The Evil eye
The Hamsa, a charm made to ward off the evil eye.
The evil eye is a look that is believed by many cultures to be able to cause injury or bad luck for the person at whom it is directed for reasons of envy or dislike. The term also refers to the power attributed to certain persons of inflicting injury or bad luck by such an envious or ill-wishing look. The evil eye is usually given to others who remain unaware.
The “evil eye” is also known in Arabic as ʿayn al-ḥasūd (عين الحسود), in Hebrew as ʿáyin hā-ráʿ (עַיִן הָרַע), in Kurdish çaw e zar (eye of evil/sickness), in Persian as chashm zakhm (eye-caused injury) or chashm e bad (bad eye), in Turkish as Nazar (nazar is from Arabic نَظَر Nathar which means eye vision or eyesight), similarly in Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi the word Nazar or Boori Nazar (bad eye/look) is used, in Amharic buda, in Afghan Pashto cheshim mora, and also “Nazar”, in Greek as to máti (το μάτι), in Spanish as mal de ojo, in Italian as malocchio, in Portuguese mau-olhado (“act of giving an evil/sick look”), and in Hawaiian it is known as “stink eye” or maka pilau meaning “rotten eyes”.
The idea expressed by the term causes many cultures to pursue protective measures against it. The concept and its significance vary widely among different cultures, primarily the Middle East. The idea appears several times in translations of the Old Testament. It was a widely extended belief among many Mediterranean and Asian tribes and cultures. Charms and decorations featuring the eye are a common sight across Afghanistan and Turkey and have become a popular choice of souvenir with tourists.
Forms of belief
Nazars, charms used to ward off the evil eye.
In some forms, it is the belief that some people can bestow a curse on victims by the malevolent gaze of their magical eye. The most common form, however, attributes the cause to envy, with the envious person casting the evil eye doing so unintentionally. Also the effects on victims vary. Some cultures report afflictions with bad luck; others believe the evil eye may cause disease, wasting, or even death. In most cultures, the primary victims are thought to be babies and young children, because they are so often praised and commented upon by strangers or by childless women.
The late UC Berkeley professor of folklore Alan Dundes has explored the beliefs of many cultures and found a commonality—that the evil caused by the gaze is specifically connected to symptoms of drying, desiccation, withering, and dehydration, that its cure is related to moisture, and that the immunity from the evil eye that fish have in some cultures is related to the fact that they are always wet. His essay “Wet and Dry: The Evil Eye” is a standard text on the subject.
In many beliefs, a person—otherwise not malefic in any way—can harm adults, children, livestock or possessions, simply by looking at them with envy. The word “evil” is somewhat misleading in this context, because it suggests an intentional “curse” on the victim. A better understanding of the term “evil eye” can be gained from the old English word for casting the evil eye, namely “overlooking”, implying that the gaze has remained focused on the coveted object, person, or animal for too long.
The amount of literary and archeological evidence attests to the belief in the evil eye in the eastern Mediterranean for millennia starting with Hesiod, Callimachus, Plato, Diodorus Siculus, Theocritus, Plutarch, Heliodorus, Pliny the Elder, and Aulus Gellius. In Peter Walcot’s Envy and the Greeks (1978) he referenced more than one hundred of these authors’ works related to the evil eye. Studying these written sources in order to write on the evil eye only gives a fragmented view of the subject whether it presents a folkloric, theological, classical, or anthropological approach to the evil eye. While these different approaches tend to reference similar sources each presents a different yet similar usage of the evil eye, that the fear of the evil eye is based on the belief that certain people have eyes whose glance has the power to injure or even kill and that it can be intentional or unintentional.
Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye
Belief in the evil eye during antiquity is based on the evidence in ancient sources like Aristophanes, Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Heliodorus.
In the Greco-Roman period a scientific explanation of the evil eye was common. Plutarch’s scientific explanation stated that the eyes were the chief, if not sole, source of the deadly rays that were supposed to spring up like poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person possessing the evil eye (Quaest.Conv. 5.7.2-3=Mor.80F-81f). Plutarch treated the phenomenon of the evil eye as something seemingly inexplicable that is a source of wonder and cause of incredulity.
