Introducing a new guest blog series by Classicist and Classics Abroad Tutor, Florence Forte. An expert on all things Mediterranean in Ancient times and beyond, Florence shares her unique perspective on the symbols and cultural traditions we love at MADE IN THE MED!
Do you believe in the “Evil Eye”? Many cultures around the world still do today (so maybe you should!). It’s a particularly widespread belief in the Mediterranean region, as reflected by the abundance of amulets on offer to protect yourself from it. For example in Italy, where it’s called “malocchio”, the red cornicello is the most popular anti-Evil Eye charm. Whereas in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, you’ll find a blue eye-like symbol on jewellery and decorations everywhere, believed to have the same protective powers.
So, what is the Evil Eye?
The Evil Eye is a folk concept that the hostile glance of certain people, gods, animals or mythological figures (depending on the culture) can result in injury, illness or even death. Usually, the victim is unaware of it happening to them and only in hindsight is said “to have received the Evil Eye”. Therefore, the best means of protection is to wear charms that will divert the evil gaze in the first place.
Want to know more? Let’s dig a little deeper with 5 Things you should know about one of the world’s oldest superstitions…
1. The Evil Eye can be traced back to the ancient Mediterranean, over 5,000 years ago!
The earliest surviving evidence of this belief comes from ancient Mesopotamia (modern southeast Turkey/Syria/Iraq) in the form of incantations, eye-shaped amulets and references to the dangerous glance of the gods in Sumerian literature. In ancient Egypt, this concept may have merged with that of the Eye of Horus, which sailors would paint on their ships to ensure safe travel.
However it is with the ancient Greeks, that the conventional expression for “Evil Eye” (or baskania in Greek) first appears in a fragment from the 5th Century BC: “the dead hare casts an Evil Eye upon me” (Pherecrates, Frag. 189). The concept itself is referred to in over 100 ancient Greek texts, including the works of Hesiod, Plato and Aristophanes!
2. The Evil Eye can be cast accidentally or on purpose.
Some cultures believe that the Evil Eye can be cast accidentally (e.g. by a dead animal, as above). This belief might have contributed to the ancient and modern custom of closing the eyes of the dead. But when it is intentional, it is often considered to be caused by envy and therefore the envious gaze from a hostile person or god.
It is a common theme in Greek and Roman mythology that prosperous individuals are brought down by the envy of the gods. In a particularly ironic moment from Greek tragedy, for example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon seals his own destruction by treading on some sacred tapestries, saying: “may no envious glance cast me down from afar” (Agam. 946-947).
3. Compliments and praise can attract the Evil Eye.
If you’re happy, successful, talented or beautiful enough to stand out from the crowd, you’re more at risk from the Evil Eye! This is because you might attract lavish (or worse, loud) praise and therefore, envy. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates counters the praise he has just received for his skilful argumentation: “My friend,” he says, “do not speak loudly, lest some Evil Eye (baskania) put to rout the argument that is to come.” (Phaedo, 95b).
In modern Romania and Palestine, it is still unlucky to say “What a beautiful child!” and they have methods in place to reverse the effects of Evil Eye caused by the person who uttered such a phrase. In medieval Italy, there existed a safeguarding wish “may these words not hurt you” to accompany any compliment given and similar customs exist in Islamic societies today.
4. A “nazar” is the proper name for a typical eye-shaped Evil Eye amulet.
The iconic blue-eye glass amulets from the Mediterranean are often confusingly referred to as “evil eyes” themselves. In the English dictionary, a “nazar” is the proper name for such amulets, deriving from the Arabic for sight and surveillance, but still meaning look, gaze or evil eye in Turkish. It might seem strange to use the Evil Eye as an anti-Evil Eye amulet – as though there is a kind of supernatural checkmate at play. But it likely stems from the homeopathic principle that “like repels like” or the ancient Mesopotamian principle of “an eye for an eye”.
5. The legendary Basilisk (think Harry Potter) is the Evil Eye in animal form.
The ancient Greek expression for Evil Eye (baskania) helps to explains the etymology behind this creature’s name. According to Pliny the Elder, the Basilisk of Cyrene was an incredibly small and yet venomous snake that could cause death with a single glance. In the Harry Potter series, a female basilisk inhabits the Chamber of Secrets below Hogwarts – even looking at its reflection “petrifies” several students and (spoiler alert) killed the famous Moaning Myrtle!
Spotlight on author Florence Forte
When not in lockdown, Florence can usually be found teaching in a classroom or onsite somewhere near the banks of the river arno in her namesake city of Florence, Italy! Florence has lived and taught in London, Florence and the Amalfi Coast and she is passionate about the Augustan Age, Italian, Eminem and Latin memes.
For more fascinating Classics and Latin themed content, or to find out how you can attend the next Classics Abroad Summer course and experience one of Florence's seminars yourself ,visit https://www.forte-academy.co.uk/