Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Afflictions in the Field: Evil Eye and the Anthropologist

Rose Wellman and Dionisios Kavadias offer a comparative ethnographic study of the evil eye in Iran and Greece. With rich ethnographic detail, the authors convey the ongoing importance of the evil eye as well as the diagnostic approaches and remedies used for removal of this curse. Of particular interest is the way that this complex of notions exists aside from, or sometimes within, orthodox religious practices. Either way, the evil eye conveys a set of concerns related to admiration, envy, and inequality that has played an important role historically, partly because of its ability to continuously update itself to the latest metaphysical constructs.


MLA citation format:
Wellman, Rose and Dionisios Kavadias.
"Afflictions in the Field: Evil Eye and the Anthropologist."
Web blog post. Material Religions. 25 Mar. 2015. Web. [date of access]

Historically, anthropologists interested in the evil eye have approached this symbolic complex through structural-functionalist paradigms that emphasize the evil eye’s role in identifying and restoring social crises and ruptures (Foster 1965; Kluckhohn 1970; Wolf 1955). These analyses contend that the diagnosis of the evil eye, particularly in so-called “peasant” or “face-to-face” societies, signals a breach in normative egalitarianism, a situation in which an individual’s excess or superiority threatens the stability of collective life (Roussou 2005; Galt 1982; Roberts 1976:261).  In this piece, however, rather than explore why the evil eye exists or its social functions, we draw from ethnographic examples of the evil eye in Iran and Greece to foreground, with our interlocutors, the ritual processes that relate the material culture of the evil eye to the (meta)physical body. In particular, we highlight how practitioners of evil eye diagnosis and cure make an analogical relation between the body and a mediating material object, ritually transferring the “negative energy” of the evil eye to a separate object, liquid, or substance.

This work draws inspiration from recent work in the field of material religion as well as comparative ethnography, focusing on the diverse sites of contemporary Iran and Greece. We begin with an introduction to our comparative method. Then, we move to two case studies of the evil eye: "Iran: Chashm Zakhm," written by Rose Wellman and "Greece: The Máti and Mátiasma," written by Dionisios Kavadias. We conclude with a comparison of ideas of the evil eye and the body in Greece and Iran, posing questions for further investigation.

Methods and Comparative Ethnography

Although this article compares and contrasts ideas and practices of the evil eye in contemporary Iran and Greece in what are two very different religious and cultural frameworks, it is important to note the historical kinship that, in part, motivates our analysis. Concepts of the evil eye appear in Vedic (Gonda 1969), Avestan (Forrest 2011), and early Greek writings (Onians 1951:79), as well as among Germanic and other Indo-European peoples. Archaeological evidence documents its existence to as early as 5,000 years ago, where it was already well established in the Fertile Crescent. Although the evil eye is also found in a number of other regions, the idea and practice of the evil eye is widely recognized to be part of a common Indo-European heritage (Gravel 1995). Contemporary Iran and Greece are two very different places today, yet share a historical lineage of ideas about the body and health, including ideas surrounding Galenic humoral balance and well-being. This historical kinship is one reason we propose an ethnographic comparison of the evil-eye complex between present-day Shi’i Iran and Orthodox Greece.

In addition, by drawing on long-term ethnographic research of the evil eye in both Iran and Greece, we further aim to experiment with comparative ethnography. At first glance, the concept of comparative ethnography seems to be out of fashion. It indexes the use of universal frames or hard science methodologies as well as the long tested problem of approaching “culture” as something that is tidy, bounded, and internally coherent. Fully acknowledging the complex ways in which “the character of a thing changes when one places it next to others” (Strathern 2002:xvi), this piece makes the argument that it is useful to “think relationally” (Strathern 2002:xv). Indeed, as an anthropological practice, comparison occurs everywhere: globalization, kinship studies, migration, gender, and food studies (Fox and Gingrich 2002). Often, however, it appears between the lines, implicit in the topical focuses of a conference panel, or in casual academic discussions. By explicitly analyzing indigenous models of the evil eye in the diverse – yet historically linked – contexts of Iran and Greece, this piece attempts to see how comparative ethnography is good to think.

