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What’s the Evil Eye?

This might be one of the most common beliefs in the world. For as widespread as it is, it also shows a great deal of consistency in terms of the general beliefs about what it is and who is at risk for it, as well as how to block it.

Table of Contents

What is it?

Berger (2012) gives a very succinct summary: 

“The Evil Eye is a very ancient superstition characterized by the belief that certain individuals (sorcerer, witch) may, by virtue of their gaze, cause another person, animal, plant, or other property to become ill, die, or otherwise suffer grievous harm”(1099). 

That’s more or less correct, though the actual strength of it as well as who is most susceptible to it has varied over time. It’s really important to remember that beliefs aren’t static things and “over the course of thousands of years, peoples of different nations have developed their varied, culturally sanctioned methods of thrawrting the Evil Eye” (1100)

Who can do it?

Potentially everyone. But different people in different cultures are considered more likely to be able to do it.

“Possessors of the evil eye, or people capable of causing harm through their glance, can be practically anybody.”(Lykiardopoulos, 223)

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a human who performs it:

“The eye is that of an evil person or witch seeking to harm his or her enemy, but in some of the Sumerian incantations the eye is said to be an animal or monster like the mus.hus, “dragon” “(Thomsen, 25)

It seems that women are more commonly considered to be able to do it, at least in the last few centuries. Berger notes,  “the possessor of the malignant glance is most frequently, but not always, an older single woman.” (Berger, 1099) Elworthy agrees, saying “The possessors of this power, considered as among the chief agents of mischief-making persons were mostly females” (Elworthy, 609). 

But it wasn’t exclusive. There are stories of men doing it too. 

How dangerous is it?

This one is very culture-specific. In some instances, it was considered deadly. In others, they are more like mild inconveniences. Originally it seems to have been relatively mild, but grew in strength over the centuries.

“In TCL 16, 89 and BL, no. 3, they are described as accidents, situations that might happen to anyone at any time: it rains too little, the cheese-making goes wrong, a tool breaks, clothes are torn, and the like. This view is supported by the Akkadian incantation VAT 10018, which merely mentions everyday occurrences, although some of them have a more serious character.” (Thomsen, 22)

Is it universal?

No. 

A lot of older works will claim that it’s universal. A good example is the definition in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics which says “This conviction remains to the present day among many people, even in England, as strong as ever, while in more backwards countries and among so-called savages it is universal and undoubted.”(Elworthy, 608). Lykiardopoulos(1981) also gives it a very wide range. (pg. 222) Setting aside, for a moment, the offensive and outdated use of the word ‘savage’. It just isn’t accurate. It’s very widespread, yes, and has existed for a long time, but it’s not universal. Berger (2011) notes “The Evil Eye is not found in sub-Sahara Africa, among Native Americans, or in those people of Central and South America that have not been influenced by Spanish or Portuguese culture”(pg. 1100)

Where did it come from?

This isn’t limited to one belief system, culture, or region. The exact beliefs differ, but the overarching idea is, perhaps not universal, but very common. We can trace it back to Mesopotamia, though evidence suggests that belief in it wasn’t widespread:

Fewer than ten incantations, a few medical recipes, and only one fragmentary ritual directed against the evil eye are known to me. Moreover, there are some ten instances in other contexts”(Thomsen, 20)

Given what was absorbed from Mesopotamia by later cultures, It seems plausible that from here it spread across the Middle East and much of Europe, but that’s just conjecture on my part.

Who is susceptible?

In short, everyone and everything. In one culture, the only people who were immune were “the descendants of Joseph”(Lykiardopoulos, 224), but that’s the only reference I’ve seen to immunity.  And some people and things are considered more vulnerable to it, due to the amount of envy they naturally draw. Babies and livestock were particularly vulnerable for this reason. That’s not universal, but it’s quite common.

How do you block it?

A really common way, especially today, is with some kind of amulet. There are some general rules of thumb for this: 

“As the first glance is considered the most powerful and therefore dangerous, amulets should, by their nature, be of a striking appearance, bright colour, glitter, extreme grossness, oddity, etc., in order to attract, to startle, and generally to divert the attention from the wearer, so that he or she may escape unharmed”(Lykiardopoulos, 227)

Elworthy concurs on amulets: “All authorities and all experience agree that to neutralize the look it is essential to attract it towards something striking, by way of diverting it from the object liable to injury.”(612)

As for the shape, it varies. An eye is quite common: ”In accord with the homeopathic principle that “like repels like,” apotropaic amulets and ornaments usually include an eye design”(Berger, 1101). As well, “It is believed that any object or gesture which gives rise to an indecent or obscene idea is especially effective against fascination” (Lykiardopoulos, 227) so “sexual symbols are often used as deterrents to the Evil Eye”(1102). Blue is often the predominant color.

But there are plenty of other forms as well. Elworthy gives three types of amulets: the ones that attract and thus block the glance, so-called “endless-objects”, and scripture.(612)

How do you get rid of it?

Different cultures, different cures. “In all the cures, the most common feature appears to be the chanting of secret prayers and incantations, closely followed by the use of water and fire” (Lykiardopoulos, 229) Unfortunately many sources don’t actually give the incantations or rituals and only say that they exist. Most of the focus seems to be on blocking it or avoiding it entirely.

Bibliography

Berger, Allan S. (2011). The Evil Eye – An Ancient Superstition. Journal of Religion and Health (2012) 51:1098-1103

Lykiardopoulos, Amica. (1981). The Evil Eye: Towards an Exhaustive Study. Folklore, 1981, Vol. 92, No. 2 (1981), pp 221-230

Thomsen, Marie-Louise. (1992). The Evil Eye in Mesopotamia. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 51, No. 1 (1981), pp. 19-32

Elworthy, F.T. (1908). “Evil Eye” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York.

Further Reading

Kern-Ulmer, Brigitte. (1991). The Power of the Evil Eye and the Good Eye in Midrashic Literature. Judaism Vol. 40 Iss. 3 (1991): 344

Sagiv, Gadi. (2017) Dazzling Blue: Color Symbolism, Kabbalistic Myth, and the Evil Eye in Judaism. Numen, 64, 183-208

Seligmann, Siegfried. (1910). Der böse Blick und Verwandtes : ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Aberglaubens aller Zeiten und Völker.

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