Monday, October 20, 2014

Postcards from the Underworld: Beware the Evil Eye

I couldn't resist this spectacle of evil eye amulets, displayed on a shop wall in the Plaka district of Athens. 

The evil eye has a very old history. In ancient Greece and Rome it was a way to ward off the recipient from too much attention, fame or glory. It is written that when a conquering hero or Roman Emperor entered the city after a great victorious battle, a slave was hired to whisper in his ear, "Memento mori," which means, "remember death," or "remember that you are mortal." 

In that same fashion, the evil eye today continues the tradition of reminding one to not get too swollen with pride lest one would bring about one's own downfall or doom. At celebrations of great happiness in Greek culture, such as baptisms and weddings, guests routinely "spit" on the bride and newborn (this involves a form of faux spitting in the air above their heads) as a gesture to ward off the evil eye from such a happy occasion. 

While superstition itself probably does not bring a great deal of happiness to people by playing upon the fears of human beings, the larger lesson of the evil eye is a solid one to ponder. It remind us to be grateful for the good things in our life and not spend our precious energy focused on what we don't have. In other words, as in the Icarus legend, don't fly so high towards the sun that your wings melt:  keep yourself grounded. In the end, it's better to want what you have, then to have what you want. 

38 comments:

  1. I want it all Amanda. Just kidding. My daughters wear all sorts of those evil eyes and I think they misunderstand the meaning. They think it is to ward off evil, bad juju. I'll have to tell them.

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    1. That is one explanation. But I think there is always something deeper beneath those kinds of superstitious beliefs. Must be the archaeologist in me ;)

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  2. The first two sentences of Donna's comment made me smile.

    Years ago, a friend gave me a note pad with a hand holding the evil eye on the top. It was from Lebanon, where she had been visiting. Last year, another friend gave me a necklace with the hand holding the evil eye. After reading this post, I'm not sure what to make of those two gifts. Help?

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    1. People do use these amulets to ward off evil. This is an old belief, there's a big word for it: apotropaic. All it means is that people for a long time have felt the need to control their environment around them they felt was out of their control - weather destroying crops, etc - we have to appease the gods. What would happen if humans instead created a light-attracting device? I guess that's what a dreamcatcher does on some level, right?

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    2. We *are* the light-attracting device. That's how I see it.

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    3. So true, Sis, so true. Thank you for that reminder ♡

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    4. So, I just found out today, the hand holding the evil eye is called the 'hamsa,' which means five in Arabic (I remember that, somewhat ironically, as one of the few Arabic words I learned as a child.) The hand holding the eye is meant to ward it off. I wish I could show you the necklace. You would appreciate it, I'm sure.

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  3. Gods and cousins all wish you out of the competition, especially if your pride is such that you forget to pay respect to them before, during and after...
    Humility is a cloak to ward off envy.

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    1. True that Rosaria. Oh we are curious creatures we humans....

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    2. 'Humility is a cloak to ward off envy.'

      Brilliant and true. (Looks like you're already attracting the light, Sis. Show me who you're with ... ;))

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  4. Hi Amanda, fantastic shot ..the vibrant blues are so gorgeous and bold and striking all together. Yes so much history, myth/lore and different perspectives of this symbol. wonderful post!

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    1. The vibrant blue color is beautiful - and interesting. Must do a little more research on the reason for the blue and not green or brown...

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  5. Very interesting. I think that here it is used as a symbol to avoid bad luck but it is not very prevalent except on boats. People tend to use the symbol of the horns more - although that too is dying out.

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    1. OK now I want to know more about those horns.....

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    2. Forgive my effusiveness on the comments but I'm stirred! The horns on a bison, a sacred animal to many Native tribes--perhaps most prominently, the Lakota--are a symbol of connection to the divine. Like antennas, attracting all kinds of beneficial energy.

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    3. Love it when you're stirred and appreciate the additional words of wisdom! So interesting to be reminded of the importance of horns to Native American cultures. In Greece, Minoan culture in particular, the horns of consecration were a symbol of fertility as well as the waxing or waning phases of the crescent moon. But to learn about them as a connection to the divine as antennas, attracting beneficial energy. That's pure genius. Now I have a new idea to add to my library of archetypal wisdom, for which I thank you dearly ~ xoxo

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  6. Very interesting. And they look real pretty.