The belief in the evil eye during antiquity varied from different regions and periods. The evil eye was not feared with equal intensity in every corner of the Roman Empire. There were places in which people felt more conscious of the danger of the evil eye. In the Roman days not only were individuals considered to possess the power of the evil eye but whole tribes, especially those of Pontus and Scythia, were believed to be transmitters of the evil eye. The phallic charm called fascinum in Latin, from the verb fascinare, “to cast a spell” (the origin of the English word “fascinate”), was used against the evil eye.
The spreading in the belief of the evil eye towards the east is believed to have been propagated by the Empire of Alexander the Great, which spread this and other Greek ideas across his empire.
Around the world
Belief in the evil eye is strongest in the Middle East, East and West Africa, Central America, South Asia, Central Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean region; it has also spread to areas, including northern Europe, particularly in the Celtic regions, and the Americas, where it was brought by European colonists and Middle Eastern immigrants.
Belief in the evil eye is found in Islamic doctrine, based upon the statement of Muhammad, “The influence of an evil eye is a fact…” [Sahih Muslim, Book 26, Number 5427]. Authentic practices of warding off the evil eye are also commonly practiced by Muslims: rather than directly expressing appreciation of, for example, a child’s beauty, it is customary to say Masha’Allah, that is, “God has willed it,” or invoking God’s blessings upon the object or person that is being admired. A number of beliefs about the evil eye are also found in folk religion, typically revolving around the use of amulets or talismans as a means of protection.
Although the concept of cursing by staring or gazing is largely absent in East Asian and Southeast Asian societies.
In the Aegean Region and other areas where light-colored eyes are relatively rare, people with green eyes, and especially blue eyes, are thought to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally. This belief may have arisen because people from cultures not used to the evil eye, such as Northern Europe, are likely to transgress local customs against staring or praising the beauty of children. Thus, in Greece and Turkey amulets against the evil eye take the form of blue eyes, and in the painting by John Phillip, below, we witness the culture-clash experienced by a woman who suspects that the artist’s gaze implies that he is looking at her with the evil eye.
Among those who do not take the evil eye literally, either by reason of the culture in which they were raised or because they simply do not believe in such things, the phrase, “to give someone the evil eye” usually means simply to glare at the person in anger or disgust. The term has entered into common usage within the English language. Within the broadcasting industry it refers to when a presenter signals to the interviewee or co-presenter to stop talking due to a shortage of time.
Protective talismans and cures
Attempts to ward off the curse of the evil eye has resulted in a number of talismans in many cultures. As a class, they are called “apotropaic” (Greek for “prophylactic” or “protective,” literally: “turns away”) talismans, meaning that they turn away or turn back harm.
Disks or balls, consisting of concentric blue and white circles (usually, from inside to outside, dark blue, light blue, white, dark blue) representing an evil eye are common apotropaic talismans in the Middle East, found on the prows of Mediterranean boats and elsewhere; in some forms of the folklore, the staring eyes are supposed to bend the malicious gaze back to the sorcerer.
Known as nazar (Turkish: nazar boncuğu or nazarlık), this talisman is most frequently seen in Turkey, found in or on houses and vehicles or worn as beads.
A blue or green eye can also be found on some forms of the hamsa hand, an apotropaic hand-shaped talisman against the evil eye found in the Middle East. The word hamsa, also spelled khamsa and hamesh, means “five” referring to the fingers of the hand. In Jewish culture, the hamsa is called the Hand of Miriam; in some Muslim populated cultures, the Hand of Fatima. However, it is considered a superstition to practicing or religious Muslims that any symbol or object protects against the evil eye. In Islam, only God can protect against the evil eye.
Evil eye, Isabat al-’ayn, is a common belief that individuals have the power to look at people, animals or objects to cause them harm. In Islam, God is the only one who can protect against the evil eye; no object or symbol can. Prophet Muhammad prohibited the use of talismans as protection against the evil eye because it is idolatry, the form of protection allowed being supplication to Allah. It is tradition among many Muslims that if a compliment is to be made one should say “Masha’Allah” (ما شاء الله) (“God has willed it.”) and also “Tabarakallah” (تبارك الله) (“Blessings of God”) to ward off the evil eye. Reciting Sura Al-Falaq and Sura Al-Nas from the Qur’an is also used as a means of personal protection against the evil eye.
