Superstition and the Construction of Religious and Cultural Difference

This text presents the theoretical and historical foundations for the project "Superstitio – Superstition and the Constructions of Religious and Cultural Differences in Denmark-Norway". We examine how “superstitio” served as a nodal point in different disciplines, discourses and genres of knowledge concerned with religious, cultural and epistemic difference in Denmark-Norway from the reformation, but with emphasis on the period from 1600 to 1750. 

Using “superstition” as our analytical point of entrance, we aim to produce new insight into how a past socio-cultural order, the divine monarchy in Denmark-Norway, organized differences with reference to religious criteria, and how  this religious organization was challenged in the beginning of the 18th century.  The historiographical point of departure for our project is a lacuna in the literature, namely the fact that early modern Denmark-Norway is a particularly interesting – but manifestly understudied – example of how cultural and religious complexity was interpreted and dealt with in an early modern state based upon a religious ideology.


In present speech “superstition” mainly refers to beliefs and practices allegedly based upon faulty understandings of nature and causality; i.e. beliefs not warranted by science. Thus, the term designates the other of true knowledge and creates an asymmetrical relationship between various reality posits and knowledge cultures. In theologically founded discourses in early modern Denmark-Norway, however, “superstition” was primarily defined in relation to a religious standard – not the yardstick of an autonomous nature investigated by the natural sciences, and from which God and supernatural agents had been “crossed-out”.

As the headword for a broad category of “supernatural” threats, superstitio was central in the early modern lexicon. The term referred to a “perversion” of religion, and consequently did not reference statements about, or practices relating to, forces and beings without empirical existence, but to beliefs and practices that had “lethal connotations”. In contrast to the modern or secular conception of “superstition”, the pre- and early modern category subsumed phenomena taken to constitute literal threats against the (entwined) bodies of the church, society and individuals – not the “mere” myths and ontologically unfounded assertions produced by savage, uncivilized and unlettered minds. This became particularly clear when superstitio referred to “magical” practices like witchcraft and sorcery.

Superstitio belongs to an ancient religious discourse. In Rome, Christianity had been designated as a “superstition”, a false and maleficent religio. Lactantius adhered to the concept’s capacity for defining “otherness”, but in explicating superstitio as “worship of the false” – i.e. associating it with all religious activity on the outside of Jewish and Christian monotheism – he also changed its social referent; he cleansed his own church of superstitio, and construed it as the other of the ecclesiastical body founded upon the Christian logos. The semantic field of “superstition” further came to include a wide range of phenomena that were located on the spatial outside of religion “proper”, while it also depicted the cognitive and ritual characteristics of this “outside”. For Aquinas, idolatry and divinatory magic were “species” of superstition, and as such they formed sub-classes in an inclusive category of religious otherness.

The collocation of superstition, magic and idolatry in the same category had severe consequences for practitioners of popular magic. When the category came to include “folk” practitioners of magic or witchcraft, a theological rationale for criminal persecution was established. Magic worked, not due to any causal-properties or powers in the spell itself, but because diabolical beings assisted the practitioners, who thus could be accused of holding superstitious beliefs since they thought rituals and human signs could have an effect upon biological or natural states. Stuart Clark has demonstrated how the term, in demonology, thematized the “natural inefficacy” of the magical means, and the practitioners’ “appeal to cause and effect relationships that were spurious in nature”. It was actually “this inefficacy in magic that made it demonic”. This was because diabolical intervention was needed to make inefficient practices and rituals into causes – the magic formula actually only works when demons come to assist the practitioner.

A shift in superstition

Peter Burke has commented upon the shifting role of “superstition” in what he calls “the reform of popular culture”. Burke claimed that a characteristic of the transition from the initial phase of the reform (1500-1650) to the second (1650-1800) could be indexed with reference to attitudes towards “superstition”:

Before 1650, the dominant meaning seems to be “false religion” […]. The term is often used of magic and witchcraft in contexts suggesting that these rituals are efficacious but wicked. After 1650, […], the dominant meaning […] came to be irrational fears and the rituals associated with them, beliefs and practices which were foolish but harmless because they had no effect at all (Popular Culture, 1994, p. 241).

Debates on the ideas and phenomena that applied to superstition in the early modern period certainly had a religious dimension. The meaning and sociocultural reference of “magic” were, for instance, involved in an inter-confessional conflict. From a Lutheran perspective Catholic practice was “magic” and “idolatry” (traditional sub-classes of superstitio) – and were associated with a general field of otherness that came to include natives in the new world. However, concerns over superstition in the period should not be restricted to the field until recently associated with cultural and religious studies – excluding the sciences and natural philosophy.

More recent research has shown that the “modern” or “secular” understanding of “superstition” – and hence also acculturation and reform processes undertaken in its name – is a result of semantic displacements in early modern time which also includes knowledge production in the emergent natural and human sciences. This then has transformed the study of superstitio into the study of a “total cultural fact”.

