1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Evil Eye

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EVIL EYE. The terror of the arts of " fascination," i.e. that certain persons can bewitch, injure and even kill with a glance, has been and is still very widely spread. The power was not thought to be always maliciously cultivated. It was as often supposed to be involuntary (cf. Deuteronomy xxviii. 54); and a story is told of a Slav who, afflicted with the evil eye, at last blinded himself in order that he might not be the means of injuring his children (Woyciki, Polish Folklore, trans. by Lewenstein, p. 25). Few of the old classic writers fail to refer to the dread power. In Rome the " evil eye " was so well recognized that Pliny states that special laws were enacted against injury to crops by incantation, excantation or fascination. The power was styled βασκανία by the Greeks and fascinatio by the Latins. Children and young animals of all kinds were thought to be specially susceptible. Charms were worn against the evil eye both by man and beast, and in Judges viii. 21 it is thought there is a reference to this custom in the allusion to the " ornaments " on the necks of camels. In classic times the wearing of amulets was universal. They were of three classes: (1) those the intention of which was to attract on to themselves, as the lightning-rod the lightning, the malignant glance; (2) charms hidden in the bosom of the dress; (3) written words from sacred writings. Of these three types the first was most numerous. They were oftenest of a grotesque and generally grossly obscene nature. They were also made in the form of frogs, beetles and so on. But the ancients did not wholly rely on amulets. Spitting was among the Greeks and Romans a most common antidote to the poison of the evil eye. According to Theocritus it is necessary to spit three times into the breast of the person who fears fascination. Gestures, too, often intentionally obscene, were regarded as prophylactics on meeting the dreaded individual. The evil eye was believed to have its impulse in envy, and thus it came to be regarded as unlucky to have any of your possessions praised. Among the Romans, therefore, it was customary when praising anything to add Praefiscini dixerim (Fain Evil! I should say). This custom survives in modern Italy, where in like circumstances is said Si mal occhio non ci fosse (May the evil eye not strike it). The object of these conventional phrases was to prove that the speaker was sincere and had no evil designs in his praise. Though there is no set formula, traces of the custom are found in English rural sayings, e.g. the Somersetshire " I don't wish ee no harm, so I on't zay no more." This is what the Scots call " forespeaking," when praise beyond measure is likely to be followed by disease or accident. A Manxman will never say he is very well: he usually admits that he is " middling," or qualifies his admission of good health by adding " now " or "just now." The belief led in many countries to the saying, when one heard anybody or anything praised superabundantly, " God preserve him or it." So in Ireland, to avoid being suspected of having the evil eye, it is advisable when looking at a child to say " God bless it"; and when passing a farm-yard where cows are collected at milking time it is usual for the peasant to say, " The blessing of God be on you and all your labour." Bacon writes: " It seems some have been so curious as to note that the times when the stroke . . . of an envious eye does most hurt are particularly when the party envied is beheld in glory and triumph."

The powers of the evil eye seem indeed to have been most feared by the prosperous. Its powers are often quoted as almost limitless. Thus one record solemnly declares that in a town of Africa a fascinator called Elzanar killed by his evil art no less than 80 people in two years (W. W. Story, Castle St Angelo, 1877, p. 149). The belief as affecting cattle was universal in the Scottish Highlands as late as the 18th century and still lingers. Thus if a stranger looks admiringly on a cow the peasants still think she will waste away, and they offer the visitor some of her milk to drink in the belief that in this manner the spell is broken. The modern Turks and Arabs also think that their horses and camels are subject to the evil eye. But the people of Italy, especially the Neapolitans, are the best modern instances of implicit believers. The jettatore, as the owner of the evil eye is called, is so feared that at his approach it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that a street will clear: everybody will rush into doorways or up alleys to avoid the dreaded glance. The jettatore di bambini (fascinator of children) is the most dreaded of all. The evil eye is still much feared for horses in India, China, Turkey, Greece and almost everywhere where horses are found. In rural England the pig is of all animals oftenest " overlooked." While the Italians are perhaps the greatest believers in the evil eye as affecting persons, the superstition is rife in the East. In India the belief is universal. In Bombay the blast of the evil eye is supposed to be a form of spirit-possession. In western India all witches and wizards are said to be evil-eyed. Modern Egyptian mothers thus account for the sickly appearance of their babies. In Turkey passages from the Koran are painted on the outside of houses to save the inmates, and texts as amulets are worn upon the person, or hung upon camels and horses by Arabs, Abyssinians and other peoples. The superstition is universal among savage races.

For a full discussion see Evil Eye by F. T. Elworthy (London, 1895) ; also W. W. Story, Castle St Angelo and the Evil Eye (1877); E. N. Rolfe and H. Ingleby, Naples in 1888 (1888); Johannes Christian Frommann, Tractatus de fascinatione novus et singularis, &c., &c. (Nuremburg, 1675) ; R. C. Maclagan, Evil Eye in the Western Highlands (1902).