a coloured image of a tree decorated with glass blue eye beads

Anthropology: The History of the Evil Eye and Similia Similibus

“Beshrew your eyes/They have o’erlooked me and divided me. One
half of me is yours, the other half yours.” (Shakespeare,
Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2)

The eye is said to be the window to the soul which is connected to the heart and feelings. Though it didn’t always have good connotations. Since antiquity, many cultures across different geographies have been haunted by the evil eye, and it isn’t very likely that it will disappear. What is it all about the mysterious nature of the evil eye?

The evil eye is a superstitious belief that the glance of people will put you into bad situations like injury and sickness. Though, it is important to keep in mind that the evil eye was not one hundred percent a superstition. It was also studied in scientific terms. In this article, I will try to walk you through different geographies (Mesopotamia, Italy, Greece, Brazil) and different time periods (Antiquity, Renaissance) to get into the gist of the evil eye. We will also see in what contexts the threat of the evil eye is felt more and what the solutions are for the protection from the evil eye.

Originated in Mesopotamia, this belief travelled across various places and almost all continents, such as North Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia, through migration and with the spread of religions. The evil eye as a cultural belief system has left its traces in art, sculpture, literature, and jewellery. It also found a place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

coloured image of anti-evil eye charms attacted to the pink wall
image credit: alamy

Evil Eye across different geographies

In this section, I offer you terminology for the evil eye as linguistic evidence, which proves how influential the evil eye has been across the world:

“Der böse Blick,., (German)  ra‘ ‘ayin (Hebrew); ophthalmos ponêros (Greek; also baskania etc.; modern Greek, vaskania, matiasma); oculus malus (Latin; also fascinatio etc.]); malocchio (Italian); mal de ojo (Spanish); mauvais oeil (French); mau olhado (Portuguese); ayn al-ḥasūd (Arabic); ‘ainat (Ethiopian);cheshme nazar (Persian); droch shuil (Celtic, Irish); cronachadt (Scottish) zteoko (Polish); ondt ojel (Danish); paha simlä (Finnish); “Evil Eye” (English); mauvais regard (French); onde blik, (Norwegian); baleful gaze (English); nazar (Turkish); squardo invidioso (Italian)”  (Elliott 36).

Similia similibus (“like influences like”): eye against eye

Supernatural forces, demons, evil spirits, gods and goddesses were held responsible for catastrophes in antiquity before they were perceived as natural phenomena. Since societies believed in those evil spirits that are interfering with their lives, they also had to come up with counter-charms. At that point, talismans, incantations, amulets, prayers, gestures became their solution to defend themselves against the evil eye. They were called apotropaic, which stems from the Greek word apotrope, meaning to “drive away”.

More, these apotropaic forms operated according to the principle of similia similibus, “like influences like” (Elliott 133 ). In ancient Egypt, for instance, the evil eye was countered by the power of the Eye of Horus, which is an example of similia similibus. It was basically eye against eye to repel the power of malevolent gaze.

Likewise, in Turkey and Greece, in nazar charms, there are brown / black eyes against a blue background for protection. It also works with the same principle of “like influences like.”

Other counter-charms include the Hand of Fatima (Hamsa) or Hand of Miriam (Hamesh), the gestures of mano fica, the mano cornuta, the digitus infamis, and amulets and talismans.

colored picture of colourful six hand hamsas against the blue background
image credit: madeinturkeytours

Evil Eye in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is the historically significant region lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Known as the cradle of civilization, it used to be a home to many civilizations, such as the Sumerians and Akkadians ( including Assyrians and the Babylonians). These civilizations left priceless temples, tablets, countless myths and belief systems behind. One of them was, of course, the evil eye, whose first implications date back to as early as 3000 BCE, as cuneiform on Sumerian clay tablets.

The Sumerians

The Sumerian word for the evil eye was igi-hul (“Evil Eye,” igi = “eye,” haul=”evil”) and their incantations and spells referred to igi-hul for protection in many contexts. According to the Sumerian beliefs, the mythological figures, gods, goddesses, humans and animals could possess the evil eye. It was their cultural belief that new-born babies, infants and birthing mothers were more likely to be affected by the evil eye.

First, as counter-charms, they had spells and produced  “eye idols” to defend themselves against evil spirits. Secondly, they believed that the colours red and blue were effective in warding off evil spirits.
Below you find an example of a Sumerian anti-Evil Eye incantation (c. 1830-1530):

1.The eye is a single ox, the eye is a (single) sheep,
2. the eye is numerous men, the mouth is numerous men,
3. the Eye is Evil, the most evil thing.
4. Asarluhi saw this,
5. he went to his father Enki in the temple
6. (and) he spoke (thus) to him:
7. “My father, the eye is a single ox, the eye is a single sheep!”
8. A second time he spoke:
9. “What I shall do I do not know, what can cure him?”

