The Evil Eye in the Mediterranean: How to Avert Accidental Envy
The ancient Mediterranean belief of the evil eye still has its adherents today. Those who have the “eye” are thought to give bad luck unintentionally to anything or anyone that they are envious of. The evil eye is an accidental kind of misfortune and anyone might be capable of casting it. Simply congratulating someone or admiring a neighbor’s belonging is thought to cause a calamity to occur if not accompanied by a blessing.
This belief is very different to curses which require a witch or sorcerer to make the magic happen. When it comes to the evil eye, anyone can possess it and no special skills are required. Historically, the varied ways in which it could be cast, prevented and cured make up a mind-boggling landscape which is difficult to navigate. Just as amulets are used in many cultures as lucky charms or for religious protection, they have traditionally been just one of an array of tools used to combat the ever present risk of the evil eye.
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A person would use different rituals and symbols depending on where they wanted to prevent the evil eye or if they needed to cure its effects. They might put horns on their house to absorb the evil eye cast by someone walking by, preventing it from affecting them. Or they could make the sign of the horn with their hand to deflect the evil eye as soon as it had been cast.
There were also numerous ceremonies carried out to cure the evil eye once it had taken hold. Almost anything was thought to be vulnerable to the effects of the evil eye. A person, their spouse, their children or their livestock could fall physically sick or suffer with mental health issues because of it. Farmland might become less fertile; a household object might break or a terrible accident could befall a family member. Food could also be affected, so kitchens and the process of cooking often required specific rituals. Sometimes a person could simply face a long period of bad luck which seemed to come from nowhere.
Painting by John Philips, entitled The Evil Eye. (Public domain)
Identifying Who Cast the Evil Eye
The reason a person regularly gave a blessing after complimenting someone was because everyone thought they might possess the evil eye. It was therefore important to make a statement to prevent its ill effects just in case. Envy was viewed as something that anyone could feel on some level, so no one could avoid accidentally becoming a caster.
In some communities the evil eye was thought to be inherited and permanent, but mostly it was seen as a temporary problem. Sometimes a caster was thought to have certain characteristics that made them more likely to fall into this envious trap. Those who behaved in antisocial ways, showed too much interest in their neighbors or who had an unusual lifestyle were thought to be particularly susceptible.
Identifying the caster didn’t constitute a witch hunt or bad treatment of the person in question. Rather it was a blameless sort of mission to resolve the issue at hand. The caster would often agree to give up a sample of their clothing for the ritual to cure the afflicted. Ultimately, depending on the religious beliefs of the culture, the eye was thought to be caused by evil spirits or something similar. The emotion of envy invoked these supernatural entities who temporarily imbued the caster with a power they did not choose to have.
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Feigning Stupidity or Acting Vulgar to Protect from the Evil Eye
Since reproductivity was important to families, children were seen as particularly at risk from the evil eye, especially newborns. Curing the evil eye was possible, but it was much more desirable to stop it from taking effect in the first place. Hiding from people was really the only way to totally avoid the effects of the evil eye and this was practically impossible even in the most rural of societies. Therefore, other measures were needed.
Mothers-to-be often hid their pregnancy and labor until the last possible moment to avoid attracting any envious glances or comments. Once their children were born it was common to refer to them as stupid, or make alternate negative comments, to deter envious thoughts.
In some cases, they also dressed them badly, rubbed dirt on their faces or gave them them unflattering nicknames to avert the evil eye. Infertile older women, viewed as socially different to the rest of the community, were often seen as potential casters since it was expected they would be envious of those with children.
Strangely enough, vulgar profanities were sometimes used to counteract the evil eye. As previously mentioned, if a person were to compliment someone, like for example by saying they loved their glossy hair, it was customary for them to follow this with an immediate blessing. If they didn’t do this, there was the possibility of being afflicted with evil eye energy.
Luckily it was believed that a window of opportunity existed during which the envied person could deflect this evil eye energy floating around the ether preparing to make its attack. Certain swear words said discreetly were believed to diminish its powers.
In Malta, for example, there were a few amusing examples such as għajnek f’sormok which means “stick your eyes up your backside,” and għajnek f’għajni which means “your eye in my eye,” the second eye meaning, yes you guessed it, the rear end! In fact, there are reports from many cultures where genitalia are referred to loudly or more discreetly as a way of deflecting the evil eye.
