Émile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society
Book 1: Economy
Section 1: Livestock and Wealth
1: Male and Sire 2: A Lexical Opposition in Need of Revision: sus and porcus 3: Próbaton and the Homeric Economy 4: pecu and pecunia Section 2: Giving and Taking
5: Gift and Exchange 6: Giving, Taking, and Receiving 7: Hospitality 8: Personal Loyalty Section 3: Purchase
9: Two Ways of Buying 10: Purchase and Redemption 11: An Occupation without a Name - Commerce Section 4: Economic Obligations
12: Accountancy and Valuation 13: Hiring and Leasing 14: Price and Wages 15: Credence and Belief 16: Lending, Borrowing, and Debt 17: Gratuitousness and Gratefulness Book 2: The Vocabulary of Kinship
Introduction 1: The Importance of the Concept of Paternity 2: Status of the Mother and Matrilineal Descent 3: The Principle of Exogamy and its Applications 4: The Indo-European Expression for "Marriage" 5: Kinship Resulting from Marriage 6: Formation and Suffixation of the Terms for Kinship 7: Words Derived from the Terms for Kinship Book 3: Social Status
1: Tripartition of Functions 2: The Four Divisions of Society 3: The Free Man 4: phílos 5: The Slave and the Stranger 6: Cities and Communities Book 4: Royalty and its Privileges
1: rex 2: xsay- and Iranian Kingship 3: Hellenic Kingship 4: The Authority of the King 5: Honour and Honours 6: Magic Power 7: Krátos 8: Royalty and Nobility 9: The King and his People Book 5: Law
1: themis 2: dike 3: ius and the Oath in Rome 4: *med- and the Concept of Measure 5: fas 6: The censor and auctoritas 7: The quaestor and the *prex 8: The Oath in Greece Book 6: Religion
1: The 'Sacred' 2: The Libation 3: The Sacrifice 4: The Vow 5: Prayer and Supplication 6: The Latin Vocabulary of Signs and Omens 7: Religion and Superstition
Chapter 7: Religion and Superstition
Since the Indo-Europeans did not conceive of that omnipresent reality which religion represents as a separate institution, they had no term to designate it. In those languages which do present such a term it is of great interest to trace the process by which it was constituted.
In Ionic Greek, in Herodotus, the term thrēskeíē properly refers to the observances of cult prescriptions. The term is unknown in Attic Greek and it does not appear until a late date (first cent. B.C.) to designate “religion,” as a complex of beliefs and practices.
Nothing has been the subject of a greater or longer dispute than the origin of the Latin word religio. Here it is shown, for both semantic and morphological reasons, that the word must be attached to relegere ‘to collect again, to take up again for a new choice, to return to a previous synthesis in order to recompose it’: thus religio ‘religious scruple’ was originally a subjective attitude, an act of reflection bound up with some fear of a religious kind. While it is false historically, the interpretation of the word by “religare” ‘to tie, bind’, which was invented by the Christians, is significant for the renewal of the notion: religio becomes “obligation”, an objective bond between the believer and his God. No less disconcerting is the term for superstition: as between superstes ‘survivor’, ‘witness’ and superstitiosus ‘diviner’ how can we define superstitio? Originally it was the faculty of testifying retrospectively to what has been obliterated, of revealing the invisible. The evolution of the term towards an exclusively pejorative sense is explained by the discredit which attached at Rome to soothsayers, magicians and “seers” of every kind. We can see by what roundabout and unforeseeable processes the fundamental pair of terms religion-superstition was constituted.
All the lexical terms studied in the immediately preceding chapters have been concerned with a central notion—that of religion. How can we define, by means of the Indo-European vocabulary, what we understand by “religion”?
One fact can be established immediately: there is no term of common Indo-European for “religion.” Even in the historical period there are a number of Indo-European languages which lack such a term, which is not surprising. For it lies in the nature of this notion not to lend itself to a single and lasting expression.
