The evil eye is a belief that a particular person may cast a malicious gaze which will cause another person, animal, plant, or other property to become ill, die, suffer grievous harm, or inflict bad luck upon someone toward whom they are either openly or even unknowingly envious towards. The evil eye belief is extremely ancient having been referenced as early as 3000 B.C. with the Sumerians, then on to Babylon, then in 7th Century B.C. Acadian and Assyrian literature, in ancient Greek and Roman writings, and finally in the Hebrew Bible and in more modern Judeo-Christian culture and traditions. The historian and biographer Plutarch, described in his De Iside how the Egyptian goddess of nature Isis killed the son of the Byblos by a mere glance of her eye. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a manual for ancient priests used around 1000 B.C., has numerous instructions for incantations, charms, and amulets to defend against the evil eye.
There are also 61 references to the human eye and its power in the Old Testament such as in Proverbs 23:6 “Eat not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire his dainty meats; for as he thinketh in his heart so is he.” In the New Testament there are 19 references to the evil eye and its effects such as in Matthew 6:22-23 “the light of the body is the eye; if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.” Islamic literature also contains references to the evil eye. In the Dictionary of Islam by Thomas Patrick Hughes, he cites an Islamic legend in which a woman asks Muhammad to come to her family’s aid with charms and prayers to offset the evil eye. Mohammad responds positively and reportedly states “for if there were anything in the world which would overcome fate, it would be the evil eye.”
The modern day belief in the evil eye remains very prevalent among millions of people in areas of the world such as Italy, Greece, the Middle East, Spain, Portugal, India, Latin America (especially Brazil), Central America, the Caribbean, North Africa, China, Tibet, Japan, Samoa, Tahiti, Australia, and even Scotland. Of course how the evil eye is defined, its cultural importance, and how to treat it vary from country to country. On the contrary, it has not been observed at all among Native Americans or in sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States, the belief in the evil eye carries on among millions of immigrants and their descendants from many of the previously cited countries.
In our everyday conversations we are still consistently referencing the eye and its influence: beady eyes, fish eyes, bedroom eyes, an “icy stare”, “soulful look”, critical eye, blank stare, bug eyed, wide eyed, wild eyed, “stare down”, “eyeball” someone (confront), “eye of the beholder”, to see “eye to eye” as in a Mexican standoff, when someone “undresses me with his eye”, and even the common saying ‘‘if looks could kill’’ symbolizes the powerful effects of the human eye. There is enough consistency transcending various cultures, throughout time, and even throughout our modern use of language which leads one to believe that the importance of the evil eye is one that deserves attention.
The Greek Version “Kako Mati”
However, it would be very difficult to describe the evil eye from the various perspectives of all the cultures that believe in it, within the constraints of this paper. So, I have decided that here we will focus on the evil eye as it is represented in the Greek culture, and then how it can be characterized, and understood, within western psychological thought. The evil eye belief remains very widespread among millions of people in Greece. The ancient Greeks believed that, “Some malignant influence darted from the eyes of envious or angry persons and so infected the air as to penetrate and corrupt the bodies of both living creatures and inanimate objects. When anyone looks at what is excellent with an envious eye, he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him.”
The evil eye is an English version of what the modern Greeks literally refer to it as the “kako mati” (bad eye) or simply “mati” (eye). “Matiasma” is the alignment of the beliefs and practices surrounding the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of the modern day Greek evil eye. In the Greek culture, the evil eye was generally considered to be an unintentional result of envy or even admiration. Some Greek American individuals in a 1983 study stated that there has to be a desire to inflict harm for it to be effective, and some people, in complete contrast, even stated that something as simple as gossip could cause the evil eye. The Greek Orthodox Church even believes in the evil eye. The church, like many others, attributes the evil eye to envy, and they believe that this envy is caused by the devil. The church evens holds prayers for those inflicted with the evil eye on a day called “Vaskania” which in translation would mean “I harm by vision” or “I look with envious eye.”
