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The Evil Eye

Matiasma, malocchio, mal de ojo – all over the Mediterannean, from Spain to Turkey, belief in the power of the evil eyes still thrives. Jeff Koyen travelled to Greece to find out how and why an ancient superstition can persist into the 21st century.

When I feel tired, I take a nap. When I have a headache, I take aspirin,” Jerry tells me, matter-of-factly. We’re in his car, returning from a night on the town in Rio, just outside of Patras in the Peloponnese region of Greece. “But these two,” he says, motioning toward his friends, Dmitri in the passenger sear, his brother Stavros beside me in the rear, “run to their mummy.”

The brothers have good reason to run to their mother when they’re afflicted by lethargy and headache, and they tell me so in spite of Jerry’s snickering. It doesn’t take much to get the matiasma, or the evil eye. If anyone so much as admires your shoes, even from a distance, this envy can put a spell on you.

These men are not superstitious hayseeds: they are 24 and 26 years old, born and raised in Patras, the third-largest city in Greece. They are young and educated, worldly in their views and tastes. But even with their modern upbringing and modern lifestyles, the folkloric matiasma remains a force to be reckoned with. It is a fact of their daily lives, and that of many people around the world.

Matiasma, malocchio, mal de ojo. Greek, Italian and Spanish manifestations of the same thing: the evil eye. There are Portuguese, Turkish, Egyptian, Scandinavian and even British and Irish variations, but all appear to originate from a common source in the Middle East. Its modern presence can be felt most strongly in Mediterranean nations, as well as in India and the Spanish-influenced South American countries1. The practice of casting the evil eye is also sometimes referred to as ‘overlooking’.

As with so much folklore, the evil eye varies not just across cultures, but within the cultures themselves. Ask one Greek man about the matiasma, for example, and you may be told that only bad people can cause it. Another may believe that a compliment from anyone can make the recipient ill.

I first learned of matiasma from my friend Ioannis during his visit to the states last year. He told us that in Greece, my blue eyes would be cause for concern among some of his countrymen. His mother, for instance, would most certainly be wary of me at first glance, and he does not dismiss her apprehension. Ioannis is a professional artist, holds a phD and is currently working at MIT. Attributing his belief in matiasma to a rural upbringing and sheltered lifestyle would not only be patronising, but also inaccurate. Ioannis is an educated man, yet when he felt ill while living in Paris several years ago, he called his mother. She cured him of matiasma over the phone.
“The blue eyes cause matiasma,” he told me. Other Greeks believe that green-eyed individuals can also cause the evil eye, or those with connected eyebrows. A common rural belief is that babies whose breastfeeding is interrupted and then resumed will have the ability to cast the evil eye. To most Greeks, those who cause matiasma are not bad people, though some do believe that only malicious, envious individuals cause the ailment. The afflicted become sluggish and nauseous and suffer from a feeling of “having something inside you” – a lump in the throat. Some believe that matiasma can kill or maim livestock, cause mechanical failure in machinery, even topple carts of fruit and brick walls.

Infants are especially susceptible. A young baby can die if the cure is not administered in time. Those who are aware of the dangers of praise often spit after paying a compliment. They may make a spitting motion or sound when offering praise to a newborn, or mutter “let it not be bewitched.” Compliments should not be given lightly. What do they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? The road to the evil eye is a similar case.

For adults, matiasma is not usually considered to be life-threatening. The cure – xematiasma – is relatively simple, though it varies from person to person, as does the manner of diagnosis. For instance, my friend told me that if someone is afflicted by matiasma, a drop of oil placed in a glass of water sitting before the patient will dissolve rather than float on the surface. His friend Ada learned that the oil would form an eye-shaped pattern on the surface of the water. Some can see the affliction in your gestures, while others can diagnose the condition by simply talking with you. Still others must touch your forehead.

Xematiasma is similarly varied. Barbara, a woman I interviewed in Patras, uses a kandili, a wick floating in half oil and half water. She lights the wick and recites special prayers. The water absorbs the bad energy, and she then discards the water. Yolgas, a man in his early thirties whom I met in a small town on the island of Zakynthos, told me that he absorbs the bad energy himself, which is why he yawns as he performs the ritual. He has the ability to then discharge the badness from his body.