If it is true that religion is an institution, this institution is nevertheless not separated from other institutions or outside them. It was not possible to evolve a clear conception of what religion is or to devise a term for it until it was clearly delimited and had a distinct domain, so that it was possible to know what belonged to it and what was foreign to it. Now in the civilizations which we are studying everything is imbued with religion, everything is a sign of, a factor in, or the reflection of, divine forces. Thus outside special confraternities no need was felt for a specific term to designate the complex of cults and beliefs, and this is why to denote “religion” we find only terms which appear as separate and independent creations. It is not even certain that we understand them in their true and proper meaning. When we translate as “religion” the Sanskrit word dharma ‘rule’ or the Old Slavic věra ‘belief’, are we not committing the error of extrapolation? We shall examine only two terms, one from Greek and the other from Latin, which can pass for equivalents of our word “religion.”
The Greek word thrēskeía denotes properly both cult and piety. It has a curious history in Greek itself. According to Van Herten  thrēskeía was applied only to foreign cults; whereas in fact, in the Augustan period, the word may designate every cult, whether indigenous or foreign. The word is ancient. It appears for the first time in Herodotus and then disappears completely from the tradition to reappear in the time of Strabo. From then on examples multiply both in texts and in inscriptions. The word is properly Ionic, and it did not find its way into Attic, but it later became popular because it was the most convenient term to designate a complex of beliefs and cult practices.
The first uses, two of thrēskeíē and two of the verb thrēskeúein, all in Herodotus in his second book, relate to observances: “The Egyptians, the neighbors of the Libyans, did not tolerate the regulation of the sacrifice and especially the prohibition of the flesh of the cow” (II, 18).
Elsewhere Herodotus refers to the rules of physical purity to which the Egyptian priests subject themselves. Then he adds: “They observe a thousand other thrēskeías” (II, 37): these are practices imposed on priests. Such is also the meaning of the verb thrēskeúō (II, 64; 65) “to follow minutely religious prescriptions,” and always with reference to the Egyptians. The idea is thus that of “observance,” a notion of practice rather than belief. Thanks to scattered testimony we can reach further back into the history of the word. The substantive thrēskeía derives, curiously enough, from a present tense in -skō which we have in the form of a gloss in Hesychius: thrḗsko: noô and also thráskein: anamimnḗskein “cause to recollect.” Thrḗskō in its turn is susceptible of analysis: it goes back to a verb *thréō which is attested by enthreîn: phulássein ‘guard, observe’. We can add a further link to this chain of words: *thréō presupposes a root *ther-, and this enables us to attach to it the adjective atherés which is glossed anóēton ‘senseless’ and, what is more interesting, anósion ‘impious’. Finally, atherés lies at the base of the Homeric present tense atherízō ‘to neglect, make light of’.
All these data link up and are complementary to the notion which the word thrēskeía itself evokes: that of “observance,” “rule of religious practice.” It links up with a verbal stem denoting attentiveness to a rite, preoccupation with being faithful to rule. It is not “religion” as a whole but the observance of the obligations of cult.
We now come to the second term, which is infinitely more important in every respect: this is the Latin religio, which remains, in all western languages, the sole and constant word, for which no equivalent or substitute has been able to establish itself.
What does religio mean? The question has been discussed since ancient times and even then scholars were unable to agree. Modern scholars remain no less divided. Opinions waver between two alternatives each of which is favored from time to time and finds new supporters, but no final decision has been reached. One of these alternatives is represented by Cicero, who, in a text quoted later on attaches religio to legere ‘gather, collect’, and the other by Lactantius and Tertullian, who explain religio by ligare ‘to bind’. Modern writers are still divided between legere and ligare.
We can do no more than cite the principal studies. Cicero’s solution has been supported by W. Otto,  and he has been followed by J. B. Hofmann.  By contrast the dictionary of Ernout-Meillet opts firmly for religare, and this is also true of the article on religio in Pauly-Wissowa.  Other scholars remain undecided: W. Fowler  provides a good descriptive study of the meaning of religio, but for the etymology he cites the opinion of Conway that “either opinion can be defended.”
