If we accidentally cut someone off in traffic, we may get a scowl or menacing glare in return. For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places the evil eye is taken very seriously.
The evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something else. The supernatural harm may come in the form of anything from a minor misfortune to disease, injury or even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume "The Evil Eye: A Casebook," notes that "the victim's good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye. If the object attacked is animate, it may fall ill. ... Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting, and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die."
It can even affect objects and buildings: The evil eye cast upon a vehicle may cause it to break down irreparably, while a house so cursed may soon develop a leaky roof or an insect infestation. Just about anything that goes wrong (for any reason, or no reason at all) may be blamed on the power of the evil eye.
Eye in history
The evil eye is well known throughout history. It is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as in many famous literary works, including the Bible (Proverbs 23:6: "Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats"), the Koran and Shakespeare.
The evil eye is essentially a specific type of magical curse, and has its roots in magical thinking and superstition. Let's say that a person experiences bad luck, ill health, accident, or some unexplained calamity — perhaps a drought or an infectious disease. Before science could explain weather patterns and germ theory, any bad event for which there was not an obvious cause might be blamed on a curse. Curses, including the evil eye, are an answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.
The association of special powers with the eyes is not hard to fathom: Eyes, it is said, are the gateway to a person's soul. Shifting eyes are said to subtly betray liars, while a steady gaze may be endearing or menacing depending on the circumstances. Actors use their eyes to convey a wide range of emotions, including love, hate, disgust, boredom, scorn, surprise, and envy. In fact it is this last emotion — jealousy — that underlies the evil eye's cultural association with magic.
Spit as counter-curse
Babies and children are said to be especially susceptible to harm from the evil eye, and in many countries including Greece, Romania and India, praising a child publicly is sometimes considered taboo, for the compliment will draw the attention of the evil eye. (It is acceptable to compliment a child if the comment is prefaced by praise for God, as an act of humility.)
In order to ward off the evil eye, parents of a thoughtlessly praised child may ask the person who gave the compliment to immediately spit in the child's face. Because the momentarily exalted youngster has been brought down a peg, any harm by the evil eye is unnecessary; this spittle salve is harmless yet insulting enough to negate the compliment.
Who has the evil eye? Maybe you do. Many believe that bad intention is not necessary, and that some people can cast an evil eye without even knowing it. Edwin and Mona Radford, writing in "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions," note that in many places "a cross-eyed or squinting person was almost universally feared. To meet one on the way to work is still regarded as a bad sign by miners, fishermen, Spanish bullfighters, and others who follow dangerous trades." Though such an affliction is clearly not the person's fault, nonetheless "any visible defect in the eye is readily associated by the superstitious with the evil eye." The evil eye is also said to be prevalent among the Roma (formerly known as Gypsies).
Evil eye protections and cures
The best way to deal with the evil eye is to avoid it in the first place. The method varies by culture, geographic region, and personal preference. Amulets can be worn to deter the evil eye, often using the color blue (symbolizing heaven or godliness) and an eye symbol. Charms, potions, and spells can also be prepared; garlic can be used to deter the evil eye, and some believe that just saying the word "garlic" offers protection.
Once a person has been afflicted with the evil eye, there are a variety of ways to have it removed. Often those who believe they have been harmed by the evil eye will seek out shamen, witch doctors, psychics, or other spiritual healers to remove the curse — often for a fee.
Though belief in the evil eye is widespread, it is not universal. A 1976 cross-cultural survey by folklorist John Roberts found that 36 percent of cultures believed in the evil eye. In one 1965 study, not only did 55 percent of expectant Lebanese mothers believe in the evil eye (cast, they claimed, most often by envious women), but also that it could have serious effects ranging from an inability of the mother to breast-feed, to the illness, blindness, or even death of their infant.
It is tempting to view the evil eye as an ancient, discredited belief that plays no role in our 21st-century world. Instead, as folklorist Dundes notes, we "should keep in mind that the evil eye is not some old-fashioned superstitious belief of interest solely to antiquarians. The evil eye continues to be a powerful factor affecting the behavior of countless millions of people throughout the world." Though belief in the evil eye can be a harmless superstition, it can also be dangerous in some circumstances. Any time one person believes that another has harmed them — whether naturally or supernaturally, intentionally or accidentally — there is the potential for deadly retribution. Like other accused witches and sorcerers over the centuries, many people have been attacked, beaten, and killed for casting an evil eye.
Benjamin Radford is a member of the American Folklore Society and author of six books including "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.