Islamic nations are very similar to the Greek culture in some aspects of the evil eye because both believe that blue eyed individuals were particularly capable of casting the evil eye onto someone. This could be because in most Islamic nations, blue-eyed people were a rarity and therefore stood out and were suspected to be sorcerers. This also may account for the choice of a blue eyed amulet or charm that is very popular in Greece, and is used to repel the forces of the evil eye. Red haired women, those born on the wrong day of the week (Tuesday), or a mother who did something wrong during her pregnancy (what this may be was not described) also are believed to have special evil eye powers. In general, the most popular belief among Greeks is that women have a special power to cast the evil eye.
Children have been widely believed (not only among the Greek culture) to be the most vulnerable individuals to attack by the evil eye. Common symptoms as a result of the evil eye include lethargy, headache, fever, chills, gastrointestinal symptoms, impotence, and even sudden or lingering death may ensue. However, a study of 328 Greek American individuals from Ohio, it was found that there was no consensus regarding the seriousness of the problems. Almost half of the informants considered the evil eye to be very threatening, “it can kill”, but just as many, if not more, felt that if an illness did result from the eye, that it would not be too serious.
Even though belief in the evil eye is widespread among Greeks, not everyone believes that it will cause any harm. While it is crucial to be sensitive and knowledgeable to cultural beliefs, it is important to remember that overgeneralizing is the same as being culturally insensitive. In fact, studies have indicated that the knowledge and use of matiasma (diagnosis and treatment of the evil eye) varied with different age groups of Greek American immigrants to the United States.
Those whose average age was 64.9 years old had a matiasma knowledge rate of 100%, and 87.4% actually had used matiasma before. This was in comparison to the average age group of 22.6 years old who had a matiasma knowledge rate of 45.5%, and a usage rate of 0%. The more recent generations of Greek American immigrants are actually less likely to use the treatments for the evil eye, and even to be knowledgeable about the evil eye. Nonetheless, a “one size fits all” approach to Greek Americans and Greeks in terms of their beliefs and knowledge of the evil eye is not recommended.
There are various strategies that are used to protect individual from the evil eye in the Greek culture. Some of these include wearing protective charms which are usually blue beads or blue stones which contain a black spot in the middle of it to symbolize the eyes. Others include amulets which primarily consist of wood from a saint’s statue or monastery, incense from the church, religious metals typically made of gold, and teeth from a dead individual. These protective charms are thought to reflect the evil eye.
Behaviors such as making the sign of the cross or delicately spitting three times after complementing someone are also considered to protect an individual from the evil eye. Avoidance behaviors such as not flaunting your wealth “the less they know about you, the better” are also seen as preventative measures for getting the evil eye. Certain sayings such as “spit in the eye of the devil” and certain prayers of the Panagia (Virgin Mary) are also helpful to defend against the effects of the evil eye.
Identification and Treatment of the “Kako Mati”
The most common method of detecting and then removing the evil eye in the Greek culture consists of placing olive oil in a glass of water, and if the oil forms a drop, then that would mean that the evil eye has been cast. Some believe that the identification of the evil eye happens after the oil has been placed in a glass of water. If the individual who is conducting this process (usually not the affected individual) starts to sneeze or feels itchy then that is the sign of the evil eye being present. An alternative method is to drop a wooden cross into the oil water mixture, and if the oil bubbled then that signified that the evil eye had been cast. If the oil becomes attached to the cross, then that case of the evil eye would be considered a severe or strong case of the evil eye. In some areas of Greece the exorcists burn herbs such as the olive leaf or the bay leaf as well as the previously mentioned oil-water mixture.
After the evil eye has been identified, something called “Xematiasma” occurs. Xematiasma is pretty much like an exorcism of the evil eye. The term itself literally translates into English as “I take out the eye.” Typically this is done after the identification of the evil eye and can even be sign of how strong the evil eye was. Since I have personally seen this done, I will explain how my mother does it. She begins with the oil-water mixture in a specifically shaped icon for the cup. Then she starts by silently reciting the “secret words” or “logia” in Greek. If she starts to frequently yawn, tear, up, or feel out of breath, then that is not only a sign of the evil eye, but it is a sign that it has been removed. How many times one yawns can also be a sign of the intensity of the evil eve. The more times the “exorcist” yawns means the evil eye was strong. The yawning is a sign that the healer has taken the evil eye on him or herself and has removed it from the afflicted individual. However, the healer does not typically get sick as the afflicted individual does.
