The evil eye is a belief that the envy elicited by the good luck of fortunate people may result in their misfortune. The perception of the nature of the phenomenon, its causes, and possible protective measures, varies between different cultures.
Forms of belief
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 can cause disease
, wasting away, and 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 moistness, 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 forms of the evil eye belief, a person — otherwise not malefic in any way — can harm adults, children, livestock, or a possession, simply by looking at them with envy. The word "evil" can be seen as somewhat misleading in this context, because it suggests that someone has intentionally "cursed" 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.
While some cultures hold that the evil eye is an involuntary jinx cast unintentionally by people unlucky enough to be cursed with the power to bestow it by their gaze, others hold that, while perhaps not strictly voluntary, the power is called forth by the sin of envy. In Jewish religious thought, it is sometimes asserted that the one who looks upon another with envy is not always at fault, but that the envy may be perceived by God, who then may redress the balance between two people by bringing the higher one low. It has been suggested that the term covet (to eye enviously) in the tenth Commandment refers to casting the evil eye, rather than to simply desire or envy.
The amount of literary and archaeological evidence attests to the belief in the evil eye in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a millennium starting with Hesiod
, Diodorus Siculus
, 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. The origin of the belief can only be guessed, but it can be traced back to the earliest of human records and the references in Deuteronomy
indicate that the evil eye was known in the Hebraic world.
The Classical Evil Eye
Belief in the evil eye during antiquity is based on the evidence in ancient sources like Aristophanes
, Plutarch and Heliodorus
. There are also speculations that claim Socrates
possessed the evil eye and that his disciples and admirers were fascinated by Socrates' insistently glaring eyes. His followers were called Blepedaimones
, which translates into demon look, not because they were possessors and transmitters of the evil eye, but because they were suspected of being under the hypnotic and dangerous spell of Socrates.
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 individual 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.
Distribution of the belief
Belief in the evil eye
is strongest in the Middle East
and West Africa
, South Asia
, Central Asia
, especially the Mediterranean
region; it has also spread to other 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 verse of the Qur'an, "And from the evil of the envier when he envies," [Chapter al-Falaq, verse 5] and the statement of Prophet 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. Aside from beliefs based upon authentic Islamic texts, a number of unsubstantiated beliefs about the evil eye are 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, the Usog curse of the Philippines is an exception.
The oldest instance of belief in the evil eye dates back to biblical Israel. There are many instances of people casting the evil eye (ayin hara) in both the Tanakh and the Talmud. Ashkenazi Jews in Europe and the Americas routinely exclaim Keyn aynhoreh! (also spelled Kein ayin hara!), meaning "No evil eye!" in Yiddish, to ward off a jinx after something or someone has been rashly praised or good news has been spoken aloud.
In the Aegean region and other areas where light-colored eyes are relatively rare, people with green eyes are thought to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally. This belief may have arisen because people from cultures unused 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, above, 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.
Protective talismans and cures
Attempts to ward off the curse of the evil eye have 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 the most frequently seen in Turkey, found in or on houses and vehicles or worn as beads.
A blue eye can also be found on some forms of the hamsa hand, an apotropaic hand-shaped amulet 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 Muslim culture, the Hand of Fatima.
The evil 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
), 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 so and so
is suffering of the evil eye release him/her of it" repeated thrice. 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 spits in the air. three times.
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 lighter than water. The test of the oil is performed by placing one drop of olive oil in a glass of water. If the drop floats, the test concludes there is no evil eye involved.
But if the drop sinks, then is asserted that the evil eye is cast indeed. An alternate 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.
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 baskania (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 Mega Hieron Syenekdymon book of prayers (Μέγαν Ιερόν Συνέκδημον).
In ancient Rome, people believed that phallic charms and ornaments offered proof against the evil eye. Such a charm was called fascinum in Latin, from the verb fascinare (the origin of the English word "to fascinate"), "to cast a spell", such as that of the evil eye.
One such charm is the cornicello, which literally translates to "little horn". In modern Italian language, they are called Cornetti, with the same meaning. Sometimes referred to as the cornuto (horned) or the corno (horn), it 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.
Some theorists endorse the idea that the ribald suggestions made by sexual symbols would distract the witch from the mental effort needed to successfully bestow the curse. Others hold 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 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. This is one of the uses of the mano cornuto (a fist with the index and little finger extended) and the mano fico (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 mano fico continue to be carried as good luck charms.