10–11. Enki answered his son Asarluhi:
12. “My son, what do you not know? What can I add?
13. “My son, what do you not know? What can I add?
14. What I know, you also know.
15. Go my son, black wool and white wool
16. bind around his head.
17. The Evil Eye of the evil-doing man
18. may it be slaughtered like an ox!

Evil Eye in Egypt

In Egyptian art and sculpture, the eye was ubiquitous. In Egyptian understanding, everything had eyes, such as sun, moon and sky. On the walls of the tombs, on the coffins and the boats, there was an image of an eye strikingly painted. The Eye of Horus came to be the symbol used to ward off evil spirits.

Eye of Horus in black against white background
Eye of Horus/wedjat image credit: github

There are many myths about Horus. One of them is as follows: “In his cosmic form, Horus was thought to be a sky falcon whose right eye was the sun and whose left eye was the moon” ( Elliott 142). These myths were complex and changed in time.

Wedjats

The other word for the Eye of Horus in Egypt is wedjat/udjat, which means “whole eye” or “life-giving eye”, referring to the healed version of the Eye of Horus ( Elliott 145 ). Wedjats were worn and carried just like amulets.

We find the traces of wedjat amulets also as a spell in The Pyramid Texts, the oldest surviving collection of funerary literature (24th–22nd cent. BCE). The spell speaks of a blue-eyed Horus and a red-eyed Horus. Like Sumerians, they also highlight these two colors to ward off the Evil Eye:

“The blue-eyed Horus comes against you,
beware of the red-eyed Horus, violent of power,
whose might none can withstand ” (Elliott 146)

Since Egyptians believed in an afterlife, they would be buried with their belongings and wedjats. The latter would guide and protect them in the afterlife.

Evil Eye in Ancient Greece

a colored picture of a Greek drinking cup in orange and black colour with the eyes painted on to ward off the evil eye
image credit: metmuseum.org

The evil eye is called baskania in ancient Greece and matiasma in modern Greek. Greeks’ pottery had cups on which eyes were drawn. They were believed to function as apotropaic forms to ward off evil spirits.

In antiquity, many authors and philosophers, like Virgil, Plutarch, Ptolemy and Platon thought about the evil eye.  Plutarch had a scientific explanation of the evil eye and argued that the eyes are the main source of fatal rays, possessed by people with the evil eye, which is associated with the extramission theory of vision.

Extramission theory of vision

The second perception of the evil eye is that, for some experts, the evil eye is not necessarily a superstitious belief but a phenomenon of nature. This observational theory finds embodiment in extramission theory of vision. According to this theory, the eye is a very active organ and can project particles of light or emit rays of particles. This understanding of the eye was prevalent in the ancient world and through the Middle Ages and afterwards.

Though, today, this belief is disproven and replaced by the intromission theory of vision, which understands the eye as a passive organ.

a black and white illustration of emission theory which depicts men whose eys are emitting rays of light towards the sky
Extramission theory of vision
image credit:genealogiesofmodernity.org/

Evil Eye in the Renaissance

During the Renaissance period, superstitions were quite widespread in Italy. In his article, Callisan writes that “ even the church recognized various forms of “fascination” and the use of amulets, though frequently condemning them as gross, if superstitious, and contrary to true Christian belief” (450). Amulets, red coral, mano fico signs were the main ingredients in Renaissance paintings.

Red coral was very significant in ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages and believed to have healing features. In the Renaissance, this belief was still very common and traceable in Christian iconography, especially in the scenes of Madonna and Child. Red coral is hanged and worn by infants as protection from the evil eye. 1470’s Piero della Francesca’s Madonna di Senigallia is one of the remarkable examples of this belief.

a colored picture of Renaissance painting called Madonna di Senigellia, in the middle fo the painting stands Madonna holding a child who wears a red coral necklace to ward off the evil eye
Madonna di Senigellia
image credit: wikipedia commons

Mano Fico hand gesture:

Along with red coral, the mano fico hand gesture or fig sign was also part of Renaissance paintings. It also functioned to ward off evil spirits. In Gerard ter Borch the Younger ‘s The Suitor’s Visit (1658), we see the young man approaching the young lady and making the sign of mano fico as a protection.

coloured picture of Gerardter Bochr the Younger's painting called The Suitor's Visit, in which a younis approaching the lady while making a mano fico sign to ward off evil spirits
The Suitor’s Visit image credit:wikidata

Francis Bacon 

In his essay “On Envy”, Francis Bacon writes on the consuming nature of the feeling of envy. Dividing it into public and private envy, he discusses who feels envious and for what reasons. Unfortunately, he attributes these feelings more to people with disabilities and eunuchs. Though, he was not alone who thought that way. To put it differently, non-normative bodies were thought to possess evil eyes more than others.