This is the text of Cicero which was destined to dominate the whole discussion (De natura deorum II, 28, 72): Qui autem omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo ut elegantes ex eligendo, ex diligendo diligentes. His enim in verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem quae in religioso. ‘Those who rehandled (retractarent) diligently and so to speak relegerent all the things which relate to the worship of the gods, were called religiosi from relegere, like elegantes from eligere and diligentes from diligere. All these words have in fact the same sense of legere as religiosus.’
For Lactantius, on the contrary, religio is a “bond” of piety which “binds” us to god, vinculo pietatis obstricti et religati sumus. The opinion of Lactantius was followed by Kobbert, who defines religio “as a force external to man, a tabu attached at certain epochs to certain places, to certain things and whereby man, deprived of his will, is bound, attached.”
What we must first ask ourselves is what religio denotes in actual fact and what the proper and constant uses of the word are. It will suffice to recall a few examples from among the most striking. Originally religio did not mean “religion”; that at least is sure.
An old fragment of a lost tragedy by L. Accius has preserved these two verses:The religiones of the seer Calchas, arising from an unfavorable omen, compel the army to stay where it is and the hero from returning home. We see that religio, a term of the augural language, denotes a “scruple relating to the omina,” that is to say a subjective frame of mind.
Nunc, Calcas, finem religionum fac: desiste exercitum
morari meque ab domuitione, tuo obsceno omine
morari meque ab domuitione, tuo obsceno omine
(Non. 357, 6 = Astyanax fr. V Ribbeck)
“Put an end, Calchas, to your religiones; cease to delay the army and so preventing me from returning home by your unfavorable omen.”
Such is also the dominant feature that attaches to religio in its more “secular” uses.
Plautus Curculio 350: vocat me ad cenam; religio fuit, denegare volui “He invites me to dinner; I had a scruple about it and I wanted to refuse.” In Terence (Andria 941) Chremes finds himself in the presence of a young girl, his own daughter whom he believes lost. He hesitates to recognize her: At mihi unus scrupulus restat, qui me male habet “I still have a scruple which troubles me,” he says. The other replies: dignus es cum tua religione, odio: nodum in scirpo quaeris “You with your religio, you deserve to be hated: you want to find difficulties where there are none (literally, you try to find a knot on a reed).” The word religio takes up scrupulus. Hence comes the expression religio est ‘to have a scruple’, and also religioni est or religio tenet with an infinitive proposition: religioni est quibusdam porta Carmentali egredi (Festus 285 M.) “some people feel a scruple about going out by the Carmental gate.”
This use is constant in the classical period. For instance, in the course of an election the first teller of the votes dies and the whole proceedings have to be suspended. Despite this Gracchus decides to continue although rem illam in religionem populo venisse ‘although the affair had awakened scruples in the hearts of the people’ (Cicero Nat. deorum II, 4,10). The word is frequent in Livy, often in connection with religious phenomena: quod demovendis statu suo sacris religionem facere posset ‘a fact which might cause misgivings about changing the site of certain cults’ (IX, 29, 10). This is an allusion to the punishment of the Potitii who had abandoned the cult of Hercules: adeo minimis etiam rebus prava religio inserit deos ‘so true is it that a misguided scruple involves the gods in the most trivial matters’ (XXVII, 23, 2).
The cult of Ceres, says Cicero, must be carried out with the most meticulous care for the rites, according to the vows of our ancestors: sacra Cereris summa maiores nostri religione confici caerimoniaque voluerunt (Balb. 24, 55).
The sense of religio, which recurs in a large number of other examples, is confirmed by the derivative religiosus ‘scrupulous with regard to cult, having a case of conscience in a matter involving rites’. A number of Roman learned men tell us that religiosus could be used with reference to the cult itself: religiosum quod propter sanctitatem aliquam remotum ac sepositum a nobis sit ‘a thing is said to be religiosum which, because of some sanctity, is remote and set apart from us’ (Masurius Sabinus apud Aulus Gellius N.A. 4, 9); religiosum esse Gallus Aelius ait quod homini facere non liceat, ut si id faciat contra deorum voluntatem videatur facere ‘a thing is said to be religiosus which a man is not permitted to do, if in so doing he seemed to be acting against the will of the gods’ (Festus p. 278, Mull.).
