views updated May 29 2018


The term generally signifies the charming or enchanting of another by the eyes or the looks; to hold or keep in subjection by charms, by powers of pleasing. It is derived from the Latin fascinare (enchant). A belief in the power of fascination appears to have been prevalent in most ages and countries. In ancient Greece and Rome there is the example of Theocritus's wish that an old woman might be with him to avert this danger by spitting, and the complaint of Menalcas (in Virgil) that some evil eye had fascinated his lambs.

The Romans, with their usual passion for increasing the host of heaven, deified this power of evil, and enrolled a god, "Fascinus" among their objects of worship. Although he was a numen (presiding spirit), the celebration of his rites was entrusted to the vestal virgins, and his phallic attribute was suspended around the necks of children and from the triumphal chariots.

Lucretius, in Of Natural Witchcraft for Love, states:

"But as there is fascination and witchcraft by malicious and angry eyes unto displeasure, so are there witching aspects tending contrariwise to love, or, at the least, to the procuring of good will and liking. For if the fascination or witchcraft be brought to pass or provoked by the desire, by the wishing or coveting any beautiful shape or favour, the venom is strained through the eyes, though it be from afar, and the imagination of a beautiful form resteth in the heart of the lover, and kindleth the fire where it is afflicted. And because the most delicate, sweet and tender blood of the beloved doth there wander, his countenance is there represented, shining in his own blood, and cannot there be quiet, and is so haled from thence, that the blood of him that is wounded, reboundeth, and slippeth into the wounder."

Vairus, prior of the Benedictine Convent of Ste. Sophia in Benevento, published a treatise, De Fascino, in 1589. In it he first points to whole nations that have been reported to possess the power of fascination. The idolatrous "Biarbi" and "Hamaxobii," on the authority of Olaus Magnus, are represented as "most deeply versed in the art of fascinating men, so that by witchcraft of the eyes, or words, or of aught else [a very useful latitude of expression] they so compel men that they are no longer free, nor of sane understanding, and often are reduced to extreme emaciation, and perish by a wasting disease."

He then proceeds to similar marvels concerning animals:

"Wolves, if they see a man first, deprive him of all power of speech; a fact yet earlier from Theocritus. The shadow of the hyaena produces the same effect upon a dog; and this sagacious wild beast is so well acquainted with its own virtue, that whenever it finds dog or man sleeping, its first care is to stretch its length by the side of the slumberer, and thus ascertain his comparative magnitude with its own. If itself be larger of the two, then it is able to afflict its prey with madness, and it fearlessly begins to nibble his hands or paws (whichever they may be) to prevent resistance; if it be smaller, it quietly runs away."

In the tenth chapter of the First Book of Vairus the author inquires, "An aliqui se fascinare possint?" a question that is decided in the affirmative by the example of the Basilisk of Narcissus, and of one less known, though equally unfortunate, Eutelis. In the twelfth chapter Vairus states that the more wicked a person is, the better he is adapted to exercise evil fascination. This book offers two cautions: "Let no servant ever hire himself to a squinting master, and let jewellers be cautious to whose hands, or rather eyes, they intrust their choicest wares."

Additionally, Vairus stresses that all those individuals who are immoderately praised, especially behind their backs, persons of fair complexion and of handsome face or figure, particularly children, are most exposed to fascination. This notion probably arose from such children attracting more attention from strangers than others less indebted to nature. It was an impression of his own personal beauty that induced Polyphemus to put into practice the spitting charm that Cotattaris had taught him.

In The Second Book of Varius, after disputing against "natural" fascination, which he treats as visionary, Vairus concludes that all fascination is an evil power, attained by tacit or open compact with the devil.

A second writer on this matter is John Lazarus Gutierrez, a Spanish physician who may be believed to be equally well qualified for the consideration of mystery. His Opusculum de Fascino appeared in 1653. Of his own experience he does not say much, but in his Dubium he cites an account of a servant who could bring down a falcon from her highest flight by steadily looking at her. He also cites two other wonders: the first of a man in Guadalazara who was in the habit of breaking mirrors into minute fragments solely by looking at them; the second, of another in Ocana, who killed horses and even children by the contagion of his eyes.

From Jerome Cardan, Gutierrez extracted the following symptoms by which a physician determined that his patient was fascinated: loss of color; heavy and melancholy eyes, either overflowing with tears or unnaturally dry; frequent sighs and lowness of spirits; watchfulness; bad dreams; and falling away of flesh. The patient was also diagnosed as fascinated if a coral or jacinth worn by him lost its color, or if a ring made from the hoof of an ass, when put on his finger, grew too big for him after a few days. According to the same writer, the Persians used to determine the sort of fascination under which the patient labored by binding a clean linen cloth around his head, letting it dry there, and analyzing any spots that arose on it.