Iran: Chashm Zakhm

One year after the famous 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, the streets of Tehran were bursting with unspoken tension and uncertainty. I was conducting research in Ekbatan, a modern suburban complex in West Tehran. My hosts, Parvin and Mahmud, supporters of the late Imam Khomeini and card-carrying members of the Basij, the organization for mobilization of the oppressed, had taken me into their home as their guest as I searched for a research visa with which to begin long-term fieldwork in the Fars Province.

The evening “I was struck by the evil eye” (chashm zakhm khordam), Parvin’s sister and her husband came to visit us in the fifth floor Ekbatan apartment. It was nearly the Iranian New Year and Parvin went into a cleaning frenzy in preparation for her relatives’ arrival, vacuuming her Persian carpets and dusting the blinds. Parvin’s sister arrived in a chador, the black flowing cloak iconic of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Her husband wore a grey suit, no tie. I sat on the couch with Parvin’s young adult daughter and her son, Haleh and Mehdi, while Parvin served tea and sweets. The conversation began normally, but for the first time – and this is, significantly, the only time this happened to me during research in Iran – I had the feeling that I was being purposefully ignored by Parvin’s brother-in-law. Even though I was wearing correct hejab (a veil and a long coat), Parvin’s brother-in-law did not look at me when I spoke. “Perhaps, it is because I’m American?” I thought. I was growing increasingly uncomfortable. I knew that Parvin’s brother-in-law worked in the Islamic Republic’s government and suspected that he had important connections there. Unable to sit on the couch any longer, I left the room.

My face was hot and my stomach was hurting when Parvin appeared at the door a few minutes after her guests had left. I wasn’t sure what she would say, but she took one look at me and concluded that someone had struck me with “the evil eye” (chashm khordam). In Farsi, “the evil eye” (chashm zakhm) literally translates to “a blow by the eye,” or “an eye that wounds” and refers to the power of an individual to cause harm, illness, or death to another person by means of a mere glance or a compliment (Donaldson 1938:66). Alternatively, the evil eye is referred to as “the bad eye” (chashm-e bad), “the salty eye” (chashm-e shur), “the narrow eye” (chashm-e tang), or “the envious eye” (chashm-e hasud). Sometimes, the evil eye is further described as a kind of “energy” (energi) or “negative power” (niru-ye manfi) that is transferred by a glance. Not entirely immaterial, it is transferable and metaphysical.

In Iran, the eyes “are the doors toward one’s inner self and they are also the windows towards the outer world” (Shashahani 2008:74).  This play between the inside and the outside of the person is partially what gives the evil eye its power. Those who possess the evil eye are often out of balance with regards to their inside and outside: or as Parvin told me on another occasion, such a person’s inside (darun) and outside (birun) are not the same. The “striker” may appear pious and pure but inside they are bitter or envious, a situation of conceptual opposition to what is desired: for one’s pure inside to conquer the corrupt, appetite-driven outside (Bateson 1977; Beeman 2005). Importantly, though, possessors of the evil eye, even some who may be pure-intentioned, may not know their own power. A strike is not always intentional. In contrast, another kind of eye found in contemporary Shi’ism and in the streets of Tehran is the “eye of insight” or the “isthmus eye” (chashm-e barzakh). By bringing about an equivalence between the inside and the outside, certain persons with closeness to God, can gain the ability to mobilize the isthmus eye and can uniquely peer through the dissimulation of others and see things as they truly are (Doostdar 2012:256).

For those that are struck by the evil eye, the symptoms are alternatively physical, psychological, or spiritual. Symptoms might include stomach ache, fever, sudden pain, a feeling of unease, or a bout of depression, for instance. Signs of having been struck by the evil eye can also manifest as an accident or even a deadly event such as a car accident or a bad fall. In addition, however, a strike of the evil eye can affect the inter-subjective spaces between people – the health of a relationship between siblings, for instance. For my hosts who supported the Islamic Republic and called themselves Basijis, the inability to maintain harmonious, religiously permissible relationships within the immediate family was a sign that one or more family members had been struck by the evil eye (Wellman 2015 forthcoming). Twenty-one-year old Ali, a nephew of Parvin and Mahmud’s who lived in the provincial town in the Fars Province in which I conducted the majority of my research and who was studying computer science at a local university explained this to me. He knew that he had been struck by the evil eye, he said, when he had begun fighting with his younger brother.

Figure 1: Parvin drawing circles on an egg in her Ekbatan apartment. Photo by author.

