I Have My Eye On You: The Evil Eye in Antiquity

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Here in Turkey there are several things that leave to a foreigner’s attention: the awful driving, shameless staring, psychic rabbits, and what I used to think was the Evil Eye. Well as interesting as psychic bunnies are, from a historical perspective I would like to take a moment to tell you about Nazars, or what foreigners often call the Evil Eye.

Roman charms to ward off the evil eye

The evil eye is a look which is believed to cause harm and bad luck to the person it is directed at. It is a look of envy, dislike and ill-will and everywhere in Turkey you see charms, ‘Nazars’, to ward off this evil eye. The evil eye is a concept which is believed in many countries in the middle east and around the world. The Arabs know it as عين الحسود (ayn al-hasud), the Greek as το μάτι, and the Spanish as mal de ojo. Its significance in these cultures can vary widely but essentially it is the same, an evil wish against someone without their knowing which can cause bad-luck and needs to be protected against. Truthfully these Nazars have become a highly popular tourist item so we see hundreds of the everywhere in shops, but you also see them in homes, behind counters, in local jewellery and in rural non-tourist areas.

The evil eye has been a belief from as far back as Classical antiquity. There are mentions of it in Hesiod, Plato, Diodorus Siculus, Aulus Gellius, Pliny the Elder, Theocritus and Plutarch to name but a few of the hundreds of references made in the ancient literature. All these sources express the idea of the evil eye in slightly differing and often fragmentary terms but the basis for our understanding of the ancient belief comes from Aristophanes, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Heliodorus. Plutarch attempts to explain the evil eye in scientific terms by relating it to deadly rays and poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person who possesses the evil eye. Different areas of the Greek and Roman world looked at the evil eye differently and with certain degrees of fear and trepidation. The people of Pontus and Scythia were particularly thought to possess the evil eye and were to be kept wary about. And Alexander the Great himself is believed to be the transmitter of the belief into the East with his influential campaigns in the fourth century BC.

Among references are:

Demosthenes, On the Crown 18.307: It was not his duty to look with an evil eye upon a man who had made it his business to support or propose measures worthy of our traditions, and was resolved to stand by such measures; nor to treasure vindictively the memory of private annoyances. Nor was it his duty to hold his peace dishonestly and deceptively, as you so often do.

Plato, Phaedo 95b: “My friend,” said Socrates, “do not be boastful, lest some evil eye put to rout the argument that is to come. That, however, is in the hands of God. Let us, in Homeric fashion, charge the foe and test the worth of what you say. Now the sum total of what you seek is this: You demand a proof that our soul is indestructible…”

Fredrick Thomas Elworthy wrote an interesting piece published in 1895 entitled ‘The Evil Eye’. Elworthy examines the power of evil working upon an object it beholds. He tells us that the origin of the belief itself is lost in the obscurity of prehistoric ages and while one may coin it as superstition, it is a belief that holds its sway over the people of many countries and must be set down as one the hereditary and instinctive convictions of mankind.

The evil eye has become more than mere superstition, but a tradition transmitted from antiquity when they used to use phallic symbols as one way of warding it off. The oldest testimonies of the eye in antiquity come from monuments in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians are believed to have believed in and dreaded the evil eye which was ever present. Elworthy points to evidence for this in the mythology of Ptah the Opener. He explains that Ptah brought forth all other gods from his eye and men from his mouth instituting the idea that that which emanates from the eye in the most potent.