But the most curious fact stated by Gutierrez is that the Spanish children in his time wore amulets against fascination, somewhat resembling those in use among the Romans. The son of Gutierrez himself wore one of these; it was a cross of jet, (agavache) and it was believed that it would split if regarded by evil eyes, thus transferring venom from the child to itself. The amulet worn by the Gutierrez boy did split one day while a person was steadfastly looking at him; in justice to Gutierrez it must be added that he attributed the occurrence to some accidental cause. He expressed his conviction that the same thing would have happened under any other circumstances. Throughout his volume, indeed, Gutierrez uses all his reasoning to explode the superstition.

A third similar work is that of John Christian Frommann, a physician of Saxe-Coburg, who published his Tractatus de Fascinatione in 1675. Frommann quotes Theocritus, who claimed that children in unwashed baby linen were easily subject to fascination, as was any beauty who employed two lady's maids to dress her hair; moreover, all those who lay in bed very late in the morning, especially if they wore nightcaps; all who broke their fast on cheese or peas; and all children who, having been once weaned, were brought back to the breast would, even against their will, be gifted with the power of fascinating both men and beasts.

In order to ascertain whether a child was fascinated, three oak apples could be dropped into a basin of water under its cradle, the person who dropped them observing the strictest silence. If the apples floated the child was free, if they sank it was affected. In another test a slice of bread was cut with a knife marked with three crosses, and both the bread and the knife were left on the child's pillow for a night; if marks of rust appeared in the morning, the child was fascinated. Some also believed that if on licking a child's forehead with the tongue a salt taste was perceived, it was proof of fascination.

Protection Against Fascination

The following remedies against fascination rest upon the authority either of Vairus or Frommann, or both, and several may be traced to Pliny: an invocation of Nemesis; the root of the Satyrios orchis; the skin of a hyena's forehead; the kernel of the fruit of a palm tree; Alyssum (madwort) hung up anywhere in the house; the stone Catochites; spitting on the right shoe before it was put on; hyssop; lilies; fumigations; sprinklings; necklaces of jacinth, sapphire, or carbuncle; washings in river water, provided silence be kept; licking a child's forehead, first upward, next across, and lastly up again, and then spitting behind its back; sweeping the child's face with the bough of a pine tree; laying the child on the ground, covered with a linen cloth, and then sprinkling it with earth in the form of a cross; laying turf from a boy's grave under a boy's pillow, from a girl's under a girl's; silently placing near a child the clothes in which it was baptized; if, as is sometimes the case, a child appears to derive no benefit from washing, taking three scrapings from the plaster of each of the four walls of its bedroom, and sprinkling them on its linen; three "lavements" of three spoonfuls of milk; giving in a drink the ashes of a rope with which a man has been hanged; drawing water silently, and throwing a lighted candle into it in the name of the Holy Trinity, then washing the patient's legs in this water, and throwing the remainder behind his or her back in the form of a cross; hanging up the key of the house over the child's cradle; laying on the child crumbs of bread, a lock with the bolt shut, a looking-glass, or some coral washed in the font in which it was baptized; and hanging round the child's neck fennel seeds, or bread and cheese.

Vairus states that huntsmen, as a protection against fascination, used to split an oak plant and pass themselves and their dogs between it. As amulets against love fascination, he recommends a sprinkling with the dust in which a mule had rolled itself; a bone which may be found in the right side of a toad; or the liver of a chameleon.

Some instances of more recent belief in fascination than those referred to above may be found collected in John Brand's Popular Antiquities (1849). Such belief was prevalent among the inhabitants of the western islands of Scotland, who used nuts called Molluca beans as amulets against fascination. James Dallaway, in his Constantinople Ancient and Modern (1797), remarks that "Nothing can exceed the superstition of the Turks respecting the evil eye of an enemy or infidel. Passages from the Koran are painted on the outside of the houses, globes of glass are suspended from the ceiling, and a part of the superfluous comparison of their horses is designed to attract attention and divert a sinister influence."

Martin Antoine Del Rio wrote a short notice of fascination, which he divided into "Poetica seu Vulgaris," that resulting from obscure physical causes, which he treated as fabulous; "Philosophica," which he considered to be contagion; and "Magica," to which he heartily assented.

The Evil Eye

A belief in the destructive power of human vision was once widespread, and the power was called "casting the evil eye" or "overlooking." Individuals with eyes of a different color from others in their community, or with such defects as a squint or cataracts were suspected of causing harm by overlooking. People believed this could affect animals, individuals, or objects and result in illness, poverty, injury, death, or other evils. During the great witch-hunting manias, hundreds of individuals were burned after being accused of causing injury through casting the evil eye.

The evil was believed to be averted by countercharms, amulets, or ritual actions. Making an image of the person believed to be overlooking and sticking pins into it was one way of removing the evil eye. Another method was to go out at night and collect nine toads, which had to be tied together with string and buried in a hole. As the toads languished, so the person casting the evil eye would pine away and die. An ancient remedy was to make gestures having a sexual connotation. It is possible that the veil worn by the bride in European marriage was originally a protection against the malice of the evil eye.


The term fascination has also been used in reference to the more hypnotic aspect of the practice of mesmerism or animal magnetism in order to induce a trance. The operator gazes steadily into the subject's eyes for five or ten minutes. It is possible, however, that trance is induced more by the subject's concentration upon the eyes of the operator than by any mysterious power from the operator's eyes, since trance can be induced by having the subject stare fixedly at a bright object. Fascination is also evident among animals and reptiles, as in the often quoted instance of a snake fascinating a bird.