Yolgas also told me that he licks his fingers and touches the afflicted person’s forehead, which corresponds with a technique recounted by Richard and Eva Blum in their 1970 book, The Dangerous Hour: The Lore and Culture of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece. In describing healing practices for “the illnesses that doctors do not know,” one of their subjects explained that, “I use certain words, and then make the sign of the cross on the forehead, on the two cheeks, and on the chin of the sick person. I do this only after I lick my middle finger because Christ was licked in the manger by the animals2.”

I witnessed this technique first-hand a few weeks later on Corfu, when a sixty-ish man at the hotel’s front desk misunderstood my questioning. When I asked him “Do you believe in matiasma?” he only understood the last word of my question. He asked me if I knew about the stomach aches, headaches and sleepiness, and I nodded, which he took to mean that I was suffering from matiasma. He stood over me, pressed down on my shoulders and recited a prayer while making the Orthodox sign of the cross. He licked his fingers quickly, touched my forehead, and repeated this several times. “Twenty minutes,” he said, pointing to my head and stomach, “matiasma gone.” He’d just cured me.

The cure is passed down the generations from mothers to sons and sons to daughters. According to everyone I interviewed, parents cannot teach the ritual to children of the same gender. Yolgas, for instance, learned the xematiasma from his mother (on Good Friday, the only day one can learn it according to many).

There are loopholes. Barbara from Patras, for instance, learned it from her mother (also on Good Friday). When I asked how this was possible, she explained that, “a mother cannot teach xematiasma to her daughter by mouth.” So, like her mother before her, Barbara has written down the words of the xematiasma on a piece of paper which currently sits inside her daughter’s Bible. If the daughter wishes to learn the prayers, she can choose to read them on any Good Friday. If, though, Barbara were to try to teach her daughter verbally, “by mouth”, the rites would not work.

Barbara’s daughter, incidentally, has not yet chosen to learn the ritual. “When she has child,” she said with a knowing smile. Barbara herself never believed matiasma was real until she had a child of her own. When the baby became sick and none of the doctors could help, Barbara opened up her own Bible (on Good Friday?) and learned the xematiasma. Her daughter recovered.

Barbara’s story is not unique. I met a 20-year old waitress in a bar in Thessaloniki who considers the evil eye to be a superstition like those concerning black cats. But, after revealing that her brother is a strong believer, she admitted, “When I have a baby, I will be afraid of matiasma.” For mothers and daughters, the belief provides a connection once the girl becomes an adult and a mother herself. Xematiasma is a ritual passed down, a transference of knowledge, a symbol of acceptance into the adult world.

For mothers and sons, however, the xematiasma is something different. It provides a lifelong connection. Matiasma is a reason for sons to need their mothers, a symbolic umbilical cord. Greek men learn to fear the evil eye from the time they are children, and they’re taught time and again that their mother can cure them.

I spent four days as a pilgrim on Mount Athos, the semi-autonomous holy land of Orthodoxy. One night, sipping coffee and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in the monastery of Megistis Lavras, I spoke about matiasma with several Greek men gathered on the back porch.

One man in his mid-40s believed in matiasma, but had a scientific explanation: brainwaves. He lent absolutely no weight to the characteristics or motives of the “sender”. Blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes; benevolent compliments or malicious envy – all irrelevent. The matiasma is strictly about the recipient. When one feels ashamed after accepting a compliment, one’s brainwaves can become disrupted. “Look at all the different brainwaves when we sleep,” he explained. “They are electrical. They can be changed.”

Another man maintained that matiasma is purely Jungian: the evil eye is cross-cultural not because of any migration of the belief, but because it arises from a collective need. As evidence, he cited its prevalence around the world. Despite his intellectual, deconstructive perspective of the phenomenon, Kostas nonetheless believed in matiasma.

“And what about the cross-gender dynamic of passing the ritual down through the generations?” I asked him. I proceeded to elaborate a semi-Freudian reading of the whole matiasma/xematiasma phenomonen as a curious inversion of the Oedipal and Cassandra complexes conditioned by the centrality of the mother figure in Mediterranean cultures.

The men on the porch fell silent. All of them believed in matiasma in one form or another, but were not quite prepared to examine their relationships with their mothers.

Early in my trip, at a tiny taverna in the tiny town of Keliomenos on Zakynthos, I got talking with the owner, Andonis. We hadn’t yet been introduced, and I don’t believe that he knew anything about my interest in matiasma. We drank some wine, laughed and sang. Suddenly a serious look came over him. He stared at me for a moment, appraising, then said, “That one has magic.” He was pointing at my right eye.