That evening in Ekbatan, Parvin, to my surprise, drew no direct line between the events of the evening with her brother-in-law and my sudden “illness” (narahati). Instead, she asked me to find a piece of dirty clothing from my hamper. Then, holding a raw egg in a dirty shirt, she began drawing tiny circles with a pencil, a mark for each person I had come into contact with that day: persons in the street who I might have seen, neighbors, our guests, and even her family members. Holding the egg with the cloth of the shirt and between two coins with her index finger and thumb, she began circling it around my head in a clockwise direction. The egg cracked on a woman I had seen that day in the visa office. “Look,” Parvin emphasized, smiling, “I didn’t do that, the egg cracked on its own.” The egg had cracked on the person, Parvin concluded, who had wronged me.

Figure 2: The egg after it had cracked. Photo by author.

Fatimeh did the same detective work for her brother Ali when I began conducting research in the Fars Province a few months later. She brought an egg from the refrigerator, and, holding it in a plastic bag, she drew a line from the top of the egg to the bottom for each person who might have “looked at” Ali. She also drew lines for those who were “unseen” (nadid) and for jinn who also may have struck him. Like Parvin, she placed the egg between two coins and circled it above Ali’s head in a clockwise direction. With each circle, she chanted the days of the week, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday…” along with the name all the possible culprits. When the egg broke, Ali assessed himself and the egg. “Did it really crack on its own?” he asked. He wasn’t asking because he doubted the verity of the egg-breaking method. Instead, he wanted to know if it had worked effectively. Perhaps he was still afflicted? He had her do it again, to be certain.

Back in Tehran, Parvin began assessing my situation further. She asked me whether I had talked with the woman in the visa office and what words we had exchanged. “Yes,” she said, when I explained what had seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous interaction, “She was envious of you.” She told her husband and children that she had discovered why I had been unwell. She then returned with a few seeds of smoking “wild rue” (esfand), which she said would clean or purify me, and circled it above my head as she had the egg.

The next day, Parvin, Mahmud, Mehdi, and I visited Tehran’s national graveyard, Zahra’s Paradise and its martyrs’ section. In the car, on the way home, Parvin asked her son to pull over next to a flowing water canal on the side of the road. She opened the door open and tossed the cracked egg out, watching it float away. “It is important,” she explained later, “that the egg not go into the trash. It needs to be carried away and cleansed by moving water.” The idea behind placing the egg in a moving stream is thus one of purification. The flowing water removed the evil that had contaminated the egg, not only from the victim, but from the home. Arriving back in her home in the Tehrani suburb of Ekbatan, Parvin self-consciously reflected on the events of the week. She explained, “Although egg-breaking is not an official part of Islam, I have belief” (man aqideh daram).

Importantly, I bring up Parvin’s declaration of her belief in the evil eye, not because the evil eye is foreign to Islam. Affliction by the evil eye is mentioned in the Qur’an and hadiths, with Islamic jurists and scholars agreeing on protective verses and actions for its affliction. Rather, she is aware that the egg-breaking method is seen as superstitious by many in Tehran’s cultural milieu. Indeed, official (.ir) Iranian websites, through the medium of question and answer sessions with Islamic jurists, define the act of egg-breaking as superstitious (khorafati). Yet Parvin, despite her political affiliations and support of the Islamic Republic—and despite her recognition of the egg-breaking debate, always remained adamant. “It works,” she said. Despite the controversy, prevention of the evil eye takes many forms in contemporary Iran. The most common protection is a small turquoise or blue Turkish styled amulet in the shape of an eye that is hung in the home to avert the evil eye. My hosts in the Fars Province did not wear these around their necks or on their bodies, but they did carefully place them in eyesight of those entering their homes from without. When they moved into a new home during my research, in addition to bringing a copy of the Qur’an to their new living room, they rehung these amulets on the wall immediately. The thresholds between inside and outside, they explained, are especially dangerous places and must be protected.

