When I lived in Turkey, I saw blue glass charms which looked like eyes all around me. People hung huge ones, up to ten inches across, inside their front doors. People wore small ones as pendants or used them as keyrings. I never entered a public office without seeing at least one hanging on the wall. Turkish airlines even painted them on their aeroplanes.
They were called Nazar Boncugu, and people told me these artificial blue eyes were protection against the “Evil Eye”. I became so intrigued by this very ancient belief that I eventually wrote my first novel, Evil Eye, based around the influence it still has on people all around the Mediterranean.
All the cultures around the Mediterranean and the Middle East used to believe in the Evil Eye. The Ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Christians and Jews and the Muslims all believed in it. It is still widely believed in, and sometimes feared, not only in Turkey but in other North African and Middle Eastern regions. Even in Sicily, some people still paint mottoes and perform rituals to protect themselves from it.
So, what is the evil eye?
In some regions, it is the belief that certain people have an “evil eye” and can use this to curse victims by their malevolent gaze.
The most common form, however, the one most widely surviving, attributes the cause to envy.
In this case, the belief is that an envious person casts the evil eye upon someone unintentionally, simply by feeling jealous of them. Even though the envious person may not intend to cause harm, envy is a sin – one of the seven deadly sins for Christians – and this sin invokes powerful and harmful magic.
en·vy \en-vē\ noun 1: feeling of discontent and resentment of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage 2: object of envious notice or feeling
The envy may be of material possessions including livestock, or of beauty, health, or children. The effects on the victims vary in different cultures. Some cultures report afflictions with various types of unpredictable bad luck and setbacks in life; others believe the evil eye can cause disease, wasting away, and even death. It is often associated with diarrhoea and wasting through loss of fluids.
In most cultures, the commonest victims are thought to be babies and young children, because they are so often praised and commented upon by strangers or by childless women.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man.”
“He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.”
The Bible, Proverbs 28:22
In many forms of the evil eye belief, a person can harm adults, children, livestock, or a possession, simply by looking at them with envy. The word “evil” can be seen as somewhat misleading in this context, because it suggests that someone has intentionally “cursed” the victim. A better understanding of the term “evil eye” can be gained from the old English word for casting the evil eye, namely “overlooking,” implying that the gaze has remained focused on the coveted object, person, or animal for too long.
“Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats: for as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.”
Many modes of speech and other habits in Muslim cultures derive from careful avoidance of invoking the Evil Eye accidentally. Rather than directly expressing appreciation of, for example, a child’s beauty, it is customary to say Masha’Allah, that is, “God has willed it”, or invoking God’s blessings upon the object or person that is being admired.
Say, “I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak.
“From the evils among His creations.
“From the evils of darkness as it falls.
“From the evils of the troublemakers.
“From the evils of the envious when they envy.”
The Koran, 113.1 – 113.5
In the past, the Ancient Romans believed in the evil eye and wore charms against it. They hung protective amulets called Bullae, which were leather pounches with magican texts inside, around their children’s necks until they were seven years old. The Jews believed it caused wasting illnesses associated with dehydration, and their ancient charm against it took the form of a fish.
In modern Muslim cultures the amulet against the evil eye takes the form of a blue eye, based on the principle of repelling like with like. The Hamsa, or hand of Fatima, is widely used as a protective amulet in the Middle East and North Africa; it takes the form of the palm of the right hand, with an eye at its centre. In Jewish culture, this symbol has the same meaning and is called the Hand of Miriam.
In Sicily, some people still scatter salt on the floor inside the entrance to their homes or shops as protection against the evil eye, or malocchio as it is called in Italian.
Whilst many people will say that they no longer believe in these supersitions, they often carry an amulet or hang one in their home, just in case. Old habits die hard, and nobody wants to risk bad luck! I was given a Nazar Boncugu pendant as a gift when I was in Turkey, and I still wear it sometimes.