"I DON'T believe in star signs," a friend once told me, "but
that may be because I am a Sagittarius and therefore naturally
sceptical." Good joke, I thought. But I know there are Christians
who get terribly anxious about horoscopes and that sort of thing.
They see them as a portal to wickedness, and not a laughing
I shrug at all this, and walk away. I have no interest in those
who defend it or those who attack it - both sides seem silly to me.
Here, my daughter's favourite line - "Whatever" - seems
Yet there are serious issues here. My part of south London is
terribly superstitious. Down in the market, you can buy from a
Rastafarian chap incense pots that you are supposed to burn for
various problems. They have names such as "Break up", "Court case",
"Money drawing", and "Fast luck".
What I think about when I see these pots is not primarily
superstition created by foolishness, but superstition created by
desperation. Opposite my church is a woman who has a shop for tarot
readings, or some such. I can't say I see many people going in. But
the very fact that she is there is indicative of a market for the
In a fascinating book, The Magical Imagination: Magic and
modernity in urban England 1780-1914 (CUP, 2012), Karl Bell
argues that superstitious beliefs were not mere hangovers of a
previous age, and not simply ways of escaping from reality, but
also ways of negotiating reality. Magic, he says, is a practice
that can help ordinary people navigate the problems of
The dark alleys and narrow streets of 19th-century cities were
often frightening and dangerous. The magical imagination, with its
tales of ghosts and ghoulies, named that fear. And naming and
discussing is the start of how we manage it.
None of this can be said without recognition of the real shadow
side of the magical imagination. There are undoubtedly people in my
parish who share beliefs in demon possession and forms of
witchcraft which do an enormous amount of harm, often to children.
Remember eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, whose guardians
repeatedly tortured her and eventually beat her to death in an
attempt to remove the devil.
The question for me is the extent to which the woman reading
palms across the road from the church is doing something that is
continuous with child-beating wickedness. Are they quite different
things? And to what extent does all this superstition bleed into
our churches, even Anglican ones? I cannot prove it. But I worry
that it does.
Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's,
Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.