The Greekish Life
The Evil Eye
If Looks Could Kill (or at least give you a headache)
The Evil Eye. A curse you can put on someone just by looking at them. The dirty look that takes it to the next level.
In Greece, and indeed in much of the diaspora, it's just a given. Perfectly rational people believe it. It's not considered particularly kooky or woo woo. The Greek church even has a prayer against it.
Shops in Greece are festooned with evil eye charms, called a "mati", to purchase in every size and for every purpose - to hang on your door, to wear as a necklace or ring, to hang on a baby's crib. The round, blue, staring eye is everywhere.
So what is it? And if it's called something as creepy as "the Evil Eye", why would you wear it?
The mati itself is actually protection against the evil eye, of course, and is not the evil eye itself. The evil eye - an ancient belief that spans millennia and religions and geography - is the belief that a jealous thought or malicious glare can inflict harm on someone.
The thought can even be involuntary and seemingly harmless, as when complimenting someone (maybe there's a little subconscious envy in there?) or admiring a baby. The good fortune of a birth can sometimes trigger unconscious jealousy.
The protection of babies is imperative, of course, and the Greeks have a somewhat unexpected way to protect them. They spit on the kid.
Not for real, of course - gah! But a dainty little "pthou, pthou, pthou" sound, often accompanied by a quickly-sketched out sign of the cross is believed to turn aside any potentially bad juju.
Some also say that not all "evil eye" is actually evil - sometimes it's just a case of too much of a good thing, where intense admiration might actually be like over-salting a dish. Some is necessary, but too much is overwhelming and makes it inedible rather than delicious.
The effects of having someone give you the evil eye are said to be many - headache, nausea, general aches, and a sense of malaise or foreboding. Sometimes it's said to be able cause a loss of appetite, or any random bit of bad luck from livestock's milk drying up to a poor fishing catch.
Getting rid of the curse, or the art of xematiasma, ("xe" = "un" or "de", "matiasma" = "eyeing") can be done with special prayers and frequently a kind of kitchen table "exorcism" involving water and olive oil. (Seriously - is there nothing olive oil isn't good for?) I'm not privy to the actual ritual, but I've read that you can prove or disprove the effect of the evil eye by putting a drop of olive oil into water. If it floats, as it should - being oil - there is no curse. If it sinks to the bottom, that is supposedly proof of ill intent.
It seems most Greeks know someone who can do the xematiasma. The incantation isn't really a secret, as far as I know, but I have heard that it's taught by women to men and by men to women. Apparently teaching it within genders isn't supposed to be as effective.
The mati symbol has never been "out of style", but it's seen a renaissance lately. Young people are wearing it as a trendy symbol, perhaps born out of the anxiety of Greece's recent decade of economic woe. For some it's taken on a kind of New Age chic.
I personally love the symbol, even though I don't particularly subscribe to the belief behind it. It's bold, graphic, and so very Greek. I find myself continuing to collect little pieces of jewelry with it, as well as the occasional item for the home. Table runner? Throw pillow? Coasters? Yup yup yup.
How about you? Have you or anyone you know had any experience with the evil eye? Let us know below in the Comments!
There is a school of thought that says the origin of the evil eye comes from our biology as primates, and the power of a stare. Staring among primates is related to dominance and submission - who stares and who looks away indicates where in the hierarchy an ape is. Eye contact with silverback gorillas, for example, is a famously bad idea. Perhaps this is where our discomfort with staring in general stems from?