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  7. My Dad gave me some evil eye amulets that were given to him by a Turkish friend. Something about the vibrant blue that makes these so inviting to look at. Thank you for your mention on your previous post and I am glad you liked the quote. Funny how, "the middle of nowhere", applies to so many places on earth.

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    1. Michelle, That quote really struck me. I love the idea that we can find ourselves anywhere on this earth, and the concept that sacred places have an effect on us and vice-versa.

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  8. BEAUTIFUL! always a wealth of information here and lashings of inspiration. 'Sante sana! x janelle

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  9. Finally an explanation that makes sense. I too have always thought that it was just to guard against maliscious djinns and demons. Reminds me of our close Greek friends who always "spit three times" to ward off a jinx. We have adopted that saying in our house too.

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    1. Guarding against malicious djinns and demons is indeed the official story. Beyond that it seems to represent the deeper fear and issue of mortality.

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  10. A wonderful photograph and post! I love these talismans, if that is the right word for them. I encountered a lot of 'dragon eye' or evil eye emblems in Cornwall. Tintagel Pottery made lovely brightly coloured jugs and vases with them painted on. I had a small collection before I realised what they were. x

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    1. I would love to know more about these dragon eyes. Seems every culture has their own way of protecting themselves from things out of their control.

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  11. I love that! I'd never heard of the Evil Eye before, but wow. I love the symbolism and deeper lesson--so much so that I'm tempted to display one or the symbol in my home.

    Unleashing the Dreamworld

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    1. Thanks for your comment and for visiting Crystal!

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  12. what a fascinating tradition! I'd have thought the evil eye would be a bad thing

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    1. Always interesting to dig deeper beneath anything culture has branded or ostracized as evil or malevolent to see what might lie underneath.

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  13. lovely shot! I felt like walking in Plaka with you!
    I have such a necklace (very small) boght by my father many years ago in Turkey when I was a kid, I hardly wear it but I love watching its colors! So Mediterranean:)

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    1. Maybe someday we can meet in Greece Ola! xoxo

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  14. I love that image of a paid slave/servant whispering into the ear of the returning hero - nothing like getting ones head out of the clouds so quickly, and an interesting way to learn another view about the evil eye. Did you treat yourself to one - hard to resist such a display once it catches the eye I imagine*!*

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    1. I do have one, it's a magnet attached to a metal cup sitting on my desk. I honestly don't remember where I got it though. The colors do remind one of the Mediterranean.

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  15. It is interesting to see that the evil eye in Greece and Rome had a different meaning that in other places. My father was an Armenian from Istanbul and even though we lived in Paris he always wanted me to wear some jewelry with turquoise in them against the Evil Eye. I asked him why once and he said that it was to prevent illness or accidents, to prevent people who were envious or jealous to look at me in a bad way –in short it was for my safety. When our daughter was born my parents sent a tiny 18k gold bracelet with many turquoise for her to wear. I understand that in Assyrians texts they already talked about the “assassin look.” In French we do not call it the “evil” eye but “le mauvais oeil” or the “bad” eye.

    The little glass eye like you pictured is called a Nazar boncuğu in Turkey. They are everywhere there. Nazar means “to look” and boncuk means “pearl.” So this blue talisman is a pearl against an evil look. My Egyptian first cousin also gave me some talisman against the evil eye but it was the eye of Horus, which is blue too, and a blue scarab. Blue being a sacred color, as you know, from byzantine times, symbol of spirituality, divinity and peace and still being used extensively in the middle east like in mosques.

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    1. Vagabonde, Kind thanks for this deeply thoughtful reply. I loved learning about your experiences with the evil eye growing up and what it means to you and your family. How fascinating to learn how different cultures handle the uncertainties and ambivalence of life and wish to protect their loved ones. Thank you for visiting my blog. xoxo

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  17. Cool! I hadn't realized that the evil eye was about modesty and contentment. I learn so much from you. Thanks too for your kind words about my daughter's song.

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  18. Warding off the evil eye seems to be a very important element of Greek/Roman life. May you never be bothered by such things! Even when you are a rich and famous archaeologist!

    Blessings and Bear hugs, Amanda!

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