, fish are considered to be immune to the evil eye, so their images are often found on hamsa hand amulets. A red thread is also said to protect babies against the evil eye, and according to folkloric custom it is placed on the pillow upon which a newborn baby is presented for the first time at a viewing by family and friends. In the late 20th century it became the custom to wind a red string around the tomb of the great Matriarch, Rachel
, located near Bethlehem
, in the West Bank
, then to cut the string into pieces and give them out to be worn on the left wrist
as an effective protection against the evil eye. According to this custom, the left hand is considered to be the receiving side for the body and soul, and by wearing the red string
on the left wrist, believers receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel, carrying her protective energy with them and drawing from it any time there is need. The Kabbalah Centre
and the teachings of kabbalah
put much emphasis on this custom.
In India the evil eye, called "drishti" (literally view
) or "nazar", is removed through "Aarthi". The actual removal involves different means as per the subject involved. In case of removing human evil eye, a traditional Hindu ritual of holy flame (on a plate) is carried out in which the plate is moved in a circular motion around the person's face so as to absorb the evil effects. Sometimes people will also be asked to spit into a handful of chillies kept in that plate, which are then thrown into fire. For vehicles too, this process is followed with limes or lemons being used instead of chillies. These lemons are crushed by the vehicle and a new lemon is hung with chillies in a bead to ward off any future evil eyes. The use of kumkum
on cheeks of newly weds or babies is also a method of thwarting the "evil eye". Toddlers and young children are traditionally regarded as perfect and are likely to attract the evil eye. Often mothers apply a spot of kohl
on their children's cheeks or on the forehead to make the child imperfect and ward off evil eyes.
It is tradition among many Muslims
, that if a compliment is to be made, you are always supposed to say "Masha'Allah
" (ما شاء الله) to ward off the evil eye; it literally means "whatever God wills". It is a testimony from someone that he/she believes that either good or bad it will only happen if God wants to. Persian
speakers in Afghanistan use the phrase "Nam-e Khoda" (translated, "The name of God") occasionally in place of "Mashallah", as well as a another phrase with a similar purpose: "Chashmi bad dur" (translated, "May the evil eye be far"). These phrases are found in Tajiki
as well, but in a slightly different form.
, evil eye jewelry and trinkets are particularly common. A nazar or evil eye stone (Turkish: nazar boncuğu) is an amulet from ancient mythology that protects against the evil eye. Colourful beads, bracelets, necklaces, anklets, and all manner of decoration may be adorned by this particularly popular symbol, and it is common to see it on almost anything, from babies, horses, doors to cars, cell phones and even airplanes (see photograph of an airplane with a "nazar").
young children often have a large black dot drawn on one side of their foreheads in order to counter the evil eye. Young girls that are often praised for beauty get a dot drawn behind their earlobes with kohl so no one can see it. This keeps away the evil eye of men and other jealous people.
Iran and neighboring regions
, and Afghanistan
, the seeds of Aspand
, also called Esfand, Espand, Esphand, and Harmal) are burned on charcoal
, where they explode with little popping noises, releasing a fragrant smoke that is wafted around the head of those afflicted by or exposed to the gaze of strangers. As this is done, an ancient Zoroastrian
prayer is recited against Bla Band
. This prayer is said by Muslims as well as by Zoroastrians in the region where Aspand is utilized against the evil eye. Some sources say that the popping of the seeds relates to the breaking of the curse or the popping of the evil eye itself (although this is not consistent with the idea that a particular person is casting the spell, since no one's eyes are expected to explode as a result of this ritual). In Iran at least, this ritual is sometimes performed in traditional restaurants, where customers are exposed to the eyes of strangers. Dried aspand capsules are also used for protection against the evil eye in parts of Turkey.
and Central America
, infants are considered at special risk for 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 and examined. (The shape of the yolk is thought to indicate whether the aggressor was a man or a woman.) In the traditional Hispanic culture of the Southwestern United States and some parts of Mexico, an egg is passed over the patient and then broken into a bowl of water. This is then covered with a straw or palm cross and placed under the patient's head while he or she sleeps; alternatively, the egg may be passed over the patient in a cross-shaped pattern. The shape of the egg in the bowl is examined in the morning to assess success.
, the American magician Henri Gamache
published a text called Terrors of the Evil Eye Exposed!
(later reprinted as Protection against Evil
), which offers directions to defend oneself against the evil eye. Gamache's work brought evil eye beliefs to the attention of African American voodoo
practitioners in the southern United States
The Eye of Horus - Horus was an ancient Egyptian sky god in the form of a falcon. The right eye represents a peregrine falcon's eye and the markings around it, that includes the "teardrop" marking sometimes found below the eye. The right eye of Horus is said to ward off evil eye in this culture.
