Skip to main content
Select Source:

evil eye

evil eye Belief in the evil eye — that a human being can cause injury or death through a malevolent glance or stare — is a very widespread one, found in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Jewish, Christian, Bhuddist, Islamic, and Hindi traditions and, more generally, in the culture of most pre-literate societies. The exact nature of the damage which the evil eye is supposed to cause varies between cultures, but children and animals have often been thought to be most vulnerable, while already problematic experiences such as marriage or childbirth were also considered to be occasions when the evil eye could act especially effectively. Very often, the harm inflicted by the evil eye was linked to the envy of the person doing the harming, and the possession of an evil eye was often thought to reside in persons who displayed more general anti-social tendencies, such as meanness, selfishness, and envy. Accordingly, in many cultures (for example, pre-World War II central European Jewry) people were at pains not to advertise their wealth, talents, or achievements, lest this should bring down retribution from the malevolent and envious, while new-born babies, prominent men, and beautiful women were thought especially likely to attract the evil eye. Most cultures also recommended means of protection against the evil eye. Most often this was by amulets or charms, but sometimes by more immediate action such as spitting in the presence of, or making obscene gestures at, the person thought to possess the evil eye.

Although ethnographers and folklorists have noted the frequency with which belief in the evil eye has existed, they have been less forthcoming on the most important concern for the historian of the body: where the power to do harm in this way is thought to come from and how it is exercised. Again, ideas on this matter vary between cultures, but a few general points seem clear. Many religions believe in the existence of an all-seeing deity, which links the power of vision, and hence the eye, very clearly to wider considerations of power and knowledge. These wider considerations led to such conceptualizations as that current in Christian Europe by the late Middle Ages, that the eye is not just the window of the soul, or a visible portrait of the invisible soul, but also a visible centre from which rays of sight emanate. There was proverbial wisdom in England around 1600 that the eyes were the window of the heart or the mind, for joy or anger could be seen through them.

A demonstration of how various ideas on the evil eye might run together at about that date is provided by Reginald Scot, an English gentleman who in 1584 published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a sceptical tract which denied the existence of witches. Scot devoted a chapter of his book to ‘inchanting or bewitching eies’. Here he cited such classical authors as Virgil, Theocritus, Cicero, Plutarch, and Philarchus. Some people, according to these writers, had two eyeballs, one of which was the seat of evil power which could be used to hurt young lambs or young children. Other people, it was held
‘reteine such venome in their eies, and send it foorth by beames and streames so violentlie, and therewith they annoie not onlie them with whom they are conversant continuallie; but also all other, whose companie they frequent, of what age, strength or complexion so ever they be’.

Scot wrote of more general beliefs, which held that spirits emerging from the eye could infect the hearts of those against whom they were directed. He also noted that occult powers were ascribed to the gaze of
‘old women, in whome the ordinarie course of nature faileth in the office of purging their naturall monethlie humors’.

Froth would therefore be left on mirrors which post-menopausal women had looked at.

These sorts of belief were clearly widespread, as was another set of beliefs, those in sympathetic magic or occult forces more generally. Thus it was easy to accept that malicious power could be transmitted through the eye, the window into the soul of the malevolent person. Some traditions gave a more elaborate explanation: post-Talmudic Jewish literature held variously that the evil eye contained the element of fire, and hence spread destruction, or that the glance of an angry man called into being an angry angel who took vengeance on the object of wrath. Belief in the evil eye also connected with a broader folklore about the eye. One very relevant belief, again seemingly widespread, was that meeting a person with a squint might lead to misfortune or loss. Here the connection is clear enough: an obvious physical deformity is linked with a supposed inner deformity, the willingness to do harm. But, at the very least, this widespread belief in the power of the evil eye demonstrates how one of the human senses, and the organ connected with it, could be seen as a channel for spreading harm, and also provides an interesting way of exploring some aspects of the folklore of the human body.

J. A. Sharpe


See also witchcraft.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil eye." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"evil eye." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye

"evil eye." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye

Evil Eye

Evil Eye

Belief in the malevolent effects of the evil eye is ancient and universal. A common form of this belief held that people with unusual eyes could cause harm by looking at other people, and such defects as squinting, a cast, or even cataracts were thought to be signs of an evil eye. Others attributed the evil eye to conscious malice on the part of witches or magicians.

The evil eye could, it was believed, bring about illness, poverty, or other afflictions and even death. An outgrowth of the evil eye notion was the belief that praise of children could have an adverse effect; hence, parents discouraged praise of their children's appearance or talents. Traditional ways of averting the evil eye were by wearing amulets or charms, or reciting counterspells.

Sources:

DiStasi, Lawrence. Mal Occhio (Evil Eye): The Underside Vision. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

Elworthy, F. T. The Evil Eye. London, 1894. Reprint, New York: Julian Press, 1958.

MacLaglan, R. C. The Evil Eye in the Western Highlands. London: David Nutt, 1902.

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil Eye." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Evil Eye." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye

"Evil Eye." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye

Evil eye

Evil eye. The eye is widely believed to have the power to convey mischief or damage, and is then known as the evil eye. According to Jewish sages, Sarah cast the evil eye (Heb., ayin raʾah or ayin ha-ra) on Hagar (Gen. R. 45. 5), as did Joseph's brothers on Joseph (Gen. R. 84. 10). In Islam, the evil eye (Arab., ʿayn) can take effect even without the intention of the person possessing it, causing harm or death to human beings or animals, damage to crops or goods, etc.

This whole concept is disapproved of by orthodox Islam since it seems to deny or bypass the absolute divine power and decree, but it is virtually impossible to eradicate, and survives today in folklore, on the fringes of religion and medicine.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil eye." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Evil eye." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/evil-eye

"Evil eye." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/evil-eye

evil eye

evil eye, principally Sicilian and Mesoamerican superstition, although it is known in other cultures. According to the Native American version, a person who stares fixedly at a pregnant woman or a child or who is too admiring or physically affectionate with children may produce a malicious effect on their lives, whether or not by intent. In rural Sicily any person or animal was considered vulnerable to the evil eye, and many individuals wore protective amulets or charms to nullify its effects.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil eye." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"evil eye." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye

"evil eye." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evil-eye