Some believe that when the afflicted person yawns as well as the healer, then that is when the evil eye leaves the body. In some cases the healer will recite prayers that go through each part of the body. Sometimes, the healer may ask the person to move around a bit from their previous position after the exorcism has been completed. Why they are asked to move around was not mentioned in any of the articles I found, and I was not able to get an answer from my Greek family who did not know about this part of the xematiasma. Traditional evil eye exorcism is still typically a female oriented practice.
In many Greek cities, and especially Athens, phone exorcisms have been commonplace and fairly popular. I have personally even seen my sister call my mother at home so she can do the xematiasma for my niece over the phone. This is probably because the advent of the phone changed the way these exorcisms could be done, especially because it was never said that the healer needed to be in the room with the afflicted individual. Actually, most times I have seen or heard of it being done, the healer is in a different room completely if not in a different city. The phone exorcisms are also done because it was widely believed that these exorcisms of the evil eye should not be done by the afflicted individual by him or her-self. This self-exorcism is not as effective as an exorcism by another individual.
The silent reciting that occurs during the identification and treatment of the evil eye is meant to be secret. I have even asked my Greek mother what were the words she says so I could use them in my paper, and she very sternly told me “Just a prayer. Don’t worry about it.” However, studies found some Greek Americans who told her what some of the sayings were. Many of the individuals stated that they said the Panagia, or the prayer for the Virgin Mary, three times while making the sign of the cross. Others attempted to translate the sayings: “Jesus Christ wins and sends all the bad things away” “So all bad eye goes on the cats.” Most of the individuals in this study believed that the Greek Orthodox priests had the best prayers for the exorcism of the evil eye. The prayer is reportedly said to call upon the angels to come and help God remove the sickness and to remove any evil attack or spirit that may come to the afflicted individual.
It is interesting to note the generational change in how the Greek culture treats the symptoms of the evil eye. In a 1999 study, 360 participants from two areas of Athens, Greece were interviewed in 1979/1980, and then a similarly matched group of participants from the same areas were interviewed in 1994 for comparison. Findings suggested that in 1979/1980 a majority of the sample suggested that they managed the evil eye symptoms by folk witchcraft practices (84.4%) and visiting a priest (3.9%). In contrast, the sample in 1994 had only 55.7% participants who used “folk witchcraft practices” and 0.6% went to a priest.
The most interesting part of this was that 13.6 % of the 1994 sample said that they took medication, and 9.3% stated that they visited a doctor. This was in contrast to the 0.0% of individuals in the 1979/1980 sample who said that they took medication or visited a doctor. It could be that the invention of more cost efficient and competent medical treatments over the years have added to this trend of viewing through a more medical lens instead of a “folk witchcraft practices” point of view. This could also be because of the influence of western psychological theories in the Greek culture. The mystical/religious nature of the Greek version of the evil eye may be being replaced with a more westernized understanding of this phenomenon.
Western Understanding of the “Kako Mati”
Researcher Alan Dundes argued that the evil eye is most likely found in cultures that believe in something called the “image of limited good.” Societies which believe in the “image of limited good” believe that desired items such as wealth, love, and status are in short supply, have limited quantities, and that it is impossible to increase the quantity of these desired items. This then leads to the societal feeling that an individual can only gain if someone else loses, and this feeling will generate a great deal of envy towards those who are successful from those who are losing and less successful. Those who are successful in turn will learn to fear the envy of others, which leads to the evil eye. Successful individuals fear the envy of others, thus this perspective seems to have an inherent intra-psychic component to it.
Dundes argued that the evil eye is a societal or institutional way of dealing with the envy of others by avoiding responsibility and thus guilt. If a child gets sick, then the parent does not have to feel guilty, he or she can just blame the “mati” (evil eye). The association of the notion of a society of limited goods and a fear by those successful individuals of social envy by those who are less fortunate and thus envious of you, leads to a social inequality. Dundes argues that the evil eye is thus a function of, and results from, social inequality. This social inequality is exactly what gives rise to the envious stares which causes the evil eye. The evil eye is thus nothing more than a projection of an individual’s own fear of envy onto another person.