In sum, religio is a hesitation, a misgiving which holds back, a scruple which prevents and not a sentiment which impels to action or incites to ritual practice. It seems to us that this sense, which is demonstrated by ancient usage without the slightest ambiguity, imposes as the only possible interpretation of religio the one given by Cicero, who attached it to legere.
Let us consider more closely the form of religio. Is it even possible to explain religio by ligare? Our reply will be in the negative for a number of reasons:
(1) There was never an abstract *ligio corresponding to ligare; the abstract from religare is relegatio; on the other hand we have the conclusive evidence of the word legio in favor of legere.
(2) It is a little noticed fact that the abstracts in -io are generally based on verbs of the third conjugation and not the first: e.g. ex-cidio, regio, dicio, usu-capio, legi-rupio (rumpere), de-liquio (linquere), oblivio (*oblivere, oblivisci), and legio.
(3) A quotation by an ancient author would alone suffice to decide the question: religentem esse opportet, religiosus nefas (ne fuas?) ‘One ought to be religens, not religiosus’ (Nigidius Figulus apud Aulus Gellius N.A. 4, 9, 11). It makes no difference that there is a textual corruption in the last word. The form religentem from lego, legere, points clearly to the origin of religiosus.
All these reasons would have been clearly apparent long ago if the verb *religere had left other proofs of its existence than the participle religens so as to provide a firmer foundation for the connection between legere and religio. But we can reason from verbs of the same formation, such as diligo and intelligo, which Cicero had already cited, in the passage quoted above: his enim verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem quae in religiose ‘in all these words (diligo, intelligo) there is the same sense of legere that we have in religious’.
In fact legere ‘gather, collect, recognize’ had a number of concrete applications and, with various prefixes, it was used to denote different intellectual processes and emotions. The opposite of lego is neg-ligo ‘not to trouble oneself about’; diligo is “to gather by isolating, with preference, esteem, love”; intelligo is “gather by choosing, discern by reflection, understand”; and is not “intelligence” the capacity for choice and synthesis?
From these connections we can infer that the sense of religere was “to re-collect”: its meaning was ‘to take again for a new choice, to reconsider a previous approach’. Here we have a good definition of the religious “scruple.” While it is a good thing to be religens, said Nigidius Figulus, “to be careful of religious things,” it is bad to the religiosus “to have constant scruples” about them. To take up again a choice already made (retractare is the word Cicero uses), to revise the decision which results from it, this is the proper sense of religio. It indicates a subjective attitude not an objective property of certain things or a complex of beliefs and practices. Roman religio was, at the beginning, essentially subjective. It is no accident that it is only in Christian writers that we find the explanation of religio by religare. Lactantius insists on it: nomen religionis a vinculo pietatis esse deductum, quod hominem sibi Deus religaverit et pietate constrinxerit “the term religio has been taken from the bond of piety, because God has bound man to him and attached him by piety.” This is because the content of religion itself has changed. For a Christian, what characterizes the new faith in opposition to the pagan religions was the bond of piety, this dependence of the faithful on God, this obligation in the true sense of the word. The concept of religio was remodeled on the idea that man made for himself about his relation to God, an idea that was totally different from that of the old Roman religio and prepared the way for the modern sense of the term. This broad outline is what is essential in the history and origin of the word religio, what emerges from the uses and the morphology of the word.
This analysis of the sense of religio also contributes to our understanding of the term which was regarded by the Romans themselves as its contrary: superstitio. In fact the notion of “religion” requires, so to speak, by opposition that of “superstition.”
This is a curious notion which could only have arisen in a civilization and at an epoch in which the mind could detach itself so far from the practice of religion that it could appreciate both the normal forms as well as the exaggerated forms of belief and cult. There are barely two societies in which we can observe such a detachment and where, along independent lines, terms were created to express the distinction.