He fetched a glass of water, dipped his finger and made the sign of the cross several times. He then extinguished his cigarette and dumped the water into the street from the doorway. He turned back to the room and declared, “Now it is for the spirits.” I had just witnessed a pre-emptive strike against the matiasma. Whether I knew it or not, my blue eye had threatened to cast a spell on him. Fortunately, he was of the majority who accept matiasma as a fact of life and not the act of a malicious person.

Days later, the peculiarity of the event I’d witnessed sank in. The sign of the cross and an offering to the spirits? Granted, spiritual beliefs and church doctrine are not mutually exclusive, at least not in practice. Many theologians and researchers have pointed to the saints as a pagan dynamic, legitimised and condoned by various Christian churches for the simple reason that people need their saints. It’s fine and dandy to know that one will go to Heaven after living a good life, but what does one do when the farm is failing? Or when the well has run dry? Who protects the soldiers and sailors? In pre-Christian times, maybe it was the wheat god, water god or the war and sea gods. Today, one can turn to St Isidore, St Herbert, St George and St Nicholas of Tolentino. There are saints for just about everyone. It would have been counterproductive for the Church to have banned these traditions, driving them underground, giving them energy in opposition.

The Orthodox Church was wise enough not to suppress people’s need for direct, individual and localised aid. Likewise, the Greek Orthodox Church was not foolish enough to ask its congregation to give up its deeply rooted, ancient belief in matiasma. Why not absorb its power and make use of the energy of the faithful?

The Church essentially accepts the belief in the evil eye, but simultaneously forbids people to go to ‘readers’ who employ magical rituals to counter its affects, believing that such individuals take financial or spiritual advantage of the superstitious.

Apparantly, there is a secret rite performed to avert or cure the evil eye, but it verges on magic, and while the Church encourages the laity to pray and to exorcise evil, it rejects what it calls “magical practices and rites.” The rite (as described on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website) is very similar to that employed by many of my interview subjects:

“The exorcist (not a priest but an old woman) prepares a vial of olive oil and a small glass of water. She dips a finger in the oil, rubs it in a sign of the Cross on the victim’s forehead and lets one drop fall onto the water; she repeats the process, making a cross on the forehead, on the chin and both cheeks. If the devil is indeed present, the four drops of oil in the water join to form the ellipsoid shape of an eye. The ritual then calls for the reading of prayers and repeating the four signs of the Cross; the drops of oil will not join in the water, but will disperse3.”

So the use of a ritual which borders on magic to cure matiasma is not sanctioned by the Church officials, but they turn a blind eye. They don’t recommend that their flock employ these techniques, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a drive to eradicate them. One imagines that Church officials are satisfied that at least the laity call upon the power of Christ to cure this superstitious artifact from pagan times.

Despite being one of the oldest existing cultures in the world, Greece is a nation in political turmoil. Greek history is filled with invasions and occupations. Romans, Goths, Slavs – everyone had an island or two in their kingdom at some point. Only freed from the Ottoman empire in 1830, modern Greece has had a similarly turbulent time. The country was dragged into World War Two when Italy invaded in 1940, and by 1941 German forces had overrun the land. It witnessed a military coup and subsequent regime in 1967 and only established its constitution in 1975. Most Greeks over the age of 30 still exhibit a distaste for all things Turkish, with whom they’ve had an, at best, uneasy relationship for many years, and the country is currently stuck in an internal struggle over Macedonian unrest and is wary of the current surge in Albanian immigration.

Take this snapshot of modern conditions and multiply it throughout the ages: Three thousand years of occupations, invasions, national disintegration and sovereign declarations. Foreigners covet the Greek people. They covet the Greek soil. They compliment it. Then, they take it. I can’t help but wonder if at some level, blue eyes were once indicative of a foreigner. For the most part, the Greeks are not a blue-eyed people. If one accepts blue eyes as signifying ‘foreignness’, then it’s not hard to believe that suspicion of blue eyes equates to a suspicion of strangers. Then consider how an ancient belief can be accidentally reinforced in the modern world: It was only 60 years ago that the Germans came trampling over the Greek homeland. And what colour (at least mythically speaking) are their eyes?