A Ruby Eye Pendant from an ancient civilization in Mesopotamia was possibly used as amulet to protect against evil eyes. Adilnor Collection.
Assyrians are also strong believers in the evil eye. They will usually wear a blue/turquoise bead around a necklace to be protected from the evil eye. Also, they might pinch the buttocks, comparable to Armenians. It is said that people with green or blue eyes are more prone to the evil eye effect. A simple and instant way of protection in European Christian countries is to make the sign of the cross with your hand and point two fingers, the index finger and the little finger, towards the supposed source of influence or supposed victim as described in the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula published in 1897:
When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me. With some difficulty, I got a fellow passenger to tell me what they meant. He would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye.
The evil eye is mentioned several times in the classic Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers). In Chapter II, five disciples of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai give advice on how to follow the good path in life and avoid the bad. Rabbi Eliezer says an evil eye is worse than a bad friend, a bad neighbor, or an evil heart. Judaism believes that a “good eye” designates an attitude of good will and kindness towards others. Someone who has this attitude in life will rejoice when his fellow man prospers; he will wish everyone well. An “evil eye” denotes the opposite attitude. A man with “an evil eye” will not only feel no joy but experience actual distress when others prosper, and will rejoice when others suffer. A person of this character represents a great danger to our moral purity. Many Observant Jews avoid talking about valuable items they own, good luck that has come to them and, in particular, their children. If any of these are mentioned, the speaker and/or listener will say “b’li ayin hara” (Hebrew), meaning “without an evil eye”, or “kein eina hara” (Yiddish; often shortened to “kennahara”), “no evil eye”. It has also been suggested the 10th commandment: “do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor” is a law against bestowing the evil eye on another person.
The evil eye called as Buri Nazar (in modern North India) or Drushti (in Sanskrit) is an ancient belief in India. There are several ways of removing the evil eye mentioned in Atharvaveda.
Belief in the evil eye, or buda (var. bouda), is widespread in Ethiopia. Buda is generally believed to be a power held and wielded by those in a different social group, for example among the Beta Israel or metalworkers.:20-21 Some Ethiopian Christians carry an amulet or talisman, known as a kitab, or will invoke God’s name, to ward off the ill effects of buda. A debtera, who is either an unordained priest or educated layperson, will create these protective amulets or talismans.
The evil eye, known as μάτι (mati), “eye,” as an apotropaic visual device, is known to have been a fixture in Greece dating back to at least the 6th century BC, when it commonly appeared on drinking vessels. In Greece, the evil eye is cast away through the process of xematiasma (ξεμάτιασμα), whereby the “healer” silently recites a secret prayer passed over from an older relative of the opposite sex, usually a grandparent. Such prayers are revealed only under specific circumstances, for according to superstition those who reveal them indiscriminately lose their ability to cast off the evil eye. There are several regional versions of the prayer in question, a common one being: “Holy Virgin, Our Lady, if [insert name of the victim] is suffering of the evil eye, release him/her of it” repeated three times. According to custom, if one is indeed afflicted with the evil eye, both victim and “healer” then start yawning profusely. The “healer” then performs the sign of the cross three times, and emits spitting-like sounds in the air three times. A very similar ritual can be found in neighboring Bulgaria.
Another “test” used to check if the evil eye was cast is that of the oil: under normal conditions, olive oil floats in water, as it is less dense than water. The test of the oil is performed by placing one drop of olive oil in a glass of water, typically holy water. If the drop floats, the test concludes there is no evil eye involved. If the drop sinks, then it is asserted that the evil eye is cast indeed. Another form of the test is to place two drops of olive oil into a glass of water. If the drops remain separated, the test concludes there is no evil eye, but if they merge, there is. There is also a third form where in a plate full of water the “healer” places three or nine drops of oil. If the oil drops become larger and eventually dissolve in the water there is evil eye. If the drops remain separated from water in a form of a small circle there isn’t. The first drops are the most important and the number of drops that dissolve in water indicate the strength of the evil eye.
