The Real Old-Time Religion: Magic, Superstition, and the Challenge to Fundamentalism

Leah Mickens

One of the most curious inhabitants of the Church Trium­phant is Saint Guinefort of Lyons. According to legend, Guinefort was in the employ of a French knight in the mid-thirteenth century and was looking after his master’s infant son while the master went on a hunting trip. When the knight returned, he saw Guinefort covered in blood and the cradle overturned. Convinced that Guinefort had killed his son, the knight ran his sword through his unfortunate servant.

As soon as Guinefort died, the knight heard the sound of a baby crying. He turned over the cradle, saw his son near the body of a dead viper, and realized that Guinefort had saved the baby from the snake. Out of remorse, the knight buried Guinefort with honors in an unused well. Miracles then occurred there that were immediately attributed to his intercession, especially regarding requests pertaining to the protection of infants.

The story of Saint Guinefort sounds like standard medieval hagiographical boilerplate until one realizes that Saint Guinefort was a greyhound. Although the cult of the dog-saint Saint Guinefort was considered an embarrassment by the educated and a heresy by Catholic authorities, attempts to suppress the cult were unsuccessful, and it persisted in various forms until the 1930s.

The cult of Saint Guinefort is perhaps the most peculiar manifestation of folk religion, which can be defined as varieties of religious experience and expression that the masses undertake outside the officially defined parameters of orthodoxy. While religion, like taxes and mosquito bites, has always been with us, fundamentalism is a distinctly modern development. Originally coined by conservative Protestants who resented attempts to demythologize “the fundamentals” of Christianity, the word fundamentalist is now a catchall term for politically engaged reactionaries of any religious persuasion. The root of the fundamentalists’ ire is the fear that the processes of modernization, industrialization, and secularization will do away with the pristine glories of the “old ways” that sustained the culture until the recent past. But what exactly are these old ways that fundamentalists are so eager to preserve?

 

Most of what passed for religion among ordinary people until the twentieth century was what we would consider a mishmash of folk magic and superstition. Intellectual figures such as Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, and Avicenna may have created official doctrines and engaged in philosophical debates, but their works had no bearing on the religious life of the illiterate masses. The ordinary believer, regardless whether he or she was officially Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, relied on magical charms, astrology, and the services of local conjurers to make sense of the world.

For example, despite the existence of many secular and ecclesiastical laws prohibiting magical activities, medieval and Reformation-era England were full of “cunning folk” who aided their clients with everything from finding lost items to healing the sick to telling the future. While there was no doubt in the minds of medieval and Reformation-era English scholars that miracles and supernatural phenomena were a part of life, the cunning folk asserted that they could manipulate the fabric of reality for profit and fun, something that suggested diabolical influence. Indeed, Elizabethan-era theologian William Perkins asserted that, “The most horrible and detestable monster is the good witch,” since those practicing white magic seduced the community with their useful services whereas the naked aggression of black magicians quickly lead to their ostracization and imprisonment. However, the disapprobation of divines was not enough to stop the trade of the cunning folk, and individuals who practiced “good magic” tended to be treated leniently by the courts as long as no people or animals were physically harmed by their activities. Even on the Continent, where accusations of occult activity were punished much more harshly, the practice of folk magic continued well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 

For the genuinely pious and devout, this substitution of superstition for informed orthodoxy was unacceptable, and over the centuries various mavericks—among them the mendicant orders in the Middle Ages and, later, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin—struggled to bring the people back to what they perceived as the original faith. However, even the most enthusiastic premodern reformers understood that illiteracy and ingrained folk beliefs imposed a natural limitation on the development of a pious laity, and they tempered their expectations accordingly. For example, early Lutheran attempts to catechize the unlettered German populace focused heavily on stressing the importance of the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother (which was interpreted to mean that the lower classes should develop fear of and respect for their social betters), rather than filling their heads with the minutiae of theology and doctrine. Some idealistic Lutheran clergymen tried to stamp out magic and superstition through vigorous preaching and simplified catechesis during the Reformation, but their efforts were largely unsuccessful in weaning the masses from their folk-religion customs. The spiritualized, individualistic, and pietistic faith taught by the clergy was incomprehensible to the illiterate masses, who preferred the tried-and-true magical methods handed down by their parents and community to an alien “religion of the book.”

Lest anyone think that folk magic was simply a product of lingering Old World paganism, the United States also has an impressive body of folk religious and magical beliefs known as hoodoo (not to be confused with voodoo). A melting pot of African, European, and Native American folk practices, hoodoo was particularly popular among Southern blacks, who used it to maintain health, gain wealth, and occasionally to injure white authority figures and other enemies. Readers of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may recall how Huck consulted Jim and his “hairball oracle” to determine what he should do about his father, an example of how deeply ingrained folk-magic beliefs were among Americans of all races in the nineteenth century. In addition to the magic potions, lucky charms, and root work common to most folk-magic systems, hoodoo is notable for the way in which it treated the Bible as a magical tool. Examples include putting a Bible under one’s pillow to ward off witches, reading Bible verses backward to scare ghosts and demons, and making a wish while pointing to the words “and it shall come to pass.” The book of Psalms is particularly important to hoodoo practitioners as a source of spells for white magic. Hoodoo is alive and well in 2014 thanks to the rise in neo-paganism, which has led to renewed interest in this uniquely American body of folk magic.

