When people say “Hallmark holiday,” the holiday they are most likely talking about is Valentine’s Day. However it began it has surely come a long way and taken several left turns. This day has devolved into a disgusting barrage of pink paper cutouts and overpriced flowers, couples that are huddled up close enough that those on the outside are trying to figure out if their skin is grafted together. Both those in and out of love seem to loathe this day with an unparalleled disgust, yet we cling to it.
Many of us sit at home seething throughout the day, throwing bile-filled looks at anyone who dares pass us a candy heart or a Garfield Valentine. But, we can all be found later on in the evening cuddled up with our cats watching terrible romantic comedies and dreaming about Robert Pattinson. Or…you know…whomever.
Either way, that look we give is pretty powerful. So powerful, in fact, that cultures around the world fear it. That look, that glare, that envious stare that wishes ill upon its target is called the Evil Eye. But, what makes it so evil? And what separates it from any other stare? What fuels the power behind the Eye that cultures for generations have feared and sought protection against? Well, there are a few ways to think of the Evil Eye. Before we examine those, however, we might want to take a quick look at what the Evil Eye is supposed to be and do.
Basically the Evil Eye is a look, a glance, sometimes brief, sometimes staring for long periods of time. It is a look that can be given to a person - young or old, a place (especially to a field of crops), livestock, or possessions. When this look is given, a curse is placed upon that which is looked upon. The person becomes ill, perhaps even dies. The livestock or crop also fails to produce and finally withers to become unusable or dies as well. Possessions that are given the look can vary in effect. They can either become lost to their owner or curse their owner when worn or used. However you slice it, the Eye is something to be avoided.
Now, for some history. The idea of the Evil Eye has been around for at least a few thousand years. It makes its earliest appearances in the Middle East and is mentioned in several ancient texts. One rather famous book that mentions the Eye multiple times is the Bible. Sir Frances Bacon once said, “There be none of the affections which have been noted to fascinate or to bewitch, but love and envy; they both have vehement wishes, they frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions, and they come easily into the eye, especially upon the presence of the objects which are the points that conduce to fascination, if any such there be. We see likewise the Scripture calleth envy an evil eye.”
Bacon was, presumably, referring to a couple of passages in Proverbs (23:6 and 28:22) that speak of possessing or bestowing an ‘evil eye.’ Translations of this passage outside of the King James version use the terms ‘miserly’ or ‘stingy’ instead of referring to the eye. Interestingly, the curse of the Eye is bestowed upon the greedy person who does not share his bread or his wealth with those in need of it. Saying one had an ‘evil eye’ in this context seems to say something about their character, for the eyes are the windows to the soul, right?
We must remember the context of the Old Testament scriptures, however. The Jewish people were outcasts of society, enslaved by the Egyptians and were the target of malice by pretty much every society they seemed to come in contact with. In reading the Old Testament, one finds many references to those that are wealthy, powerful, or otherwise socially well-off as getting rather nasty just desserts, either in this world or the next. It should come as little surprise that these passages target wealthy, well-fed individuals as deserving of a curse (or…I suppose, Yahweh’s mighty Smite button).
Elsewhere, we find the Evil Eye actually called the Evil Eye, and spoken of as something one can possess. You might have heard of a collection of stories called the 1,001 Nights. In these stories the king Shahryar executes his unfaithful wife and then proceeds to marry a series of virgins, only to kill them in the morning before they can be unfaithful. Until he met Scheherazade. This crafty little virgin told him stories each night, for 1,001 nights, beginning - but not ending - one story each night with the promise of its end the next day.
One of those stories specifically sites a sorcerer with an Evil Eye. It begins like this, “It is related, O auspicious one, that there lived in the city of Bagdad, after the reign of many Khalifahs and before the reign of many others, a wicked and vile sorcerer with an 'Evil Eye'.” The story goes on to tell of how a sorcerer stares at his victims, mutters incantations, and proceeds to curse them “[by] the powers of darkness, demons, [and] devouring beasts...” An evil thing indeed.
So…it’s old. Perhaps, one might say based solely on the age of the texts it can be found, it is one of the oldest and most feared types of curses. It does not need special words, nor does it require magic ingredients or secrets locked in obscure texts. It merely needs one person to look at another.
What, then, is behind that look? Jealousy, according to the Mishnah - a collection of Jewish oral laws, is the power behind the Evil Eye. Or, to look back at the quote by Bacon, love might also be a source of power for the Eye. Either way, these are two exceedingly strong emotions. There should be no wonder that one who is in the throes of extreme jealousy, envy, love, lust, etc. would have the internal energy built up to project a curse without the need for anything other than a look. But is it just run of the mill jealousy? No. According to the Mishnah, the Eye is fueled by jealousy that has turned to hate. It is an emotion corrupted, blinded by desire or greed.
You’ve heard the famous movie line, “If I can’t have him/it, then nobody will!” right before the villain or crazy ex-lover tries to blow off the protagonist’s head. That’s the state of mind one must be in to use the Evil Eye. At least, according to these accounts.
In more benign methods, the Evil Eye is bestowed with a compliment. The Greeks and Italians - as well as most of the Mediterranean peoples - are famous for their belief in the Evil Eye. Here, it is thought to come when someone gives any look whatsoever, especially when it is accompanied by praise or positive thoughts. The idea here is one of fear or piety, depending on your source or viewpoint.