More, Bacon briefly suggests envy’s relation to witchcraft: “The act of envy had something in it of witchcraft, so there is no other cure of envy except the cure of witchcraft.” This quote resonates with the concept of “similia similibus”, witchcraft against witchcraft or eye against eye. Lastly, his phrase of “ejaculation or irradiation of the eye” refers to the extramission theory of vision.

Evil Eye in Turkey

The Turkish word for the evil eye is nazar and the counter-charms are blue beads. When babies are born, “nazar beads” are attached to their clothes. When someone buys a new house or car, the first thing to buy is a glass eye amulet that comes as protection from the envious eyes, from accidents or any possible damage. People also may buy them as gifts.

Also, blue eyes are part of jewellery such as  bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings as well as household decorations. In the most touristic places in Turkey, you come across trees donated with blue eyes. Cappadocia, and Cunda Island are some of the places where you see those trees.

Lastly, nazar-charms started to become art projects. For example, a Turkish artist Murat Bulut Aysan created his own interpretation of evil eye amulets. He turned them into 5 mg pills and even wrote a prescription for them.

a colored picture of Turkish artist Murat Bulut Aysan's nazar beads pills, prescription and the box of the pills against a white background
image credit: muratbuluysan.com

Evil eye in Brazil

Mau olhado, the Brazilian word for evil eye, is a widespread belief in Brazil. They also have the term “peito aberto”, meaning open chest, where bad spirits can enter the body. Through certain practises, they try to close the open chest.

a colored picture of a silver-coloured mano figo hand charm against black background
figa hand charm image credit: maxinemillerstudios.com“, 

More, in Northeast Brazil, people tend to say “but I don’t give evil eye”, after expressing their compliments. On the walls of stores and restaurants, “o seu olho gordo e cego p’ra mim[ your evil eye is blind to me]” is written. Additionally, they also use other amulets such as figas and glass eyes ( Rebhun 370).

Evil eye in literature

The evil eye pervaded every aspect of our lives. We see its echoes in literary works as well. Dante’s Commedia Divina, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Leonore”, William Carleton’s short story “The Evil Eye or The Black Spectre” from Ireland are only a few of them. From Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge also writes, “Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, /And cursed me with his eye” in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  If we come closer to today, it is a must to refer to the Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan’s “Need a woman”:

“Well, believing is all right;
Just don’t let the wrong people know what it’s all about.
They might put the evil eye on you,
use their hidden powers to try to turn you out.”

Evil Eye in popular culture:

As mentioned earlier, Bob Dylan’s ” Need a woman” is an example from the world of music along with Franz Ferdinand’s “Evil Eye”song and its grotesque video clip. There are many celebrities wearing hamsa hands as necklaces. Madonna is one of them.

a colored picture of singer Madonna wearing Hamsa hand as a necklace
image credit:pinterest.com

The recent American horror movie called Evil Eye (2020) by Elan Dassani -Rajeev Dassani is another example. This film revolves around a superstitious mother who worries about her daughter’s relationship. The mother believes that an evil force from the past haunts the family. Reincarnation, supernatural forces, the reference to the “evil eye” bring different ingredients together.

Cultural Significance of the Evil Eye in Anthropology

From antiquity to the modern day, the evil eye has been ubiquitous and a spooky concept haunting us. It has pervaded every aspect of our lives through music, literature, home decor, and various art forms. It found embodiment across different geographies under different linguistic identities and managed to make itself present until today.

Most importantly, it helped antiquity to find some reasoning or a kind of explanation for the unexplained through supernatural forces. It was perhaps a mode of conflict solving, a kind of consultation found in the words and gestures of charm.

Work cited:

Callisen, S.A. “The Evil Eye in Italian Art.”The Art Bulletin ,Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1937), pp. 450-462. JSTOR.

Elliot, John H.  Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World. Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015.

Rebhun, L.A. “Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly New Series, Vol. 8, No.4, Dec. 1994,pp360-382. JSTOR.

Suggestions for further reading:

Dundes, Alan. The Evil Eye: A Casebook. University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Elworthy, Frederic Thomas. The Evil Eye: An Account of This Ancient and Widespread Superstition. London: John Murray, 1895.

Maloney, Clarence,ed. . The Evil Eye. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

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