Distrust strangers. Pay no heed to their compliments. If you welcome a stranger into your home, onto your farm or into your village, then your cows will dry up, your other livestock will die, even your children may perish. More than a fear of drought or a manifestation of evil in the form of envy, the Greek matiasma suggests a protective measure for an entire people who have seen their land occupied and plundered for thousands of years.

That said, I cannot disregard the connection between mothers and sons by way of xematiasma. While I met several men who could perform the curative ritual and planned to teach it to their daughters, I encountered many more men who spoke of their mothers’ healing arts. I believe that the bond forged by curing matiasma is stronger between mothers and sons than it is between fathers and daughters. Young women seem more concerned with learning the cure in order to be better mothers, while young men are concerned with having a trusted woman nearby who could cure them when they fall ill.

I am willing to consider that the entire phenomenon of matiasma is an umbilical device, that it stems from Greek mothers’ fear of losing their sons. Consider the geography of Greece, a marine culture. The land is largely surrounded by water. Blue, blue water. Is it possible that the blue sea lures young men away? Away from their mothers? Is it possible that the Greek suspicion of blue eyes is a suggestion that the blue water can harm you; and that when, having travelled far from home, you become ill, the only person you can trust to cure you is your mother? Maybe it’s best to resist the temptations of the water and instead to stay safely at home with your family.

The evil eye is an ancient, widespread and deeply held belief in more than one third of the world’s cultures4. Volume upon volume of research has been conducted and published, touching upon just about every aspect of human psychology and sexuality. The evil eye has been connected with the sun. It is suggested that the evil eye is a symbol of the female sexual region seen sideways. Or a man’s organ seen head-on, so to speak. In practice, it can be symbolic of infidelity, or symbolic of infertility. Some suggest the evil eye represents the mythical third eye, which in turn represents the penis. Or the evil eye is the third eye and the third eye is the anus.

This material on the Greek evil eye is not intended to suggest any grand conclusions. The key in examining evil eye traditions is to first accept that there is nothing to fully accept. It is possible that there was a common origin, thousands of years ago, but even the most cursory research shows that despite the commonalities and certain seemingly consistent elements there are no all-encompassing theories that account for the evil eye in the modern world. Maybe my friend on Athos was right, that the evil eye is a Jungian manifestation of a common need, a core dynamic in human psychology. Maybe it springs from the raw material of superstitions, ready for customisation according to the needs of the individual culture, ready to mutate to reflect beliefs or fears that we don’t even know we have.

Preventing the evil eye

While blue eyed-people are considered most likely to cast the evil eye, all Greeks seem to believe that carrying or wearing a blue bead is a solid preventative measure against it. This is consistent with several other brands of evil eye belief, including the Turkish, Italian, Spanish and South American. Whereas blue eyes are not terribly important in many of the non-Greek superstitions, the blue bead as counteractant amulet is just about as universal an element as one will find in the evil eye literature. In Egypt and India, for instance, one finds blue eyes made of glass or large blue stones on livestock and even automobiles.

One of the more curious Greek evil eye charms is the ‘lonely garlic’, a head of garlic with only one clove. You will fine gypsies selling small ceramic or wooden heads of garlic that also have a blue stone on them. A snakeskin on your person can also prevent the evil eye because it neutralises its power.

In Lebanon, the horseshoe offers protection and may represent a crescent moon, “the power of growth and power of all things that grow.” One may also craft an amulet from the wood of the al-mais tree – or from an old armchair if this is not available.

In South Indian folklore, a few drops of milk with a fig or betel leaf on the foreheads of a bride and groom can prevent ‘overlooking’ during the ceremony. A gourd can also be suspended over the threshold of a house where a marriage ceremony is held. When the bride and groom approach the house, the gourd is cut and allowed to fall to the ground, thereby drawing envious eyes away from the couple. Some claim that obscene drawings and figures can divert the attention of the overlooker. Others erect poles with pots or rags at the top as an evil eye decoy. A tiger claw around one’s neck helps, and an infant may be protected by tying elephant hair around its wrist. Tattoos can be applied as permanent protective measures.

Traditional Iranian amulets include agate, shells, mother-of-pearl, stones, a panther’s claw, deerskin or deer horn, and the dried eye of a sacrificed sheep. Believers may sew shells into a child’s garment in order cast back the envious stares.

