed by God as the public means of promoting love towards God and our neighbour, but they waste the hearts of wretched men in private and selfish strivings after temporal things.
Accordingly, in regard to all these branches of knowledge, we
must fear and shun the fellowship of demons, who, with the Devil
their prince, strive only to shut and bar the door against our
return. As, then, from the stars which God created and ordained,
men have drawn lying omens of their own fancy, so also from things
that are born, or in any other way come into existence under the
government of God's providence, if there chance only to be
something unusual in the occurrence,--as when a mule brings forth
young, or an object is struck by lightning,--men have frequently
drawn omens by conjectures of their own, and have committed them
to writing, as if they had drawn them by rule.
|Ch 24. The intercourse and agreement with demons which superstitious observances maintain|
37. And all these omens are of force just so far as has been arranged with the devils by that previous understanding in the mind which is, as it were, the common language, but they are all full of hurtful curiosity, torturing anxiety, and deadly slavery. For it was not because they had meaning that they were attended to, but it was by attending to and marking them that they came to have meaning. And so they are made different for different people, according to their several notions and prejudices. For those spirits which are bent upon deceiving, take care to provide for each person the same sort of omens as they see his own conjectures and preconceptions have already entangled him in.
For, to take an illustration, the same figure of the letter X, which is made in the shape of a cross, means one thing among the Greeks and another among the Latins, not by nature, but by agreement and prearrangement as to its signification; and so, any one who knows both languages uses this letter in a different sense when writing to a Greek from that in which he uses it when writing to a Latin. And the same sound, beta, which is the name of a letter among the Greeks, is the name of a vegetable among the Latins; and when I say, lege, these two syllables mean one thing to a Greek and another to a Latin. Now, just as all these signs affect the mind according to the arrangements of the community in which each man lives, and affect different men's minds differently, because these arrangements are different; and as, further, men did not agree upon them as signs because they were already significant, but on the contrary they are now significant because men have agreed upon them; in the same way also, those signs by which the ruinous intercourse with devils is maintained have meaning just in proportion to each man's observations.
And this appears quite plainly in the rites of the augurs; for they, both before they observe the omens and after they have completed their observations, take pains not to see the flight or hear the cries of birds, because these omens are of no significance apart from the previous arrangement in the mind of the observer.