In Greek the notion is expressed by the compound deisidaimonía, an abstract noun derived from deisidaímōn, literally “he who fears the daímones.” This compound, in the course of history, came to have two different senses: first, “he who fears the gods (daímones)” as they ought to be feared, who is respectful of religion and devout in its practices; later, as the result of a double semantic process, “superstitious.” On the one hand daímōn acquired the sense of “demon”; secondly religious practice was complicated by observances of growing complexity and minuteness thanks to the influence of magic and foreign cults. Parallel with this we have the growth of philosophical schools which, detached from the practice of religion, distinguished between true worship and purely formalistic practices. This evolution is interesting to follow within the history of Greek, but it results from a rather late and limited attitude of awareness.
The word superstitio, on the other hand, with its derived adjective superstitiosus was in use as long as religio, to which it stands in opposition. This is the term which, for us moderns, has fixed the concept. The formal structure of the word appears to be perfectly clear, but the same cannot be said for the meaning.
In the first place, the word was used in a number of senses in Latin, but none of these agrees with the sense of the elements of the compound. One fails to see how the sense of “superstition” could emerge from the combination of super and stare.
To judge by its form, superstitio ought to be the abstract corresponding to superstes “surviving.” But how can these words be connected for their sense? For superstes itself does not mean only “surviving,” but in certain well-attested uses it denotes “witness.” The same difficulty arises for superstitio in its connection with superstitiosus. If we accept that somehow or other superstitio came to mean “superstition,” how is it that superstitiosus meant not “superstitious” but “having prophetic gifts, a seer”?
We see the complexity of the problem, which is limited in so far as it concerns formation, but is of great consequence for the history of beliefs. This is why the word has been so often studied, discussed, and explained in very different ways. We may briefly review these varied interpretations in order to appreciate all the elements of the discussion.
(a) The literal interpretation by superstes ‘surviving’ leads to the notion of superstitio as “survival.” Superstitio would then mean a “remainder” of an old belief which would appear superfluous at the time implied by the term. In our opinion this explanation involves an historical misconception. It would mean attributing to the ancient people, before the beginning of history proper, the attitude of mind and the critical sense of the nineteenth century or modern ethnographers, who are in a position to pick out in religion “survivals” of an earlier epoch which do not harmonize with the rest. In any case this explanation takes no account of the special sense of superstitiosus.
(b) In Otto’s study of the word religio, cited above, the word superstitio is also considered. The author defines the sense which it has in the ancient writers but he makes no attempt to explain it from the resources of the Latin language: for him superstitio is simply the translation of a Greek word: it is the Latin calque οf ékstasis ‘ecstasy’. This is a surprising conclusion, for ékstasis has nothing whatever to do with superstitio either as regards form or meaning. The prefix ek- does not correspond with super- and magic and sorcery are absent from the sense of ékstasis. Finally, the very date at which the word superstitio appears in Latin excludes all philosophical influence on its formation. In fact, this proposal has not found acceptance.
(c) According to Müller-Graupa,  superstes is a euphemism for “the spirits of the dead”: the dead are always alive; they may appear at any time; hence their name superstes ‘the survivor’, and superstitio in the sense “Dämonenwesen, demoniac being,” and also “belief in demons.” The meaning of superstitiosus is thus “full of demoniac elements, possessed by evil spirits”; then, in an age of reason, the word would have denoted belief in phantoms. The author realized that his explanation had already been proposed by Schopenhauer, for whom the dead “survived” (superstites) their destiny; superstitio would thus be the quality of the superstites.
This whole conception is gratuitous. Superstes did not have this connection with death, and it is difficult to see how a dead person “survives” in this way or how he was ever described as superstes. In Roman religion, if the dead have a life, it is not a life of survival but a life of quite a different kind. Finally, superstitio does not designate the belief in a demon; this intrusion of the demoniac and the demons into the concept of superstitio is pure invention.
(d) Other explanations have been sought along different lines. Margadant  for his part starts with the sense of “witness,” which superstes has, and attributes to superstitiosus the primary meaning of “seer, prophet.” The given sense of superstes ‘witness’ developed in superstitiosus to that of “wahrsagend, prophetic,” the transition being the sense “qui divinitus testatur,” that is, “he who is a witness of the divinity.” This is a very odd idea: it is not permissible to introduce the notion of “testimony” into the divine sphere or to connect a legal term with second sight. The person endowed with divinatory powers was not, in the eyes of the Romans, a “witness” to the divinity as later the Christian martyr was to become. In any case we still are not given an explanation of the proper sense of superstitio.