Psychic Force and Vision

Psychical researchers have often claimed that there is a psychic force exerted by human vision, and some psychics are believed to have influenced objects at a distance by gazing at them. Various instruments have been devised to demonstrate this claimed psychic force, exerted by willpower, by proximity of the hands, or by vision (see biometer of Baraduc; De Tromelin cylinder; sthenometer ). One of the most interesting instruments of this kind was developed by British physician Charles Russ, described by him in an article in the British medical journal the Lancet (July 3, 1931) as "an instrument which is set in motion by vision."


Brand, John. Popular Antiquities. 1849. Reprint, London: J. R. Smith, 1870. Dallway, James. Constantinople Ancient and Modern. N.p., 1797.


views updated May 29 2018


Fascination commonly refers to the act of fascinating or of being fascinated. To fascinate is to immobilize by the power of the gaze; as well as to charm, enchant, dazzle, or even attract or capture someone else's gaze.

In psychoanalysis the concept was used by Sigmund Freud to refer to the bondage of love. He used this term to refer to the paralysis of critical faculties, the dependence, docile submission, and credulity that occur when in love, which he compared to what occurs in the relationship between hypnotist and hypnotized.

The term appears for the first time in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c). Fascination, or love bondage, is the term Freud uses to describe the most extreme developments of being in love. It is possible that he borrowed the term from Gustave Le Bon, whom he quotes and who had noted, in Psychologie des Foules, that the individual in a crowd arrives at a particular state that approximates the fascination of the hypnotized for the hypnotist.

Although the first occurrence of the term fascination appears to date from 1921, what Freud describes is the result of earlier considerations that quickly led him to associate being in love with the hypnotic state. Already in 1890, in his article "Psychical, or Mental, Treatment," (1890a) referring to the docility, obedience, and credulity of the hypnotized individual, he had noted that in a situation of this type "subjection on the part of one person towards another has only one parallel, though a complete onenamely in certain love-relationships where there is extreme devotion." In 1910, in a note added to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), he again points out this connection. In 1918, in "The Taboo of Virginity," (1918a) he discusses the question of "sexual bondage," the expression used by Richard von Krafft-Ebing to define the state of subjugation, dependence, and loss of will experienced during the course of a sexual relationship.

In 1921, what he describes with the term fascination is, therefore, not new, any more than the concordance he establishes between this state and that of hypnosis: the same paralysis of critical faculties, the same docility, the same submission toward the loved object or the hypnotist. These findings open the way to the problem of the imaginary relationship of the self to the loved Other or the authority figure, and lead one to believe that fascination is essential to the constitution of the egoa thesis put forward by Jacques Lacan.

The function of the gaze is central to fascination, so it is surprising that the term doesn't appear in the 1922 article on "Medusa's Head" (1940c). The phenomenon is similar to the paralysis (of thought, judgment, and the body) caused, in the myth, by the encounter with the Gorgon. Here mortal hypnotic fascination reaches its apogee. The power of the gaze is the bearer and vector of the "omnipotence of thought," like the phenomenon of the "evil eye" Freud had analyzed in 1919 in "The 'Uncanny"' (1919h). It is also surprising that although, in 1916, he presents the goddess Baubo as a representation of castration, or interprets the Medusa's head, along with Sándor Ferenczi, as a representation of the female genital organs and more specifically the mother, he never explicitly raises the question of fascination and what can cause it, namely, the sight of the female genitals and the representation of castration they bring to mind.

Catherine Desprats-PÉquignot

See also: Idealization; Numinous (analytical psychology); Qu'estce que la suggestion?


Freud, Sigmund. (1890a). Psychical (or mental) treatment. SE, 7: 281-302.

. (1905a). On psychotherapy. SE, 7: 255-268.

. (1918a). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.

. (1919h). The "uncanny." SE, 17: 217-256.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1940c). Medusa's head. SE, 18: 273-274.

Lacan, Jacques. (1975). Le Séminaire-Livre I, LesÉcrits techniques de Freud (1954-1955). Paris: Le Seuil.

Le Bon, Gustave. (1995). The crowd / Gustave Le Bon. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications. (Original work published 1895)


views updated Jun 08 2018

Fascination woof! 2004 (R)

Bisset's beauty at 60 is the only fascinating thing in this mess of a thriller. Dad (Naughton) dies in a mysterious swimming accident, son (Garcia) thinks foul play, Mom remarries quickly, son sleeps with new stepsister (Evans). The plot twists and surprise revelations stretch things beyond the point of believability, the dialogue is terrible, and the performances lack any spark. It all adds up to a shallow, painful movie that will either induce groans or laughs. 102m/C DVD . Jacqueline Bisset, Adam Garcia, Alice Evans, James Naughton, Stuart Wilson; D: Klaus Menzel; W: Klaus Menzel; C: Reinhart Pesche, Reinhart Pesche; M: John Du Prez, John Du Prez.