There is another form of the “test” where the “healer” sets on fire using a matchstick a clove which is then thrown in water. If the clove “explodes” upon touching water the evil eye was cast. If it burns out silently it wasn’t.
All of the above methods are usually performed by an old lady, who is known for her healing, or a grandparent.
The Greek Fathers accepted the traditional belief in the evil eye, but attributed it to the Devil and envy. In Greek theology, the evil eye or vaskania (βασκανία) is considered harmful for the one whose envy inflicts it on others as well as for the sufferer. The Greek Church has an ancient prayer against vaskania from the Megan Hieron Synekdemon book of prayers (Μέγαν Ιερόν Συνέκδημον).
Italy and Sicily
The cornicello, “little horn,” also called the cornetto (little horn) or cornetti (plural), is a long, gently twisted horn-shaped amulet. Cornicelli are usually carved out of red coral or made from gold or silver. The type of horn they are intended to copy is not a curled-over sheep horn or goat horn but rather like the twisted horn of an African eland or something similar.
One idea that the ribald suggestions made by sexual symbols distract the witch from the mental effort needed to successfully bestow the curse. Another is that since the effect of the eye was to dry up liquids, the drying of the phallus (resulting in male impotence) would be averted by seeking refuge in the moist female genitals. Among the ancient Romans and their cultural descendants in the Mediterranean nations, those who were not fortified with phallic charms had to make use of sexual gestures to avoid the eye. Such gestures include the fig sign; a fist with the index and little finger extended and a fist with the thumb pressed between the index and middle fingers, representing the phallus within the vagina. In addition to the phallic talismans, statues of hands in these gestures, or covered with magical symbols, were carried by the Romans as talismans. In Latin America, carvings of the fist with the thumb pressed between the index and middle fingers continue to be carried as good luck charms.
The wielder of the evil eye, the jettatore, is described as having a striking facial appearance, high arching brows with a stark stare that leaps from his black eyes. He often has a reputation for clandestine involvement with dark powers and is the object of gossip about dealings in magic and other forbidden practices. Successful men having tremendous personal magnetism quickly gain notoriety as jettatori. Pope Pius IV was dreaded for his evil eye, and a whole cycle of stories about the disasters that happened in his wake were current in Rome during the latter decades of the 19th century. Public figures of every type, from poets to gangsters, have had their specialized abilities attributed to the power of their eyes.
In Mexico and Central America, infants are considered at special risk for the evil eye (see mal de ojo, above) and are often given an amulet bracelet as protection, typically with an eye-like spot painted on the amulet. Another preventive measure is allowing admirers to touch the infant or child; in a similar manner, a person wearing an item of clothing that might induce envy may suggest to others that they touch it or some other way dispel envy.
One traditional cure in rural Mexico involves a curandero (folk healer) sweeping a raw chicken egg over the body of a victim to absorb the power of the person with the evil eye. The egg is later broken into a glass with water and placed under the bed of the patient near the head. Sometimes it is checked immediately because the egg appears as if it has been cooked. When this happens it means that the patient did have Mal De Ojo. Somehow the Mal De Ojo has transferred to the egg and the patient immediately gets well. (Fever, vomiting/diarrhea,nausea and pain goes away instantly) In the traditional Hispanic culture of the Southwestern United States and some parts of Mexico, the egg may be passed over the patient in a cross-shaped pattern all over the body, while saying the Lord’s Prayer. The egg is also placed in a glass with water, under the bed and near the head, sometimes it is examined right away or in the morning and if the egg looks like it has been cooked then it means that they did have Mal de Ojo and the patient will start feeling better. Sometimes if the patient starts getting ill and someone knows that they had stared at patient which is usually a child, if the person who stared goes to the child and touches them, the child’s illness goes away immediately so the Mal De Ojo energy is released.
