The other night we had some people over for dinner and a Greek friend of ours, Teddy, was mocking his mom, as one does, and said that whenever something happens to him, whether it’s good or bad, his mom says, “I knew it! I saw it in a dream!” Like, if he’s thrilled to get a big new client, she says, “I knew it, I saw it in a dream!” Or if he has a fender bender, she says, “Ach! I knew it! I saw it in a dream.” Unfortunately, she never reveals her dreams ahead of time, so he suspects his mom doesn’t have a sixth sense, just that likes to think she does.
Apparently, her other favorite thing to say, if anyone’s under the weather or having a run of bad luck, is that they have the Evil Eye. My ears perked up at that because I wrote a paper on the Evil Eye in college for one of my Folk+Myth classes. I grew up knowing all about the Evil Eye, thanks to my aunts. The thinking is, if you’re feeling poorly, or are constantly being tripped up by inconveniences both major and minor, someone has given you the Evil Eye, a sort of all-purpose, general curse. To make things even trickier, the curse can be, and usually is, inadvertent. People admire a cute child, for example, and he comes down with a cold. Or you walk into church and everyone says, “she looks great today” and by the end of the sermon there are runs in your stockings. In countries where people with blue eyes are a minority, they are believed to give the Evil Eye more frequently. (This is true of my blue-eyed mom. She’ll say, “what a nice frame!” and two minutes later it falls off the mantle onto the floor. She doesn’t mean to be destructive and all-powerful; she just is.)
When we were kids living in Athens, a woman from our village visited our house, saw my brother wasn’t feeling well, said an incantation to take the Evil Eye off of him, and he immediately projectile vomited all across the kitchen. Yes, much like in the Exorcist. I’ve had the Evil Eye taken off me dozens of times and never reacted so strongly, but I’ve noticed that both the subject and the person removing the curse often tear up as the Evil Eye leaves the body of the afflicted.
To remove the Evil Eye, a person who has been told the magic incantation from a member of the opposite sex (it’s often passed down from father to daughter or mother to son, for example) will recite it silently, and then count the victim’s bodily orifices (by assumption, not by physical exam), and maybe cross themselves three times (yes, religion, as always, comes into play).
To prevent the Evil Eye, people wear all sorts of talismans. In Greece and Turkey those are jewelry showing a blue eye to protect one’s person from inadvertent curses, wall hangings of ceramic blue eyes to protect one’s house, macrame with beads of blue eyes draped over the saddle to protect one’s donkey, beads hanging from the rearview mirror to protect one’s car, and on and on. For Italians and Jews, red is the color that protects wearers from the Evil Eye (that’s why Italians wear charms shaped like coral, or cornuti, red horns, to protect themselves). Jews say “Bli Ayin Hora” in Hebrew, or “Kina Hora” in Yiddish, both meaning “Back off, Evil Eye.”
In the course of researching my paper, I read various ideas about why the belief in the Evil Eye is so widespread. Rabbinical commentary says it comes from a fear of envy, and that when Jacob wished his grandchildren may “multiply like fish within the land” it was because no one sees fish in their fruitful abundance, so they aren’t envied. A Freudian folklorist (yes, there is such a thing) named Alan Dundes wrote an article called “Wet and Dry: the Evil Eye”, that, if I remember correctly, was all about how eyes are vulnerable and squishy and viscous, like sex organs, and that the evil eye is believed to make things (money, potency, fresh water, breast milk), wither and dry. It’s an interesting (and gross) theory, but too elemental for my taste.
I think the Evil Eye is an ancient version of Alannis Morrissette’s “Isn’t It Ironic” song, that it’s human nature to suspect that when we are being showered with blessings–when everyone compliments your cute baby or looks at you on stage–we will somehow lose those blessings, or have them taken away by people whether they want to harm us or not. There’s not much we can do to prevent envy, or to keep the random good things that happen to us from randomly disappearing. So wearing an Evil Eye talisman (like the multicolored bracelet I wear every day) makes one, or at least me, feel proactive, as if I’m aware that I’m blessed and doing what I can to protect the good things in my life, and maybe even spread more good things to others.
I’ll acknowledge that, often, the Evil Eye is in the eye of the beholder. One Sunday one of my aunts said to the other, “I don’t feel so good–I think someone gave me the Evil Eye in church this morning?” and the other replied, “Who would envy you? You’re so fat, you look like a little barrel!” Yup, my aunts practice tough love. But I have seen Evil Eye removal work. After a great engagement party in New York, everything suddenly went wrong for my husband; he missed my shower because the subways to Brooklyn weren’t working properly (granted, they never are on weekends); he missed his flight back to Florida because of traffic to the airport, and he almost didn’t make the flight the next day because, as the attendant pointed out to him, his driver’s license had expired by one day. Back in Miami, he learned there was a two week wait to get an appointment at the DMV. My aunt took the Evil Eye off him (you can do it over the phone), he called the DMV back and they gave him an appointment in a half hour due to a sudden cancellation. Another satisfied customer of an Evil Eye Exorcism.
I’ve had a lot of great things happen to me in the last six months. And then, this week, I’ve been hobbling around due to a crippling pain in my right hip. The only appointments I can get with orthopedists are over two weeks from now, and the one doctor I have seen isn’t sure if I have bursitis or an injury. I hate having restricted mobility and have been super-irritable knowing there’s not much I can do to fix this. But then I thought of Teddy and his mom, and I realized one thing I can do to make myself feel better, if not, necessarily, to fix my hip. I have to get the Evil Eye taken removed. So please excuse me, I’m off to call my aunt.