Names in various languages
In most languages the name translates literally into English
as "bad eye", "evil eye", "evil look", or just "the eye". Some variants on this general pattern from around the world are:
- Albanian language "mer më sysh" (to give somebody the bad eye)
- Armenian "atchk ooloonk" (eye bead); "char atchk" (evil eye)
- Amharic "Buda" (one with envious eyes)
- Standard Arabic عين حسد ayin hasad (eye of envy)
- Tunisian Arabic "'ayn l-mrida" (sick eye)
- Assyrian "ayna"
- Azerbaijani "göz dəyməsi" (touching of eye); "kəm göz" (evil eye); often simply "göz" (the eye)
- Brazil "Olho grego" - (greek eye)
- Bulgarian "uroki"
- Chamorro "Atan baba"
- Croatian "Urokljivo oko" (the cursing eye)
- Dutch "het boze oog" (the evil eye)
- Persian "bla band" (the eye of evil)
- Filipino "Matang Nanlilisik" (literally: evil eye); "Usog" or "Balis"
- Finnish "Paha silmä" (evil eye)
- French "Le Mauvais Oeil", "La Guigne", "La Skoumoune", depending on region
- German "Böser Blick" (evil gaze)
- In Greek, to matiasma (μάτιασμα) or mati (μάτι) someone refers to the act of casting the evil eye (Mati being the Greek word for eye); also: "vaskania" (βασκανία, the Greek word for jinx)
- Hebrew "ayin ha'ra" (the evil eye)
- Hungarian szemmel verés (beating with eyes)
- Kurdish chawi geza (eye (of) unluck)
- Italian, malocchio (malignant bad eye)
- Macedonian, "Zlobno Oko"
- Maltese "l-għajn il-ħażina" (the bad eye)
- Norwegian "det onde øyet" (the evil eye)
- In Persian various terms can be found, depending on the region. In Iran, people use Ceşme Zaxm (pronounced ”Cheshmé Zahm”) which means 'eye of harm', or Ceşme Šur (pronounced "Cheshmé Shoor") meaning 'Sour Eyes'. In Afghanistan, Dari-speaking people use the terms "nazar" (vision) or "chashmi bad" (bad or evil eye). Tajiki-speakers use the terms "chashmi bad" (bad or evil eye) or simply "chashmi" (derived from the word "chashm", meaning "eye");
- Polish złe oko (evil eye) or marne oko
- Portuguese, olho gordo (fat eye), quebranto (breaker) or mau olhado (bad gaze)
- Romanian deochi (from the eye)
- Russian сглаз (a noun from verb сглазить from noun глаз - "an eye"), дурной глаз ("evil eye", "bad eye")
- Sicilian, ucchiatura ("eye activity, look")
- In Slovak little babies are said to have a malady named z očú (from the eyes)
- In Spanish, the phrase is mal de ojo (eye curse or eye disease) or simply el ojo (the eye). The act of giving someone mal de ojo is called ojear in Panama (literally to eye).
- Swedish "onda ögat" (the evil eye)
- Tagalog "ohiya" or mata ng diablo (the devil's eye)
- Tamil "Dhrishti" or Kan dhristi (the eyes of evil looks)
- Turkish "Nazar" (stare) or "kem göz" (evil eye) or simply "göz" (eye)
- Urdu "buri nazar" or simply "nazar" ("bad vision" or simply "vision")
- Yiddish aynore or ahore (from Hebrew עין הרע cayin harac);
- Alan Dundes (1980). "Wet and Dry: The Evil Eye". In: Alan Dundes, Interpreting Folklore. Indiana University Press. Also in: The Evil Eye: A Casebook.
- Alan Dundes, editor. The Evil Eye: A Casebook. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
- Frederick Thomas Elworthy. The Evil Eye. An Account of this Ancient & Widespread Superstition. London: John Murray, 1895. Republished as: The Evil Eye: The Classic Account of an Ancient Superstition. Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 0-486-43437-0.
- Henri Gamache. Terrors of the Evil Eye Exposed. Raymond Publishing, 1946. Republished as Protection Against Evil. Raymond Publishing, 1969.
- Vasiliki Limberis. "The Eyes Infected by Evil: Basil of Caesarea's Homily." The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.84, No.2. (April, 1991),pp.163-184.
- Louis C. Jones, "The Evil Eye among European-Americans" Western Folklore, Vol.10, No.1.(1951), pp.11-25.
- E. Kerr Borthwick. "Socrates, Socratics, and the World." The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol.51, No.1. (2001),pp.297-301.
- Kathleen Warner Slone; M. W. Dickie, "A Knidian Phallic Vase from Corinth." Hesperia, Vol.62, No.4, (Oct-Dec 1993), pp.483-505.
- Mathew W. Dickie, "Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye." Classical Philology, Vol.86, No.1. (Jan., 1991), pp.17-29.