Euan Cameron, for instance, has drawn attention to the manner in which “superstition” was redefined in the course of the 1600s and 1700s, and in particular in relation to the debate concerning the ontological status of spirits – also a concern for natural philosophy and magic. Roughly his story line moves from “superstition” as thematizing forces or effects perceptible in the human realm, which couldn’t be accounted for with reference to the regular workings of nature – and thus often linked to supernatural intervention – to its status as a cognitive defect on an individual or collective level. Gradually, then, the term began to refer to misconceptions of nature, and was increasingly seen as ontologically void and therefore given psychological or cultural anthropological explanations (registers combined in the notion of a “pre-logical mentality” and “savage mind”). Belief in demons and magic appeared as individual madness or a cultural delusion that characterized the individual or collective “savage mind” – not as a plausible description of the cosmos and its actors – while spirits and beings such as demons or ghosts were increasingly moved into the field of “popular religion”.

The destiny of the “preternatural” – neither regular nature nor pure human culture, but a field for communication between human and supernatural agents – is an illustrative case in point. The “preternatural” constituted the ontological realm in relation to witch debates about magical and demonical agency where referenced in pre- and early modern Europe. Stephen Mitchell describes the entanglement of magic, science and religions as follows: “natural magic was not distinct from science, but rather a branch of science. […] demonic magic was not distinct from religion, but a perversion of religion”. Actually, the theological underpinning of the concept of “nature”, along with the historical contraction of the category of the preternatural, is indispensable for understanding pre- and early modern constructions of “nature”, as well as the modern distinction between “nature” and “culture”, which only arises when the preternatural zone in-between the two, and through witch supernatural and hence also super-cultural beings can communicate, is wiped out.

Consequently, a study of changes in the meaning of superstitio must include more than purely religious history examinations, and be focused upon a broader set of relationships than the one between “elite” and “popular”. Indeed, Clark sees the debate on superstitio and demonology as “prerogative instances” in early modern science. “Supernatural” beings and magic were privileged cases and demonology was “cutting edge science” because phenomena like demons and spirits had not yet been exorcised from natural philosophy – and because the conflict about their ontological status (real/fictive/or just put in parenthesis for the time beeing?) contributed to creating the cosmological inventory recognized by what Bruno Latour calls “the modern constitution”; i.e. the sharp distinction of nature and culture and the crossing-out of God – with the subsequent division of officially sanctioned knowledge into a field for cultural interpretation and natural explanation.

However, the content of the “superstitions” of the past did not disappear; rather it continued to live on in new cultural locations and genres, and became increasingly popular in literature and the arts, but now as symbols of psychological or cultural conditions, as when “folk belief” was repacked to be enjoyed aesthetically as literature at arm’s length by cultivated readers.

It is such displacements of meaning and the rhetorical or pragmatic strategies that implement them – as well as intended and unintended consequences of these disputes over the boundaries of truth and faith that the project intend to examine in Danish-Norwegian history, in different social-cultural locations and in varying relationships and differing knowledge genres.

Religio-Political Control in Early Modern Denmark-Norway

The rulers of the Protestant twin monarchy Denmark-Norway were, since the reformation in the 1530s, fairly successful in creating mechanisms of political and religious control. The Church Order of 1537/39 (Den rette Ordinants) could be seen as the “charter myth” for the reformed state. Even before the introduction of the autocratic royal power in 1660, the Lutheran politico-religious boundaries between the “two regiments” – the secular and the spiritual – were almost wiped out. A crucial aspect of this was that the representatives of the king and the church agreed that the yardstick for subject loyalty was the exercise of the correct religion. Thus, religion became a total social fact, impinging upon the whole fabric of society.

The Lutheran state religion and the attempt to establish religious and political loyalty was, however, implemented in a realm with vast cultural and religious differences. Indeed, Denmark-Norway was a political conglomerate that spanned three continents. It included German, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Sami and Greenlandic populations, and subsequently, also African and West Indian possessions. To succeed in binding this variety together in a seamless political and theological fabric, the central power needed to assemble knowledge about what the many differences consisted of, and how they might be encompassed within the theopolitical framework that furnished the state with its ideology and the dual piety towards king and god.

An important instrument both for breaking with the pre-reformation past – “popery” – and achieving control over the cultural and religious variety of the present was the close connections between the monarchy, the clergy and the new institutions of the church. Denmark, and its capital of Copenhagen, was the centre of the state and cultural diffusion, and in the peripheries the church and the clergy under the leadership of the king were important instruments of governance. A further implication of this was that officially sanctioned theology became the mould for the description and interpretation of cultural and religious difference – and alleged deviance.

The authorities were well aware of the fact that the state comprised a complex multi-religious and multi-cultural reality; it was a social body incorporating “external others” at the imperial fringes (Sami, Greenlanders) as well as “internal others” close to the governmental heartland – namely “popular cultures” that appeared to resist the state supported attempts to reform or acculturate them. In the encounter with regional and other differences it became important to understand local differences in a unified way.