(e) Finally, an explanation has been proposed by Flinck-Linkomies,  “superstitio developed from the sense of ‘superiority’ (Überlegen-heit, super-stare, to be above) via ‘divinatory power, sorcery’ to that of ‘superstition’.” It is difficult to see how “superiority” leads to “sorcery” or how we get from “sorcery” to “superstition.”
Such is the state of the problem. Here, as in all similar cases, an explanation can be accepted only if it is applicable to all the senses, by harmonizing them in a reasonable way, and if it is founded on the exact sense of the elements of the compound.
Let us take the first and last terms, superstes and superstitiosus, since the intermediary superstitio yields us no more than a substantive already fixed in the sense which has to be explained. In fact there are differences between the basic term superstes and the derivative superstitiosus which are instructive for the proper meaning.
How does superstes, the adjective from superstare, come to mean “surviving”? This has to do with the sense of super, which does not solely or properly mean “above” but “beyond” in such a way as to cover and to constitute an advance, according to the context: satis superque ‘enough and beyond, enough and more than enough’; the supercilium is not only “what is above the eyelash,” it protects it by overhanging. The very notion of “superiority” does not denote simply what is “above” but something more, some measure of progress over what is “beneath.” Similarly, superstare means “to stand beyond,” in fact, beyond an event which has destroyed the rest. Death has come upon a family: the superstites exist beyond this event. A man who has passed through danger, or a test, a difficult period, who has survived it, is superstes. A character in Plautus says “I require of a woman that you should always survive your husband” ut viro tuo semper sis superstes (Cas. 817-818).
This is not the only use of superstes: “To continue existence beyond” implies not only “to have survived a misfortune, or death” but also “to have come through any event whatsoever and to exist beyond this event,” that is to have been a “witness” of it. Or again, it can mean “he who stands (stat) over the thing, who is present at it.” Such would be the relation, with respect to the event, of the witness. We can now see the explanation of the sense ‘witness’ for superstes, which is attested several times, for instance in a fragment of a lost play of Plautus. Nunc mihi licet quidvis loqui: nemo hic adest superstes “Now I can say whatever I want to: there is no witness present” (Plautus in Artemone apud Festus 394, 37). This is not an isolated use, and there is other testimony which gives us the assurance that it is of great antiquity. In Festus loc. cit. superstites means “the witnesses, those present”: superstites, testes, praesentes significat; cuius rei testimonium est quod superstitibus praesentibus ii inter quos controversia est vindicias sumere iubentur, ‘superstites means testes, praesentes; the proof of this is that those who are involved in a dispute receive the order to formulate their claims in the presence of witnesses’, superstitibus praesentibus. Cicero (Pro Murena, 12) reproduces an old formula which was in use at the time when roads were consecrated: utrisque superstitibus istam viam dico; this is confirmed by Servius (ad Aen. III 339): superstes praesentem significat.
We can now see the difference between superstes and testis. Etymologically testis means the one who attends as the “third” person (*ter-stis) at an affair in which two persons are interested; and this conception goes back to the Indo-European community. A Sanskrit text has it: “every time two persons are together, Mitra is there as the third person”; thus Mitra is by nature the “witness.” But superstes describes the witness as the one “who has his being beyond,” a witness in virtue of his surviving, or as “the one who stands over the matter,” who was present at it.
