I remember, as a small child, my mother doing a curious thing. She placed a pot of water on the stove to boil, then threw in a handful of lubia as she called them, black-eyed beans. As the pot boiled furiously, several of the beans jumped out, and each time one did my mother called “emshee! emshee!” (go away! go away!) in Arabic. She was, as she explained to me later, removing the evil eye from our house.
The evil eye is both a form of curse, transmitted by look, that is believed by many cultures to cause injury or bad luck for the person at whom it is directed, and also a powerful protective symbol or talisman. As a curse, the evil eye is most commonly attributed to envy, cast unintentionally by looking at or excessively praising a person, particularly a child, for too long. However the term may also refer to a stronger, more intentional curse cast on a victim by the owner of a magical eye. As a protective symbol, the evil or all seeing eye, wards against evil and protects the wearer from harm.
The origin of the evil eye can be traced back at least three thousand years to the region of Sumer in Mesopotamia, but probably has much older origins. Mentioned by over 100 classical scholars including Hesiod and Plato, Plutarch postulated that the evil eye was a manifestation of deadly rays that sprang like darts from the inner recesses of the body. Belief in the evil eye was spread to the east as far as India by Alexander the Great, and to the south and north by the Roman Empire centuries later, and persisted well into the middle ages in England and Celtic parts of Europe.
Today, belief in the evil eye is widespread across the Middle East, West Africa, Central America and Mexico, Central Asia and many parts of Europe, especially the Mediterranean. In Islamic culture, Muhammad stated "the influence of an evil eye is a fact...” while in Judaism the evil eye is mentioned several times in classical texts including the Old Testament. Even today the blue and green eyes of northern Europeans my be regarded with particular suspicion by southern Europeans and Turks, while in Western culture the phrase “to give someone the evil eye” has entered the lexicon of common parlance, even if it only means to stare at a person in anger or disgust.
A belief in the power of amulets and talismans to protect against the evil eye has also evolved over time. Eye-like glass disks, in shades of blue and white, represent the evil eye itself and are common prophylactic talismans in the Middle East, Turkey and the Mediterranean; the eye sees all, preventing the curse from being cast or reflecting maliciousness back onto the caster.
The hamsa is also considered a powerful form of protection and originates with Tanit, patron goddess of the ancient city of Carthage. Although these symbols are very common today in the Middle East, orthodox Muslims consider their use a superstition because Muhammad prohibited the use of talismans as a form of idolatry. Instead, Muslims may supplicate Allah, saying in response to a compliment "Masha'Allah" or "God has willed it”. Many other forms of protection or dismissal exist, not least local customs as evidenced by my own mother’s boiling of black-eyed beans on the stove-top. In the Indian subcontinent a red thread is worn on the wrist or brightly reflective mirror charms are sewn into clothing, hair and jewellery. In Ethiopia, spitting may subvert the inadvertent casting of the evil eye, while in some European countries a simple means of protection is to point the index finger and the little finger towards the supposed source of influence or victim (a gesture I remember well from my own childhood).
Belief in the evil eye, and the means by which to repudiate it, represents an important part of the human psyche - the collective need to understand and control the natural progression of our lives, as they are affected by illness and other seemingly unfair acts of nature, and to maintain in everything a fair and equitable balance.
References and Further Reading
WikipendiaEvil Eye Accessed 17th July 2012
Heaphy, Linda, 2012 The Hamsa
Yronwode, Catherine 2003 The Evil Eye. Accessed 17th July 2012
Elworthy, Frederick Thomas 1895 The Evil Eye
Koyen, Jeff 2002 The Evil Eye, Fortean Times. Accessed 17th July 2012
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