Superstitio – An Instrument of Translation

It is in this situation that the relevance of superstitio, its discursive elasticity (it could be targeted upon a broad range of socio-cultural contexts and differences, errors about nature and causality as well as in ritual practice) and its constancy (it belonged to an old semantic matrix for identifying and describing differences from a normative vantage point) becomes apparent. It became increasingly important to control superstitions considered as religious, epistemic and political “deviations” from the normative theology that furnished the state with its ideology. Consequently, knowledge of the multitude of religious and cultural differences inside the borders of the ideally unified divine monarchy had to be produced, both as descriptive “models of” the situation in different localities and as normative “models for” their reform or eradication

Superstition, then, is a key analytical and translational instrument in the exploration of past organizations of difference in Denmark-Norway. The concept offers a privileged entrance to this problematic. In contrast to “cultural difference”, it was an “emic” concept in early modern actors own language. In this language, moreover, “superstition” functioned as an “asymmetrical counter-concept”: It constituted a cultural and religious field opposed to hegemonic beliefs and practices. The socio-cultural use of superstitio to define groups, practices and forms of knowledge as “others”, and subsequently reform them, has received less attention than the intellectual history of the term. Actually, this is surprising. “Superstitio” refers to what one (with a distinction taken from Geertz and Sorokin) could call the “logico- meaningful” aspects of culture and religion, i.e. its semantic dimension. In contrast, other counter-concepts such as “pagan” or “barbarian” designate whole groups that are already excluded. Hence, “superstitio” is both more focused upon meaning – modes of thinking that characterises “otherness” as a kind of religious or epistemic error – and the ongoing work of boundary maintenance based upon the judgement of whether a form of thought or a ritual practice is “correct” or not.

A small set of examples illustrates the discursive elasticity and pragmatic mobility of superstitio, and how it could be deployed at different socio-cultural sites and in different epistemic genres to forge normative relations and hierarchies between different forms of knowledge, religious practices and cultures in Denmark-Norway. The central Protestant theologian Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600) classified magic as superstition in his treatise Admonitio de superstitionibus magicis vitandis. He maintained that the devil was always involved when “popular magic” worked. Consequently “magical” practices concerning health and fertility in popular culture were criminalized. This construal has been considered as furnishing the theological grounds for the witch trials in Denmark-Norway.

The Icelandic antiquarian Arni Magnussón (1663-1730) accused orthodox theologians and the general populace of superstition and of placing fairytales (eventyr) in the place of truth, and in a sense “reversed” the ontology of superstition posited by Hemmingsen. Magnussón presented these views to refute the idea that earlier in the 1600s there had been cases of bodily possession by the devil, caused by withcraft, in Køge and Thisted. Henceforth, the account of the possession in Køge would be published as popular literature as a national legend (sagn), i.e. as fiction, and not as a real religious exemplum as it has been conceived by earlier compilers of Køge Huskors.

Decades before Holberg, Magnussón’s claim established “orthodox” believers in the reality of witchcraft as “superstitious” and uninformed by intellectual and scientific advances – and, thus, as belonging to the past. Magnussón was, however, not only critical of theologians who took demonic possessions to be literal facts, but also of his colleague and compatriot, the royal historian Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719), whom he felt reproduced Norse superstition and fables in his historical writings, not least in his view on Norse magic as a real historical agent of change in the Icelandic sagas.

Missionaries in the early 1700s also turned to superstition to classify and thematize their subject in proto-ethnographical texts. The Pietist and Sami missionary Thomas von Westen (1682-1727) described as superstition the world of ideas of a noiadi (Sami shaman) who boasted of having killed eleven persons using gand, but von Westen also added that “all of us here up north” would have been equally stuck in superstition without the aid of true Christianity.

Von Westen’s statement illustrates that the relation between “us” and “them” in these discourses are not purely anthropological, rather they are related to an elsewhere beyond human culture; “we” living “here” in the North are dependent upon “true Christianity” to escape superstition. The victory over superstition is consequently not to be conceived as a mere human and cultural achievement. Moreover, the ritual practice of the ethnographic other, gand, still appears to represent more than the “mere ritual” of a foreign “culture” seen as an earthly and human organization of forms of thought and action. 

Using “superstition” as an analytical point of entrance, the project aim to produce new insight into how a past socio-cultural order, the divine monarchy in Denmark-Norway, organized differences. Further, we also tackle the question of whether aspects of this early modern organization of difference still inform the present organization of cultural and religious differences. Thus, the project is also concerned with the long and often forgotten durée of present manners of thinking about differences and constructing objects in the scholarly discourse on religion and culture. This “hidden” effective history has been a salient theme in critical cultural and religious studies (e.g. Asad), but the local particularity of the Nordic context as a producer of intellectual models and as a historical formed space to which new differences are grafted has seldom been investigated.  


John Ødemark is lecturer at the Institute of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo



By John Ødemark
Published May 12, 2013 3:42 PM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:48 PM