Other forms of protection included the precautionary exclamation “Whatever God wills” (masha’llah) to deflect the evil eye. This phrase is most commonly used when talking about a clean, beautiful child to deflect the compliment. Indeed, those who are most vulnerable to the evil eye and other witchcraft include children and pregnant women. In addition, there are specific verses of the Qur’an that can be read to prevent the evil eye. These include, for instance, Sura 10:81: “And when they had cast them down Moses said, ‘Verily God will render vain the sorceries which ye have brought to pass: God prospereth not the work of evildoers’” (see Donaldson 1938:68). Pieces of cloth with “Besme’llah” written on them forty times are also considered effective. Travelers, similarly, often carry with them a mini copy of the Qur’an only the size of a matchbox for protection. Finally, as previously mentioned, wild rue seeds are frequently used to cleanse bodies and entire houses of any evil. During my research in the Fars Province, people used the herb to calm crying children, during wedding ceremonies to ensure that nothing bad befall the couple, or during family fighting to ward off the evil eye and clean nearby persons.

Returning to the living room in Tehran on that day when I sat opposite to Parvin’s sister and her sister’s husband, it is significant that the egg did not break when Parvin listed her brother-in-law, as I would have thought. Yet despite this fact, after her guests had left, Parvin phoned her sister and told her that I had become unwell. The sister had felt responsible and she and her husband later invited me to their home and gave me their hospitality, an act in direct contrast to our interaction in Ekbatan. Without directly confronting what had happened, they gave me the gift of a beautiful prayer rug from Mecca, which Parvin noted, was expensive. The husband moreover, spoke with me in a friendly way, meeting my eyes when we spoke. With the evil eye “diagnosis” of the woman in the visa office, whether intentionally cooked up or not by Parvin, Parvin’s sister, her brother-in-law, and I had saved “face” (aberu), literally the water of one’s face, from what could otherwise have been a very embarrassing situation.

It is tempting to approach the above example of the evil eye, as have many scholars, in a structural-functionalist manner: the evil eye seems to provide a way to deal with social rupture, breach, or inequality. Indeed, Parvin herself seems aware that egg-breaking ritual she performs has the capacity to heal social relations, or at least, contribute to overall family health, and ameliorate certain tensions. Yet such a conclusion, if taken alone, elides Parvin declaration of belief in the evil eye. Instead, as we will argue below, Parvin’s explicit focus was on ridding my body of the negative energy that was affecting my physical well-being. The crack of the egg, she argued later, provided a place for the energy to go. Through the ritual of circling the egg around my head, the negative energy had been shifted from my body to the egg.

Greece: The Máti and Mátiasma

Scribbling on the back of an envelope which she had kept for scrap paper, Mína, a forty-seven year old single mother of two, turned to me and slipped the paper face down on the table. Six months prior, I had complained to her about feeling out of sorts—general malaise with a dull headache. Eyeing me over, she suggested that I might be matiasménos, that is, affected by the evil eye. Within moments she was returning from the kitchen sink, armed with a mug of water and a dish of olive oil. Having made the sign of the cross thrice over the mug, she dipped her index finger into the oil and muttered inaudibly to herself as she let three drops of olive oil fall from her fingertip onto the water’s surface. Rather than collect and float on the water’s surface, the drops formed a lacy veil and dispersed: this, she told me, was evidence of mátiasma.

Observations in Messinía, along with the documented literature in Greece (Dionisopoulos-Mass 1976; Hardie 1981; Herzfeld 1981; Herzfeld 1986; Mousioni N.d.; Roussou 2005; Roussou 2011; Veikou 1998) and among the Greek diaspora (Rouvelas 1993), reveal many attitudes toward mátiasma—some contradictory—depending on one’s region, generation, religious versus secular authority, and family tradition. Yet, important overlaps exist. In Messinía, the region of southwestern Greece where I conducted my fieldwork, the evil eye is sometimes called the kakó máti (bad eye), though more commonly abbreviated to just the máti (eye), and comprises a negative energy force (enérgheia) generated by envy or admiration. While most describe máti as negative or dark energy, it is also characterized as a work of the Devil (a form of evil eye called vaskanía), especially by Messiníans who closely identify with Orthodoxy.

On one hand, a growing minority of Greeks, especially those versed in New Age discourses or biomedical critique, attribute mátiasma to energy fields and karmic spiritualism, or the power of suggestion and the placebo effect, respectively (Roussou 2011). On the other hand, the majority of Greeks agree that the energy of the máti transmits the power (dhínami) or ability (dhinatótita) to do harm inherent in someone’s envious gaze or voiced compliment. Inherent because the máti is considered natural and the potential to unleash it is equally a part of human nature, although some people are more likely to do so than others thanks to some innate quality—tradition identifies persons with unusual physical appearance, like blue-eyes (ghalanomátidhes) or unified eyebrows (smighména frídhia), as especially predisposed. Despite such proneness (or because of it), Greeks draw a strong distinction between the máti and witchcraft (mágia), where witchcraft implies motives that are calculated and aggressive while the unleashing of the máti is always passive and unintentional.

