Friday, 25 November 2011

Did belief in the Evil Eye exist in Ancient Greece?

An Evil Eye bead

Questioning the existence of the belief in the evil eye in ancient Greece may seem pointless; Elworthy writing about the evil eye within a classical environment in the late 19th century wrote “Among the Greeks…the belief was so universal that they had a special word to express this mysterious power βασκανία.”  (Elworthy, 1895, p.7) Such a stance has been supported by recent academics such as Dickie who maintained that there was no doubt that the Greeks and the Romans had a belief that some people could harm with their eyesight.

Such a view is understandable as the Ancient Greeks seemed to have attributed power to the eyes. Cairns points out that in social situations eye contact and facial expressions is an essential part in interactions. Cairns support the importance of the role of eyes in Ancient Greek social interactions by pointing out that by the 2nd century AD physiognomic writing had reached a zenith in determining the meaning of eye contact in social interactions. This included a negative approach to “the staring, unblinking eyes of the shameless, the blazing eyes of the angry…”  Galen and the stoics explained sight as a flow of Pheuma that came from the brain, through the eyes onto the object in question and back again. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to adapt this idea to projections from the eye to be able to affect object.  Aristotle believed menstruating woman were able to change the colour of a mirror by sight. Greek religion also had examples, Medusa’s ability to petrify with her eyes and Athena’s owl was thought had the ability to kill birds with its gaze. Here is a clear link that several religious figures were able to harm with their eyes. There is suggestion that mortals were also capable of such power.

Such beliefs are explained by Dickie in his article about Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and Plutarch’s Quaestio Convivalis. Aethiopica has an Egyptian priest, (Calasiris) and relating how the adopted daughter, (Charicleia) of a priest of Apollo (Charicles) fell ill due to the evil eye. Plutarch’s is a general discussion about the Evil Eye. He provides 2 theories, that of Democritus’s belief that the evil eye was spread by shades (εϊδωλα). Plutarch’s own theory was that of effluxes, which leave all parts of the body through warmth and movement. The eyes give off the most effluxes as it was susceptible to movement and so able to project a “fiery beam.” In Heliodorus’ story Charicleia was able to afflict herself by admiring a priest called Theagenes.

 However the fact that these philosophers felt the need to explain how the Evil Eye worked suggests it was not as widely believed as Elworthy suggested. Wilk pointed out that it is difficult to find complete stories in the original documents as they were so commonly known there was little need to write them down. If the belief in the evil eye was common it could be argued that there would be no need to explain how it worked. Also the fact that Plutarch gives two different theories suggests that there was no consistent understanding of how the evil eye worked among those who did believe in it. Indeed in both Heliodorus and Plutarch’s stories there is at least one character that criticises its existence. Furthermore both Cairn and Dickie have pointed out the recent academic research tends to view Aethiopica as intentionally satirical, and presumably its concepts of the evil eye as well. Also if Elworthy was right in claiming that the evil eye existed from prehistoric times it would be reasonable to expect an illness or death to accrue in the Iliad from a look, which does not happen.  In a connection to religion even a priest of Apollo criticises the existence of the evil eye.

However it should be noted that these examples that seem to be critical or at least open minded about the belief of the evil eye only seems to apply to mortals. It should probably be remembered that that Gods and Goddesses seemed to operate with separate rules to mortals. This could have included powers attributed to their eyes. In the Iliad Athena’s eyes are referred to as “Terribly her eyes shone.”  (Iliad, 1.172) As well as the Medusa’s literally deadly gaze. Indeed Rakoczy argued that the deities used the medium of the evil eye to curse mortals, based on Aeschylus. Here Agamemnon fears being “struck from afar from any God’s jealous eye.” (Aeschylus. Agamemnon. 947.) However such a view has also been attacked as well. Dickie has pointed out that there are relatively few examples of Gods cursing others with their eyes and that presuming that the curse is done through the evil eye is only presumption.

Concluding this section, it seems that even within the ancient world as with today the concept of the evil eye has been treated with caution. Even within the academic field there is debate whether the evil eye truly existed in the minds of the Ancient Greeks and their deities.


1.       Cairns, Douglas. “Bullish Looks and the Sidelong Glances: Social Interactions and the eyes in Ancient Greek Culture.” Body Language in the Greek and Roman Worlds Ed. Cairns, Douglas. Classical Press of Wales. 2005 pp.123-155

2.       Dickie, Matthew W. “Review on Rakoczy’s Böser Blick, Macht des Auges und Neid der Götter: Eine Untersuchung zur kraft des Blickes in der griechischen Literatur.” The Classical Review Vol 49 No. 2 1999

3.       Dickie, Matthew W. “Heliodorus and Plutarch on the Evil Eye.” Classical Philology Vol.86 No.1 Jan 1991 pp.17-29

4.       Elworthy, Frederick Thomas. The Evil Eye: The Classical Account of an Ancient Superstition Dover Publications 2004 (1st published 1895)

5.       Luyster, Robert. “Symbolic Elements in the Cult of Athena.” History of Religions Vol.5 No.1 Summer 1965

6.       Wilk, Stephen. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. Oxford University Press. 2000

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