On the one hand, some fear the compliment as a mask for envy, whether the person giving the compliment intends envy or not. The fear is that, eventually, that person’s praise or compliment of the object will eventually turn to desire, which will later turn into jealousy and then hate. Thus, even the slightest glance at one’s possessions, good looks, healthy livestock, or thriving crops is met with immediate refute. Some will threaten the looker - called the Jettitore - with physical force in order to get him or her to spit, which is said to negate the effects of the Eye. The person offended by the look will then make a hand gesture known as the ‘mano’ or ‘figa,’ known colloquially as the Rock On symbol, with index finger and pinkie sticking up. In Greek and Roman thought, the Evil Eye will be thwarted, because this symbol is a crude gesture for sex and the Eye will be lured away by temptation rather than meet its intended target.
On the other hand, there is the fear of God’s Mighty Smite Button. If an innocent look or compliment is given towards that same person, good looks, livestock, or crop, then one might incur the wrath of God. Going back to Jewish thought, it is said that if someone praises your possessions that you must say something to the effect of, “As God wills” or “God bless it.” This shows that you are not being prideful of your belongings and are grateful to God for them. We wouldn’t want to be proud of what we’ve earned or made, because that might mean that we’re a little more independent of that higher power than some religions might have us believe. And we all know what Yahweh thinks about people taking credit for absolutely anything. If you don’t give Him credit for absolutely everything you own, make, or possess, He might just yank it away from you.
That’s why particularly beautiful children are given marks on their faces to ward off the Evil Eye when they are praised for their good looks. Wouldn’t want them getting uglified so early in life before they have a chance to catch a man.
Now, let’s look at this from a practical perspective. Remove our pagan, witchy notions that everyone is blessed with magical energy, so much so that our very glance can blight an entire field of crops. What else might be going on here? We’ve talked a lot about jealousy, but did you know that the origin of this word also shares its root with the word ‘zealot’? Zealot being a fanatic or extremist. Jealousy is also called the ‘green-eyed monster,’ yet again a reference to the eyes.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that jealousy as an emotion evolved in order to maximize the success of our genes. For example, jealous men are that way at their very core, because they want to avoid sexual betrayal, especially the consequence of such betrayal: wasting their own time and resources to raise someone else’s children. A similar line of thought goes that jealousy is fueled greatly by the imagination, the perception that something is unattainable, unfaithful, or otherwise potentially out of your reach. It is a perception, most of the time, rarely based on fact or any evidence. We’re paranoid - or become zealots - about our partner’s potential cheating, so we go through their phone, email, computer, possibly even follow them to try and catch them in the act. Despite our findings, a level of distrust is wedged between the two people, potentially ruining the relationship all over imagination. Was this the Evil Eye at work? Or was this merely biology?
Dr. Sybil Hart, a Ph.D. at Texas Tech University, says that children as young as six months old can feel and display jealousy. After all, that bastard Billy has no right to have a Tickle Me Elmo. Who does he think he is? Children and teenagers with low self-esteem seem to exhibit the emotion of jealousy more often than others. We desire and covet the cheerleader’s good looks or the rich kid’s nice car or the football captain’s athleticism, because if we just had one of those things we, too, could be popular.
This might be hitting closer to that Evil Eye belief. We become focused on one thing possessed by someone else, someone that we believe is better than us in some way, that we become a bit crazy over attaining it. The type of jealousy found in those with low self-esteem is also found to lead to aggressive reactions or outbursts. Back to that “if I can’t have it…” mentality. But who is really the cursed individual here? The one who possesses the desired object, or the one who becomes obsessed with it?
Going back to Mediterranean society, many believe that strange, old, or ugly women possess the Evil Eye. Likewise, those that believe in the power of the Eye claim that is a curse both upon the looker and the lookee. Perhaps this is how those old, ugly folks with the crazy eyes got that way?
There are a myriad of ways one can counteract the Evil Eye’s effects. They differ from herbal remedies to hand gestures to complicated spells or rituals to the creation of talismans. In some countries, Brazil for instance, the “olho gordo” (or fat eye) doesn’t seem to have a cure. You just have to hope that if someone compliments your nice things that they mean it sincerely, otherwise they are doomed. Spitting on the ground seems to be a fairly universal way of redirecting the Evil Eye. Also, one exceedingly popular method is to wear or hang a symbol of the Eye to ward off its power. You can find these almost anywhere these days, as it has become quite fashionable to wear a Hamsa symbol (an open hand with an eye in the middle). Other interesting methods involve spitting into burning chiles, rubbing oneself with an egg, wearing various beads, or just praying like mad that you won’t be cursed.
So what is the Evil Eye? Is it an expression of the power we all possess? Is it the ability to level crops or herds of livestock with a single glance, because their owner wronged you? (The ‘just desserts’ type of Evil Eye first mentioned.) Is it a powerful method of attaining something you want that someone else possesses or else destroy it? (the second type) Is it the more subtle desire to please the divine by not being too prideful of one’s looks or possessions? (the third) Or is it merely psychological, the jealousy evolved to keep our resources to ourselves amplified by low self-esteem and the modern internet age? (the fourth)
Before you make your decision, an interesting article by Norman Rubin said that Russian scientists have found that the eyes project a powerful physical energy and creates a wavelength of around 80 micrometers. This is greater than the heat given off by the human body and greater than the wavelengths of the colors of the rainbow. However, just to be fair, there are many in the scientific community that refute the idea that we can shoot real, measurable energy beams from our eyes.
I suppose the question is, which do you believe? Either way, if you’re single and bitter, I ask that you wear sunglasses next Valentine’s Day.
Love and Lyte,