The most widespread Italian amulet is the horn, worn as a necklace charm by malocchio-wary Italians around the world, and is said to represent the phallus and uterus alike. However, the most effective protection comes from a horseshoe made of steel, lead, silver or gold. A good defense can also be had by touching a watch chain, key, coin or metal button, and just to be sure, a man “touches certain organs” which are considered vulnerable to the evil eye.

De Ole Maloik
Maggie Blenkinsop finds evil eye traditions alive and kicking from the east end to the east side

Once, when young, I made the mistake of praising the good looks of the granddaughter of an elderly Jewish lady, born in the East End of London in the 1880s. “Pretty? Nah, not pretty at all. Very ordinary in my opinion” said the old lady, raising her hand and signalling wildly.

What she was doing was fending off harm from the child she adored and the harm she was fending off was what the gangster hero of Channel 4’s hit series The Sopranos calls “de ole maloik”. Maloik is pure New Jersey-Italian, a corruption of malocchio or evil eye.

Belief in the evil eye centres on the Mediterranean but is widespread in the modern world. The lady who introduced me to the concept came from a Russian family, but Jews all over the world keep alive this fear of the spirit of envy, as do Muslims as far away as Pakistan.

A similar fear seems to exist in India, too. A market trader I know had a stall at High Wickham in the 1970s. He sold children’s wear, especially party dresses for little girls. A Sikh family regularly visited his pitch and searched through the rails, although they never bought anything. One day they brought along a teenager who could speak English. “Got anything for him?” the teenager asked, pointing to a child with plaits round its head and wearing a gold-embroidered dress.

Assuming the ‘him’ was just a slip, my friend began searching out party clothes in an appropriate size. “These are all girls’ dresses” said the teenager in disgust, “ain’t you got no nice dresses for boys?”

Many of us have unknowingly made the same mistake as my friend. We have looked through old albums and seen photographs of ancestral children and wondered at the identities of these solemn little girls. Is that a great aunt or a grandmother perhaps, in her buttoned boots and frilly petticoats?

Actually, no. That beribboned infant is great-uncle Alfred and that ruffled skirt he is wearing is the thing that kept him alive throughout the hazardous days of childhood – because it fooled the evil eye.

We may think that girls are just as precious as boys, but in pre-industrial societies it was usually males who were valued. As soon as girls were married they went away from home. Boys, however, stayed on and worked the land where they were born and supported their parents in old age. To have many sons was to look forward to a comfortable retirement, but to have only daughters was a tragedy.

If you have something which is precious but which is also vulnerable – and male children have a higher mortality rate than females – then it’s no wonder that you watch over it with anxiety. So it came about that people began to believe in the evil eye and to protect their male children by dressing them as little girls.

Since it is fertility and food production that the evil eye envies and destroys, it can be countered by a show of still more fertility. The two hand signs (right) that are used to oppose it are both depictions of the female reproductive organs. In one, the thumb, second and third fingers are folded onto the palm while the first and fourth fingers protrude like horns. The horns resemble, of course, the horns of that female symbol, the moon, but primarily they represent the bull’s-head shape of the womb with its fallopian tubes. The other protective gesture is that known as the fig or fico, in which the fingers curl into a fist with the tip of the thumb showing between the first and second fingers in imitation of the female vulva.

Gestures are all very well, but they can be used only fleetingly. More permanent protection requires some object that can replace the human hand. Amulets are often made in the form of a fist making one of these gestures, but the evil eye can be fended off in other, subtler ways.

The brasses that decorated draught animals were simply reflective devices intended to bounce back evil glances to their source. In India cloth frames on doorways and the windscreens of lorries – an obvious counterpart of the old carthorse – are frequently embroidered with tiny mirrors, thus protecting the inhabitants and anyone whose next meal is due to be earned by the vehicle.

Lastly, you can confront the envious glance with the unblinking stare of an artificial eye, preferably made of glass or metal with an iris in the heavenly colour, blue. In Turkey and Iran, working animals wear necklaces of blue beads in the form of stylised eyes. Lorries are often decorated with these blue beads as well – plus lots of metal and silver foil.

Even in the United States, the large working vehicle is often covered with masses of protective chrome – bumpers, cow-catchers, bull-bars – whose real purpose may not be to protect the paintwork but to protect the driver and his food-producing ability from something he may never have heard of – but which Tony Soprano, with his Mediterranean ancestry, is very familiar with – de ole maloik.

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Hand signs used to oppose the evil eye
 
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