The Evil Eye
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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 animals."
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
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
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.
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
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:
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
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
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