Ancient and modern

The ancient belief in the power of words to protect us

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

In his 37-book Natural History, Pliny the Elder (d. ad 79) wondered why we wished people ‘Happy new year’ (primum anni diem laetis precationibus faustum ominamur), or said ‘Bless you’ (sternuentes salutamus) when someone sneezed. Was this mere superstition, or something else?

Pliny devoted a lot of time to denigrating all forms of superstition and magic, arguing that they were attempts to control the uncontrollable in human affairs, and citing Nero as an example of someone whose interest in magic was nothing but an ‘overwhelming desire to force the gods to do his will’, as if such a thing were ever possible. Beliefs about such phenomena, whose origins Pliny found in man’s search for cures from illnesses when human efforts yielded no results, struck him as contrary to man’s dignity and independence.


But Pliny felt differently about the possible efficacy of words and incantations. These were a different order of things, representing an intelligible agreement between rational beings, man and god, and a credit to mankind. Consisting of fixed verbal formulae, which must be word perfect and uninterrupted, they covered everything from sacred rituals e.g. to ensure sacrifices were valid, to prayers repeated three times before a journey to make sure it would be safe (a practice of Julius Caesar ‘after a dangerous accident to his carriage’), and so on.

Further, history provided countless examples of prayers that turned events in Rome’s favour. So ‘if we agree that the gods hear certain prayers or are influenced by any form of words, we must answer the whole question [of their effect] in the affirmative’ – though Pliny was in two minds about whether all such words would affect us, e.g. Cato’s gibberish to fix a dislocated hip (chant ‘huat hauat huat ista pista sista dannabo dannaustra’).

On top of that, the augurs had also decreed ‘the greatest imaginable divine blessing’: that if the force of words or omens worried us personally, ‘they do not affect those who at the outset of any undertaking declare that they will ignore them’. In other words, man was no puppet of gods, or man.

One was not compelled to have a happy new year.

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