Traditionally the sign of the horn was a way of deflecting the evil eye. (Zamrznuti tonovi / Adobe Stock)
Mixing Paganism and Religion
The Mediterranean has a long history and the exact origin of the evil eye isn’t known. Similar beliefs are also common in the Near East and Asia. However, at some point the belief system around the evil eye merged itself with different religions, making it culturally acceptable during more traditional times even though its origins were far earlier.
To ward off the evil eye people sometimes carried cloth bags containing herbs, religious symbols and images of saints. These were normally prayed over first to imbue them with protective power. Amulets were popular and these might take different forms, fusing the religious and the pagan. In modern times the hamsa or Hand of Fatima is popular in jewelry all over the world, as is the blue eye symbol. Historically these were worn for protection from the evil eye.
Interestingly garlic was also used in many regions and in different ways to ward off the eye. Since most prophylactics are designed to distract the caster away from that which it envies, anything that smells strong, sounds strange or looks shocking would do the trick.
Anyone who loves heavy metal music knows that making the sign of the horn with your hand has a fairly long history within this musical genre. However, did you know that its origins lie in the deely-entrenched beliefs related to the evil eye? From Italian grandmothers warding off il malocchio, to rock stars and their fans identifying with each other through this kind of sign language, the sign of the horn has been used in different ways over the years.
Traditionally the sign of the horn was a way of deflecting the evil eye after it had started its journey into the space between two people. Actual animal horns were also displayed on houses as a way of turning back an evil eye that might have been cast by a passerby. Rather than just making the shape of a horn with their hand, a person would sometimes wear amulets shaped like a horn.
In a consumer society, showing off on social media has never been more fashionable. But historically, prudence was much more important. Physically hiding wealth or pretending to be unsuccessful were ways in which people stopped their neighbors from being jealous of them, thereby preventing the bad luck associated with the evil eye. Prized livestock were also kept away from prying eyes and a trip to market meant using all sorts of amulets and rituals.
Nowadays talking negatively about your financial situation is thought to spark a cycle of negativity. It’s popular for people to talk about manifesting their own luck through positive thoughts and to be their own agent for change. But traditionally such ideas were seen as detrimental to wellbeing, fertility, wealth and success because the evil eye was lurking everywhere and just waiting for an outward display of happiness in order to get to work.
The hamsa or Hand of Fatima is a popular palm-shaped amulet used as protection against the evil eye. (nito / Adobe Stock)
Curing the Evil Eye
History is full of stories about curses, witches and magic. Traditionally, a person who thought they had been cursed was keen to understand not only who was the cause, but also who they had enlisted to help them out. A specialist was almost always needed for such magic to be effective.
Removing the curse was also a complicated procedure fusing pagan and religious practices. Some witches were cast out of society for the role they had played, while others ended up in much worse trouble. Denunciation was very much a part of the process.
In the world of the evil eye a person might cast it accidentally and without blame, but a specialist was also needed to cure it. Herbs, oils, water, burnt leaves, prayer and religious chants were all combined to create ritualistic cures for those who believed themselves to be afflicted by the evil eye.
Diagnostics were also carried out using oil and water to be sure the person was truly affected by it and to work out who had cast it. These so-called “specialists” fused together pagan and religious belief systems to produce a familiar and trusted ceremony, and often the caster was included in the cure. It was socially acceptable to politely request the caster for help since they hadn’t caused the problem intentionally.
Although many different parts of the Mediterranean are referred to in this article and the belief system has varied over time, each individual community still had a complex and bewildering set of rituals related to this one problem and in some cases still do. It’s customary to assume rural Mediterranean societies in the past were relatively simple, but they were in fact complicated places where the evil eye co-existed with beliefs in witchcraft and religion creating a rich cultural environment.
In general anthropologists view the evil eye in a similar way to other magical practices. In times of uncertainty, when survival was often dependent on uncontrollable elements such as the weather, beliefs and rituals helped people to explain and manage their environment. Infrequent, but difficult occurrences such as drought, infertility or diseased livestock needed an explanation beyond that of chance.
Once the evil eye was decided upon as the cause, the afflicted person or family could use specific rituals and tools to ensure it went away and to guard against it in the future. Not only did this give people some measure of control, but it also ensured that no-one was demonized in the process. In small communities, it would probably have been unwise to ostracize people each time something bad happened, so the blameless aspect of these belief structures was particularly convenient.
Top image: Image of demon with evil eyes. Source: Roman / Adobe Stock
By Laura Tabone (@MegalithHunter)
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