Despite the shades of nuance, one thing is certain about the máti: it is not of the physical world and it is dangerous. It is not associated with diet or environmental conditions. Nor do congenital conditions make some more predisposed to mátiasma than others. However, what does make one more susceptible to attack from máti is the possession of enviable qualities. Anything that draws a remark of admiration—from attractive physical features to one’s attire or hairstyle for the day—can mobilize the máti. The oft-heard complaint “they eyed it!” (mou to matiásane) can be applied to easy targets like luxury items, prestigious jobs/roles, and even relationships. Tradition also points to pregnant women, recently birthed women (less than forty days), and soon-to-be-married individuals as vulnerable, as are infants and newborns that “have not yet passed forty days” of age (asarántista). According to my friends, the social liminality of these persons makes them more vulnerable precisely because they are under more scrutiny in these periods of transition and, therefore, more likely to be the object of envy or resentment.

On the day that Mína diagnosed me with suffering the evil eye, I exhibited some of the symptoms widely regarded as common to mátiasma, including headache, weakness, fatigue, listlessness, appetite loss, and sudden fits of yawning or weeping. In babies, the máti may be indicated as the reason for incessant crying, screaming, and excessive fussiness. Among plants and animals, the sudden withering of crops or inexplicable deaths of livestock, poultry, or draft animals are also suspect. Rose bushes, fig trees, apricot trees, and other plants prized for their beauty or fruit are especially susceptible, as are horses and mules. Moreover, objects that suddenly break, especially valuable or admired possessions, may also have been subject to the máti. In Messinía, friends revealed that cars, household appliances, and even dishes cooking in the oven had been ruined by the destructive force of the máti.

If one suspects an affliction of mátiasma, one calls on a trusted relative, friend, or neighbor versed in xemátiasma, the act of detecting and treating the condition (literally un-eyeing; compound form, xe- “un” + -mátiasma “condition afflicted by the eye”). The majority of practitioners are women, although men are also known to be adept healers. In fact, one is supposed to learn the craft from a member of the opposite gender (cf. Hardie 1981), and from older to younger as the alternative compromises the power wielded by the teacher and the initiate. It was with these rules in mind that, six months after my first experience with Mína, she instructed me on the craft of xemátiasma. Not only did it have to be in writing (so that it would not be spoken out loud), but I also had to destroy the slip of paper once I committed its contents to memory.

In Messinía, practitioners favor two therapies in particular. In both cases, the therapy works precisely because a physical body, either that of a material substance or the healer’s own body, absorbs the energy of the evil eye and, in doing so, neutralizes it. The most common therapy—and the one that Mína formally taught me—concerns the use of water and olive oil. According to her and other practitioners, the water must first be handled with silence. The “unspoken water” (amílito neró) is an element in other rituals too where silence preserves water’s inherent ability to purify. While the water—about “two fingers” deep in a cup—comes from the ordinary tap, the olive oil, on the other hand, ought to come from the oil lamp used in the household shrine. As I witnessed with Mína and others, however, this ideal was not always observed and even normal kitchen oil is easily blessed if one prays over it “so long as you have correct thinking.” Finally, some practitioners advise the victim to prepare by sitting with arms and legs uncrossed “so that the goodness can act.”

Initiating the xemátiasma, the practitioner recites the following Orthodox blessing silently over the water, making the sign of the cross (sfrághisma) three times: In the name of the Father (+), and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit (+), for [name of mátiasma victim]. It is at this time that she may begin yawning. This khasmouritó—a fit of intense yawning—is a sure sign that the máti has befallen the victim. Indeed, the stronger the victim’s mátiasma, the more intense will be the practitioner’s yawning fit.

The next step calls for her to let three drops of oil fall from her fingertip into the water and pay attention for one of two things to happen: either 1) the drops of oil remain immiscible from the water and may pool together into a distinctive layer (as one expects oil to do), or 2) they blend with the water and disperse into smaller droplets, perhaps spreading to the sides of the vessel. According to Mína, if the oil maintains its natural tendency to separate from water, then no evil eye is present. Conversely, if water and oil do mix, then the máti is present and a prayer is said, followed by ritual spitting (uttering Ftou! or Ptou! three times) and making the sign of the cross (sfrághisma) on the victim’s forehead with the residual oil on her finger.