The veneration of unofficial folk saints is widespread in Latin America, now regarded as the “heartland” of global Catholicism. Echoing the aforementioned cult of Saint Guinefort, Latin American folk saints are informally canonized by the people in a particular area who feel that the deceased individual in question continues bestowing the community with supernatural favors from beyond the grave. A folk saint need not be a good person or even a human being, as the example of Saint Guinefort demonstrates. An example of the criminal as saint can be seen in Juan Soldado (John the Soldier), a Mexican conscript who was arrested and executed for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in 1938. After his ignominious death, visitors to the cemetery in which he was buried began to report supernatural occurrences, leading many to believe that Juan had been unfairly accused by a corrupt military establishment and that the alleged miracles attributed to his influence demonstrated his sanctity. The practice of folk magic is also common in Latin America; examples range from the use of authorized Catholic prayers as magic spells to highly ritualized black magical traditions such as palo mayombe, which uses human body parts.

 

While the clergy of the premodern and early modern world may have been forced to accept, however grudgingly, the existence of heterodox folk religious practices, the modern fundamentalist is unwilling to accept any compromise with error: one is either orthodox or a heretic. The fundamentalist leader assumes a certain degree of literacy on the part of his followers that will enable laypersons to examine holy texts on their own, something that could occur only in contemporary society where universal literacy is a given, or at least a feasible goal. Followers of a fundamentalist sect must walk a fine line between being savvy enough to disbelieve in the evil eye but not questioning enough to fall into the trap of “idle curiosity” and begin doubting the foundation of their worldview. Indeed, what one often finds in fundamentalist groups is a hyper-educated laity comprised of individuals who are more knowledgeable about their faith tradition than many clergymen. Yet the very existence of these informed fundamentalists is itself a modern innovation, given that folk-religion practices were the norm for the spiritual life of the average person, rather than the religion of the clerics.

For example, so-called Catholic traditionalists (conservative Catholics who prefer the Latin Mass and the customs and teachings of the pre–Vatican II Church) tend to be well versed in papal encyclicals and the details of Catholic moral theology. Many even learn Latin to be able to read church documents in their original language. Yet, many of the accoutrements of Catholic traditionalism—the Latin-English hand missals, the lace mantillas, easy access to ecclesiastical documents—did not come into existence until after Vatican II. While Catholic traditionalists might look down on the Hispanic and Asian women who inevitably congregate in front of unapproved apparitions of the Virgin Mary that appear on tree trunks or tortillas, such activities are much more “traditional” than laymen attempting to study Thomas Aquinas’s Summa in Latin.

The prevalence of folk religion and folk magic has several important implications. From the perspective of fundamentalist religionists, who put great emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it is clear that our ancestors were “doing religion wrong” with their folk practices and deserve to be in Hell. But living in preliterate societies, how could they have behaved any differently? Why should billions of premodern believers, who were probably even more fervent in their piety than modern fundamentalists, be condemned to eternal punishment just because their illiteracy and poverty made it impossible for them to eliminate certain superstitious practices? The question of their dismal metaphysical fate becomes even more troubling when one realizes that these individuals lived in countries that were explicitly stated to be Christian in nature, had no separation between church and state, and where religious officials were on the government payroll. That “Christian nations” were content to let the bulk of their subjects persist in superstition and ignorance should give anyone agitating for an American confessional state reason to pause.

With this in mind, it should be clear that fundamentalists are not really seeking to bring back some mythical golden age so much as they are self-consciously trying to spawn a new, radically reactionary, and self-conscious religious culture that aims to stand apart from—and eventually conquer—secular society. Clearly, fundamentalists do not want to return to the days when a dog could be venerated as a saint, as evinced by their embarrassment at their modern coreligionists who persist in folk-religion activities.

Yet I would say that the followers of Saint Guinefort and their modern counterparts who worship at the altar of Juan Soldado were, and are, much more indicative of how religion actually functions for the average believer. When fundamentalists claim to be acting in the name of some ill-defined tradition, or when they express a desire to return to the good old days, humanists should remind them that the real old-time religion isn’t what they imagine it to be.

 

References

“Medieval Sourcebook: Stephen De Bourbon (d. 1262): De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort.” Fordham University Medieval Source­book. September 8, 2000. http://www.fordham.edu/ halsall/source/guinefort.asp. Accessed October 31, 2014.

Newbell Niles, Puckett. “Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro.” Internet Archives. March 10, 2001. https://archive.org/stream/folkbeliefsofsou00puck/folkbeliefsofsou00puck_djvu.txt. Accessed November 2, 2014.

“The Reformation and Its Public.” 1988. In The German People and the Reformation, edited by R. Po-Chia Hsia and Gerald Strauss. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Thomas, Keith. 1991. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Penguin Books.

Vanderwood, Paul J. 2004. “Juan Soldado: Field Notes and Reflections.” In On the Border: Society and Culture Between the United States and Mexico, edited by Wood Andrew Grant. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

 


Leah Mickens is a researcher and freelance writer. Her most recent article for Free Inquiry was “The Rise of Global Fundamentalism: Are Humanists Really ‘Winning’?” (December 2014/January 2015).

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.


Fundamentalists who think that they want a return to “old-time religion” should think again.

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