Other psychological researchers also relate the evil eye with envy. They theorize that envy is the root cause of the evil eye phenomenon. Similarly to the idea of a society with “limited good,” others posit that an individual’s own rise in standing can lead to feelings of being distressed and uncomfortable by their own success. Envy “occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it.” Thus, envy may lead to strong dislike and even vicious behavior.
Researchers believe that early humans developed a mechanism that protects against these negative envious effects (i.e. the evil eye). However, they delineated between two different types of envy that may result in two very different resulting behaviors in response to envy. Benign envy is defined as the motivational tendencies that are productive and aimed at improving one’s own personal position. Malicious envy is the motivational tendencies which are destructive and aimed at pulling down the envied person. The authors hypothesized that the fear of being maliciously envied, not benignly envied, was the reason behind why individuals felt anxious (i.e. the evil eye) around certain individuals. Deservingness, they hypothesized, was the main reason why a situation triggered benign or malicious envy, and why a successful individual would feel as if they were being envied. A deserved advantage led to benign envy, whereas an undeserved advantage led to malicious envy.
Envy can be a serious threat to relationships and group cohesion, especially in many collectivistic cultures. There are many strategies to prevent the negative consequences of envy. Some of these are to conceal the advantage, downplay it, avoid the envious person, become exceedingly more helpful to that person, or show that in another domain the envious person is actually the one who is better off. In this case, it seems that the evil eye may be a way to repress or simply downplay the individuals felt un-deservingness of their success or their own worry of being maliciously envied by others. They then project that envy upon another individual (whether or not that other individual legitimately feels envious or not) and in essence places the blame for their ill health on the actions of that envious individual. This seems to be very similar to the western definition of an externalizing socially anxious individual. That or there is something in us that is at times very sensitive to the malicious enviousness of others that can literally cause us so much anxiety and stress (even at a subconscious level) that we become physically sick.
No matter whether you believe in the evil eye or not, and how you understand it, it is a widespread belief in many cultures, and has been used in these cultures for centuries. I do not take any stance on the believability of the evil eye in this article. Instead I have used this time to help explain what the evil eye is and how it is understood from different perspectives. However, on a different note, many spiritual leaders believe that we exert energy as human beings, positive or negative. This would be separate from the clinical psychological understanding of the evil eye.
Howard Martin the Executive Vice President of HeartMath, an organization that has been developing and delivering research-based, practical, and reliable tools and technologies that enable people to align and connect their heart, mind and emotions to produce transformative outcomes has stated that:
“The heart is the strongest source of bioelectricity in our bodies by far. It produces enough electrical energy to create a 360 degree electromagnetic field that surrounds each and every person on this planet. That field extends beyond the skin and goes out into space. It extends about 3-4 feet outside the body…..Not only do we produce an electromagnetic field, that field also changes all the time. The frequencies and the field are in constant change. The main influencers of those changes are our emotions. As we change in emotional state, we change what’s being broadcasted through the heart’s electromagnetic field…..In a sense, we’re literally broadcasting our emotions through the electromagnetic field of the heart.”
“There’s a connection between us and universal source, or spirit or god. These are questions scientists are now looking at. We’re also looking at the energetic connectivity between all living systems. Everything on our planet produces some sort of a field and it goes beyond our planet. It’s a web that’s linking everything together. In my opinion it’s the heart that is our main connecting point to all those energetic connections.”
Basically, the way I would understand the evil eye is through this theory that we exert energy that can affect other people. Have you ever walked into a room and just felt immediately sad, or like something wasn’t right there? We can through nothing else but our body language express our dislike or disgust in someone else. Nobody likes it when others are wishing bad things upon you or thinking you absolutely suck. This negative energy is somehow expressed to the other person and then either at an energetic level or a psychological level, makes the other person feel sick. This is how I would understand the evil eye just on my own. It would be interesting to really find out what’s going on here and why so many cultures have believed in this for so long.
So, the next time you talk to a Greek friend of yours and are feeling sick all of a sudden, ask your friend to call his or her mother and get the evil eye out of you!
May the force be with you.
God bless you.
Στην υγεία μας.