In some parts of South America the act of ojear, which could be translated as to give someone the evil eye, is an involuntary act. Someone may ojear babies, animals and inanimate objects just by staring and admiring them. This may produce illness, discomfort or possibly death on babies or animals and failures on inanimate objects like cars or houses. It’s a common belief that since this is an involuntary act made by people with the heavy look, the proper way of protection is by attaching a red ribbon to the animal, baby or object, in order to attract the gaze to the ribbon rather than to the object intended to be protected.
Brazilians generally will associate mal-olhado, mau-olhado (“act of giving a bad look”) or olho gordo (“fat eye” i.e. “gluttonous eye”) with envy or jealousy on domestic and garden plants (that, after months or years of health and beauty, will suddenly weaken, wither and die, with no apparent signs of pest, after the visitation of a certain friend or relative), attractive hair and less often economic or romantic success and family harmony.
Unlike in most cultures mal-olhado is not seen to be something that risks young babies. “Pagans” or non-baptized children are instead assumed to be at risk from bruxas (witches), that have malignant intention themselves rather than just mal-olhado. It probably reflects the Galician folktales about the meigas (witches), as Colonial Brazil was primarily settled by culturally Galician people (northern Portuguese and illegal Galician immigrants to Portugal), in numbers greater than all Europeans to settle pre-independence United States. Those bruxas are interpreted to took the form of moths, often very dark, that disturb children at night and take their energy. For that reason, Christian Brazilians often have amulets in the form of crucifixes around, aside or inside beds where children sleep.
Nevertheless, older children, especially boys, that fill in the cultural expectations of them behaving gorgeously well, for example in having no problems whatsoever in eating well and in great variety, being obedient and respectful toward adults, kind, polite, studious, and demonstrating no bad blood with other children or its siblings, that turn out to be problematic adolescents or adults (from having lack of good health habits to extreme laziness and lacking in the work for their life goals to eating disorders to delinquency), are said to have been victims of mal-olhado from parents of children that were not as admired.
Amulets that protect against mal-olhado tend to be generally resistant, mildly to strongly toxic and dark plants in specific and strategic places of a garden or the entry to a house. Those include comigo-ninguém-pode (“against-me-nobody-cans”), Dieffenbachia (the dumbcane), espada-de-são-jorge (“St. George’s sword”), Sansevieria trifasciata (the snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue) and guiné (“Guinea”), among various other names, Petiveria alliacea (the guinea henweed). For those lacking in space or wanting to “sanitize” specific places, they may all be planted together in a single sete ervas (“seven [lucky] herbs”) pot, that will also include arruda (common rue), pimenteira (Capsicum annuum), manjericão (basil) and alecrim (rosemary). (Though the last four ones should not be used for their common culinary purposes by humans.)
Mal ojo often occurs without the dimension of envy, but insofar as envy is a part of ono, it is a variant of this underlying sense of insecurity and relative vulnerability to powerful, hostile forces in the environment. In her study of medical attitudes in the Santa Clara Valley of California, Margaret Clark arrives at essentially the same conclusion: “Among the Spanish-speaking folk of Sal si Puedes, the patient is regarded as a passive and innocent victim of malevolent forces in his environment. These forces may be witches, evil spirits, the consequences of poverty, or virulent bacteria which invade his body. The scapegoat may be a visiting social worker who unwittingly ‘cast the evil eye’ … Mexican folk concepts of disease are based in part on the notion that people can be victimized by the careless or malicious behavior of others”.
Another aspect of the mal ojo syndrome in Ixtepeji is a disturbance of the hot-cold equilibrium in the victim. According to folk belief, the bad effects of an attack result from the “hot” force of the aggressor entering the child’s body and throwing it out of balance. Currier has shown how the Mexican hot-cold system is an unconscious folk model of social relations upon which social anxieties are projected. According to Currier, “the nature of Mexican peasant society is such that each individual must continuously attempt to achieve a balance between two opposing social forces: the tendency toward intimacy and that toward withdrawal. [It is therefore proposed] that the individual’s continuous preoccupation with achieving a balance between “heat” and “cold” is a way of reenacting, in symbolic terms, a fundamental activity in social relations.”