Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Tue March 08 2016

The (Evil) Eyes Have It

Features & Advice | Michael Howard | March 08, 2016

The (Evil) Eyes Have It

PHOTO: A gate in Malta with a curse-repelling bull's head. (Photos by Michael Howard)

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have their eye on you, particularly if you’re traveling the old Hanseatic and Venetian trade routes. Not according to the local elders.  You’ve seen them. Stocky matrons dressed in long black skirts and tasseled scarves, ruddy cheeks and gapped smiles. And weathered rakes dressed in blue work clothes and brimmed caps, with weather-beaten faces, gnarled hands and a knowing look. They’ll tell you that the threat is up close, personal and much more hazardous to your health than surveillance cameras, spy satellites or remote controlled drones.

Sit with them, eat with them, drink with them, smoke with them — earn their trust and their empathy, and they’ll slowly open up. Taciturn, reserved, and dour, they’ve witnessed life’s woes and know what caused them: Der Boser Blick, kotu Goz, mal d’occhio, mal ojo, ofthalmos baskanos or innocchiatura — the evil eye.

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These dangers are real. And they’ll prove it with anecdotes, true stories and allegories drawn not only from their fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, but from current headline news as well. Fishing catches diminish, crops fail, milk cows dry up, swine sicken and horses die. Children are particularly susceptible, but also marriages, businesses and political stability. The causes are envy, avarice and greed — either intentionally afflicted by malevolent Jettatura, Jeteur, or Maleficio — or unintentionally by an unwilling carrier with the “gift” (or curse).

But the widowed Elfriedas of rural Germany, or pensioned Milos of Montenegro’s hilltop hamlets will hasten to reassure you that there are ways to fend this off. Horns are quite popular as curse shields.  They’re everywhere if you know where to look. Bull’s horns, antlers and crescent moons above Malta’s medieval castle gates, Venetian monuments and Montenegrin battlements. Or phalluses, crescent moons, grasshoppers, human hands, snakes or all-seeing (and vaguely Masonic) eyes — alone or in combination. They’ll stop evil intentions and turn them back.

Why is the Old World so obsessed with keeping bad vibes at bay? Peace and prosperity, health and commerce were and still are the communities’ vitality, and worth protecting. The ubiquitous sculptures and carvings, statuary and architectural accents are conscious relics of tangible defense against intangible evil.

They’re also portable. To protect the person, from Turkey to Corsica and Croatia to Corfu, the same themes are incorporated into apotropaic charms, jewelry and tokens.

Ward off potential evil from the gotch-eyed stranger or crippled crone with blue and white glass beads, turquoise and red coral trinkets, and silver charms — curiously wrought and curiously worn — watch fobs and bracelets, key chains and earrings. You’ve seen those re-curved red coral pendants — sometimes rendered in ivory, bone, silver or even in gold — horns to pierce the evil eye. There are silver crescents worked into harnesses of horses, mules and donkeys. And amulets of hands, hands with eyes, eyes, snakes and grasshoppers worked into necklaces, earrings, rings and belt buckles, are available in jewelry shops, bazaars, souks, tourist traps and street stands.

If one is caught without suitable protection, or needs to enhance the protection, hand gestures and good old honest spit can render good service.

Gestures include extending pointer and little fingers into horns and curling the “inside” fingers and thumb into the palm, or placing the right thumb into the left palm, left thumb into right palm and closing the fingers over the thumbs, to ward off evil intent. The universal fica — poking the thumb out between the pointer and middle fingers has degenerated into an obscene gesture throughout Europe, but is no less effective against malevolent intentions.

Spitting (either after passing the afflicter, or in extreme cases — into the face of the Jeteur) can send the curse back and render it ineffective.

Maria from Fulda remembers that her devoutly Catholic mother protected the household with oranges or lemons studded with cloves, or pierced with nails, hung above doors and eaves. Her neighbor Marita from Silesia remembers ropes of garlic being used to similar effect.

Not so long back I interviewed Jacques — eighty years old and still a shepherd, working alone with three dogs and over fifty sheep. He acknowledged the value of charms and the like, but personally embraced a prophylaxis of humility — of disguising, concealing or denying good fortune. His mother would stain the lining of a new dress, or daub smut behind his ear when he was a child, or rub a thumb across the shine of too-brilliantly polished shoes to avoid tempting the envious eye.

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Milica from Korcula supplied the town barber with skin bracers and hair tonics distilled from rue blossoms and woodbine.  She provided local taverns with cordials and liquors — potable versions of the same herbs; all guaranteed to repel Jettatura.

Really?  In this day and age? Superstitions surviving in this modern reality ruled by social media and iPhones? Maybe and maybe not, but wrapping that iPhone in Turkish beads or demurely deprecating your brand new, state-of-the-art electronic gadget in the face of immoderate or effusive praise (“Oh, its OK I guess”), can’t hurt? 

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