As one of the oldest and most widespread superstitions in the world, the evil eye can be found in numerous texts, some dating back to five thousand years ago. Although it extends from Ireland to India, the belief was—and remains—especially strong in Indo-European and Semitic cultures. Alan Dundes is Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and the editor of The Evil Eye. Nicholas Frobes-Cross talked to him by phone.
What characterizes a belief in the evil eye?
The evil eye is an Indo-European and Semitic belief complex. It is not found among native North or South Americans or in Oceania. It’s a belief complex based on the idea that an individual, either male or female, has the power to cause harm to another individual or to that individual’s property by simply looking at or praising that person’s property. And the harm can consist of illness, even death, and the destruction of property. Some of the common manifestations of it are that your baby falls ill, or your fruit tree dries up, or your cow stops giving milk.
Can you defend yourself against this danger?
There are many ways of avoiding it. You can wear amulets; you can have a doorknocker which makes the fica (“fig”) gesture that keeps the evil eye away; or you can utter protective formulas after you praise or compliment someone, especially an infant, so as to negate the possiblity of harming the person through envy. Such formulas include Kein En Horah in the Jewish tradition and Enshallah in the Arabic tradition. You can also disfigure good looks; you have little boys dressed in girls’ clothing, or vice versa, or you put a piece of soot behind a child’s ear so as to conceal the child’s beauty for its own welfare. Otherwise you are going to create envy, which is perhaps one of the factors lying at the base of the evil eye. One advantage of the evil eye is that it’s a projective device, so the parent doesn’t take responsibility for the infant’s illness.
What are some of the physical characteristics or emotional characteristics of those who have the evil eye?
You can’t always tell. Your baby gets sick and you try to figure out who was at the house yesterday. It might be a neighbor, a friend, or a stranger. If you had known the person had the evil eye, you wouldn’t have let him in the house. People who have some kind of eye deformity, who squint or are walleyed or cross-eyed, are sometimes thought to have it. But a perfectly normal-looking person might have the evil eye. And you can also have the evil eye without knowing that you have the evil eye. It may not be intentional, even. It can be involuntary. Of course, if someone is thought to have the evil eye in the community, he or she becomes an outcast.
To what extent do those people who possess the evil eye control it?
They don’t really. There is a story in Sicily about a man in Messina who possessed an unusually strong evil eye. When he died in 1883, it was rumored that he died because he happened to look at himself in a large mirror in a storefront while walking down Corso Garibaldi. Here’s another example: Someone came up to me after I lectured on the evil eye to say that they now understood why her Serbian in-laws never praised her children or her cooking. She couldn’t figure it out; she was annoyed with them. It turns out the in-laws were simply guarding against the evil eye. What is thought to cause the evil eye? Most of the time it’s considered to be innate. You can’t say, I want to learn how to give the evil eye. In the Greek and Romanian tradition, for example, there is the idea that children who begin to nurse again once they’ve been weaned have the evil eye. That is, of course, a way for a mother to get out of having to put the baby back on the breast. That has directly to do with envy. Of course, they’re envying the sibling that has replaced them.
There seems to be a strong link between envy and the evil eye. How do anthropologists understand this connection?
The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of “limited good.” There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it. This is why the evil eye is not particularly popular in America, because we have a notion of unlimited good.
What I argue is that the evil eye involves control of limited liquids. Hence a male fears that he may lose sperm. That is why in Italy, for example, men cover their testicles when passing someone that they suspect might have the evil eye, as though that’s going to protect them from the drying impact of the evil eye glands. Or they spit to prove that they are still capable of producing liquid. You have these little phallic amulets you wear, or you make the fica sign, which represents a phallus in a vagina. Women have similar concerns about becoming dry, in this case not being able to produce milk. The whole notion of the evil eye, even in the ancient texts, is about drying out people or crops or cattle.
This is part of the old theory of the humors in ancient Greek (and Indic) cultures involving combinations of wet/dry and hot/cold. People seem to know about hot and cold. Some people believe that the wet and dry has disappeared. It hasn’t disappeared. It may have gone underground, but it underlies the belief in the evil eye.
I relate the whole notion of fluids to tipping. You tip so that the waiter isn’t jealous of you. This way, you can eat without worrying about the waiter casting the evil eye on you for enjoying your food. The tip is money so that the waiter can drink also. The word tip comes from tipple, to drink. And we find the same etymology in French (pourboire), German (Trinkgeld), Spanish (propine), Swedish (driks), Portugese (gorgeta), and many other languages. I would suggest that the etymology of the word tip extending back to the word tipple may just as well further extend to nipple, and therefore be related to suckling, another major event in thinking about the idea of the limited good.
Have there been cases where people have attempted to harness the power of the evil eye and use it for a good cause?
Yes. The most unusual took place in Sassari in Sardinia, near the end of 19th century, where the evil eye was enlisted to battle a plague of locusts. The mayor hired people who had the evil eye to walk around and cast their fiercest look at the locusts. When this didn’t work, its ineffectuality was blamed on the weakness of the particular participants. There was also, for example, a case in 1957 when a committee of the US Senate investigating the connection between organized crime and labor heard the testimony of a racketeer who supposedly had the evil eye and had been hired to go to factories and stare at the workers to make sure they did their work.
Why is the eye the center of this superstition?
It’s the power of the look. People are afraid somebody is going to see them doing something wrong. A Californian architect called James Lennon has developed a series of large, vertically hung transparent panels that show a single column of abstracted frowning eyes. The panels were hung in several stores and shoplifting dropped tremendously during the test period.
When does scholarly work on the evil eye begin?
It dates back to Antiquity. Plutarch, for example, featured it in one of his dialogues,“On those who are said to cast an evil eye,” and there are treatises throughout history. Mostly, they’re descriptive of the phenomenon. Nicola Valletta, an Italian from the end of the 18th century who wrote a treatise on the evil eye, had a great questionnaire at the end of his discussion, where he asked things like, “Is the evil eye stronger from a man or a woman?”; “Is it stronger from someone who wears a wig or glasses?”; and so on. Some people assume the belief is dying out but it is still very strong within certain societies.
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