We can now see what superstitio can and must theoretically signify, namely the quality of being a superstes. This would be the “property of being present” as a “witness.” It now remains to explain the relation between the postulated sense and that which we actually find in the texts. Superstitio, in fact, is often associated with hariolus ‘seer’. This is well illustrated by Plautus. A one-eyed parasite explains his infirmity: “I lost my eye in a fight”; the other retorts: “I don’t care whether you had your eye gouged out in a fight or by a pot that someone threw at you.” “What,” exclaims the parasite, “this man is a seer, he has guessed aright”: superstitiosus hic quidem est; vera praedicat (Cure. 397). The “truth” consists in the fact of “divining” what one has not been present at. Similar is illic homo superstitiosus (Amph. 322). In the Rudens 1139ff. the subject is a woman and one of the characters says:We can now see the solution: superstitiosus is the one who is “endowed with the power of superstitio,” that is, “qui vera praedicat”, the seer who speaks of past events as if he had actually been present: the “divination” in these examples did not refer to the future but to the past. Superstitio is the gift of second sight which enables a person to know the past as if he or she had been present, superstes. This is how superstitiosus denotes the gift of second sight, which is attributed to “seers,” that of being a “witness” of events at which he has not been present.
—Quid si ista aut superstitiosa aut hariolast atque
omnia quidquid inerit vera dicet?
omnia quidquid inerit vera dicet?
“And suppose this woman is superstitiosa or ariola and she tells truly everything that is (in this casket)?”
—non feret, nisi vera dicet: nequiquam hariolabitur
“She won’t get it unless she speaks the truth; sorcery will be no use.”
The word is constantly associated in common use with hariolus, but it was in the language of divination that it must have acquired the sense of (magic) “presence.” In fact, it is always in special vocabularies that words take on their technical sense. We have an example of it in the French word voyant ‘who is endowed with sight’, but not of normal sight but something that goes beyond it, “second sight.”
In this way the terms can be seen to have a natural relationship: superstes ‘the one who can pass as a “witness”’ because he has been present at some event; superstitio ‘the gift of “presence”’, the faculty of giving testimony as if one had actually been there; superstitiosus, the one who is endowed with this “gift of presence,” which permits him to have been present at past events. This is the sense which we find in Plautus. 
But how are we to explain the modern sense? The fact is that this is the last to appear in the semantic history of the word. The evolution from the sense which has just been described—which must have arisen in the language of seers—to that which is familiar to us can be traced. The Romans had an abhorrence for divinatory practices: they regarded them as charlatanism. Sorcerers and seers were despised, and all the more so because the majority of them came from foreign parts. Superstitio, associated with disapproved practices, took on a pejorative coloring. At an early date it denoted the practices of a false religion which were considered base and vain, unworthy of a reasonable mind. The Romans, faithful to their official augurs, always condemned any recourse to magic, to divination, to these practices which were regarded as puerile. It was then, on the basis of the sense “contemptible religious beliefs” that a new adjective was formed from the basic noun: superstitiosus ‘one who gives himself up to superstitio’ or who allows himself to be influenced by it. From this a new idea of superstitio arose, the opposite of religio. And this produced this new adjective superstitiosus ‘superstitious’, which was wholly distinct from the first and was the antithesis to religiosus formed in the same way. But it was the enlightened view, the philosophic view of the rationalizing Romans which dissociated religio ‘religious scruple’, authentic worship, from superstitio, a degraded and perverted form of religion.
In this way we can make clear the link between the two successive senses of superstitio, which reflect in the first place the state of popular beliefs and next the attitude of the traditional Roman in matters of belief.
[ back ] 1. J. Van Herten, Thrēskeía, eulábeia, hikétēs, diss. Utrecht, 1934. Documentation has been enriched and the history of the word given new precision by Louis Robert, Etudes épigraphiques et philologiques, 1938, 226ff.
[ back ] 2. In the study of religio and superstitio published in Archiv für Religionswissenschaft XII, 533; XIV, 406.
[ back ] 3. Lat. etym. Wb., I, 35a.
[ back ] 4. The author, M. Kobbert, gives a resumé of his dissertation on the subject (1910).
[ back ] 5. Transactions of the 3rd International Congress of the History of religions, Vol. II.
[ back ] 6. Glotta, XIX, 1930, 63ff.
[ back ] 7. Indogermanische Forschungen, 48, 1930, 284.
[ back ] 8. Arctos, 2, 73ff.
[ back ] 9. This solution to the problem has been sketched out in Revue des Etudes Latines, 16, 1938, 35ff.