The supernatural in antiquity

Founded 13-Jul-2007
Last update 9-Sep-2007

Dale B. Martin

Excerpt 1 Excerpt 2


Excerpt from Hellenistic Superstition: The Problems of Defining a Vice

If the rational/irrational dichotomy is problematic, its supernatural/natural partner is more so, although modern medical and classical historians have not been loath to invoke it. The ancient medical writers did reject popular ideas that blamed the gods and other superhuman beings for diseases. But it is misleading to portray this as a rejection of supernatural intervention into a closed system of nature. The author of The Sacred Disease, for example, notes that “the masses” ascribe epilepsy (or madness) to divine attacks, thus its label “the sacred disease”. In arguing against these beliefs, however, he does not deny divine activity and attribute the disease to other “natural” sources; rather he argues that all diseases are divine in the sense that all disease is part of nature, which is imbued with divinity (or divinities). Diseases are all part of natural processes, which include divine processes (Sacred Disease 1.4.21). The author rejects, in fact, the therapies and prescriptions of popular healers by saying that such therapists are impious; they dishonour the gods. The author argues that the gods occupy a legitimate realm in nature, but not as direct agents of disease causation or cure. The writer does not remove the gods from nature or consign them to some supernatural realm; he just denies them an active rôle as personal tormentors in disease (see esp. chapter 3).

Moreover, the Hippocratic authors have no intention of completely excluding divine activity from the mechanisms of disease and healing. Indeed, they sometimes allow the gods benevolent rôles in healing. As another Hippocratic text states: “The gods are the real physicians, though people do not think so. But the truth of this statement is shown by the phenomenon of disease”.3 Other educated authors also allow gods a rôle in disease treatment. Herophilus, to cite an example from our period, calls drugs “the hands of the gods”.4 Whatever the ancient scientists find objectionable about popular practices, it has nothing to do with something called “supernatural intervention”.

This is mainly because the supernatural didn’t exist in the ancient world. The category itself is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It can be traced to early modern thinkers and the philosophical precursors of the Enlightenment who attempted to develop a scientific method independent of the constraints of Christian dogma. Elsewhere I go to some length to describe what may, with hyperbole, be called the “invention” of the supernatural by René Descartes (Martin 1995, 4-6). To summarize briefly, the ancients had no conception of the “supernatural” because the “natural” was not the kind of closed, mechanistic system assumed by early modernism – a system that excluded the gods or “spiritual” forces. The forces that modern scholars, whether theologians, philosophers, or scientists, would label as “supernatural” were included in the category of phusis. For my purposes, this means that in seeking to define and delimit “superstition” in the ancient world, we must begin by rejecting any account that links “superstition” to “the supernatural”.5

Dale B. Martin, Hellenistic Superstition: The Problems of Defining a Vice
(In Studies in Hellenistic Civilization, Vol. VIII – Conventional Values of the Hellenistic Greeks, pp. 112-113.
Aarhus University Press, 1997)


3On Decorum 6 (trans. W. H. S. Jones). This translation is based on a conjecture (the text is in a state of confusion), but the writer is, in any case, at pains to insist that medicine is not in opposition to or independent of the gods. Rather, it works in harmony with or even subservient to them.

4 Quoted in Plut., Mor. 663B-C and Gal. De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos 6.8 (XII, pp. 965-966K); see von Staden 1989, 417-18. For fuller discussion and other relevant references, see Martin 1995, 154-56.

5 It is important in this regard to recognize how it was in modernism, since say the Enlightenment, that the supernatural was first invented and then rejected. More and more, modernist rationality implied a rejection of past “superstitions” and “orthodoxies” – including the supernatural – in support of a notion of individual freedom. See the portraits of modernism, for example, in Craig 1991, 27; and Toulmin 1990, 107.


Craig, Gordon A.:The Germans. Meridian, New York, 1991.
Martin, Dale B.:The Corinthian Body. Yale University Press, New Heaven, 1995.
Toulmin, S.:Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Von Staden, Heinrich:Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 1989.



The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpts are listed in the bibliography.


Excerpt from Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians

The Greeks and Romans certainly had no word that was equivalent to the modern English “supernatural.” Their word for nature was physis, from which we derive physical, physics, and such terms. But there was no such word as hyperphysis, which would be a literal translation into Greek of the English supernatural. [...] To be sure, English readers of translations of ancient Greek texts will sometimes come across the term supernatural in their translations, but those translations, I argue, are misleading. They are translating Greek terms that more precisely mean something like “the divine” (theios) or that refer to daimones (“demons”), beings or forces that were taken to be divine or quasi-divine. None of these terms encompasses all those entities moderns mean when they use the term supernatural.

[...] Classical Greek and Latin had no term for what passes in the modern world as “the supernatural” precisely because the ancients did not separate out divine forces and beings from “nature” and relegate them to a separate ontological realm that could be designated by its own label. Generally, for ancient people whatever does exist exists in “nature”. Almost without exception the Greek term physis (nature) refers to “all that is.” People might argue that the gods did not exist or that some particular daimon or god or superhuman being did not exist (I know of no ancient author who argued for actual atheism in the modern sense). But in that case, they said that the disputed entity simply did not exist, not that it might exist in some other realm of reality, such as the “supernatural.” [...]

Another terminological confusion is related to this one. Modern writers will regularly claim that one or another ancient philosopher is rejecting divine or supernatural intervention into nature. Obviously, if the ancients took divinities to be part of nature (which they all did if they believed in them at all), then talk of “intervention” is misleading. In order for something to “intervene” in some process, it must come from outside that process. Ancient writers may well have believed, for example, that deities did not personally interject themselves into the normal course of a disease, but it is anachronistic to portray that as the rejection of divine intervention into nature. Those writers who insisted that a god did not cause the disease did so for reasons other than that they believed, in principle, that deities did not intervene in nature. [...]

Finally, assuming that ancient intellectuals criticized superstition because they were rejecting supernatural causation basically begs the question. It simply assumes that superstition is belief in the supernatural and doesn’t tell us why they rejected supernatural causation. [...] That entire way of thinking about the problem is a modern one and absent in ancient discussions. But we will never be able to recognize the precise reasons for the ancient criticism of superstition if we assume that it was motivated by what have actually been only modern concerns. If we want to discern precisely what counted as superstition in the ancient world and why, we must avoid invoking the category of “the supernatural” and must instead look for the ancient logic of nature that made certain beliefs and actions seem superstitious to intellectuals of that time.

Dale B. Martin, Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians, pp. 14-16
(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts – London, England, 2004)



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