At this point, the evil eye has been cured. Indeed, the very act of identifying its presence is the same as curing it. As the oil blends and disperses in the water, so too does the evil eye—“the badness dissolves” (dhialíetai to kakó). This is true in an alternate version (which I never observed but was told by friends), which calls for three live charcoals to be used in place of olive oil: should the charcoal sink or disintegrate, then not only has the máti been diagnosed, but it has simultaneously been driven out of the victim. Moreover, the hiss of each charcoal extinguishing in the water is desirable and equates to damping the energy of the evil eye. However, as with oil, if the charcoal behaves naturally and floats then the máti is not to blame.

A second method of healing was taught to me in a coffeeshop by my friend, Voúla, and was quite different from the first. Our normal conversation was interrupted by a phone call from her best friend, complaining about lethargy. As Voúla revealed to me later, she recited the Lord’s Prayer while thinking intently of her friend. Relying on her own body as a dowsing rod, she experienced the telltale khasmouritó yawning, concluding that the evil eye had indeed struck her friend and was now gone. In this sympathetic kind of diagnosis, the practitioner, bearing the victim in mind, comes to suffer from the same discomfort, simultaneously diagnosing evil eye and curing it. In fact, she called her friend back several minutes later to check if she felt better, which she did. This example illustrates the importance that mediation, in this case embodied mediation, plays in locating and curing the evil eye. In fact, attempts to cure the evil eye without an intervening body, as with self-xemátiasma, for example, is simply not effective (“it doesn’t take”).
Figure 3: Hanging from a rear view mirror, a máti charm, featuring a horse shoe, is attached to a strand of eye beads. Photo by author.

Perhaps the importance of outside mediation explains the use of charms (phylactá) to protect against the máti. Among older people, talismans are typically worn on the body and include metal coins depicting the saints, the cross, and the Virgin and Child. Among all ages, however, the most popular charms are glass beads of indigo blue or a Turkish-style glass disk depicting the shape of an eye. This trendy máti is sold as various forms of jewelry for personal wear, or in larger forms, often combined with horseshoes and garlic heads, for use in the home. I observed such máti decorations in bedrooms above the headboard, but also in doorways, hallways, or the room where visitors were usually entertained. They also hang from rear-view mirrors in a countless number of cars and buses. The popularity of this mati has been challenged only by the komboskíni (from the roots kómbo- “knot” and -skiní “string”) a string bracelet of black knots (one for each year of Jesus’s life) and blue beads. Originally sold at convents and monasteries (but now also commercial outlets), these bracelets have achieved the status of religious charm and fashion accessory at once, and are ubiquitous among younger Greeks. In fact, it is a komboskíni that Mína gave me as a gift to protect me before returning home from my field research.

The association between these charms and spaces of transition—architectural thresholds and modes of transportation—is important. Just as lore maintains that cross-roads are the favorite haunts of demons (Stewart 1991) so too are transitional spaces areas of vulnerability to the evil eye. In fact, the tension between inside and outside is invoked in some of the more popular incantations documented in other parts of Greece where water used in xemátiasma is thrown out the window or door while saying “out with the evil, in with goodness” (Hardie 1981:118). The same applies to spells that banish the evil eye “to the mountaintops, the wild mountains, where the snakes and skinks are, that is where you should go to eat, to drink, to hunt.” Indeed, the principle of expulsion invoked in these spells reflects the transferability of the máti and is the same operating principle assumed in the use of amulets. While more religious charms appeal to divine powers to quash afflictions of the evil eye altogether (Hardie 1981), more secular ones, like blue beads, horseshoes, and depictions of eyeballs act as conductors that draw the eye to themselves before they strike potential victims. Whether mounted above passageways or adorning a body, phylactá interfere with the flow of the evil eye either by absorbing its inertia or driving it away.

Figure 4: This stylized komboskíni protects the wearer from the evil eye. 
Photo by Penelope Kavadias.

Historically, the máti  has been interpreted as a release valve for tensions in a situation where the moral norm is that of egalitarianism and the imperative for secrecy and downplaying one’s successes is common (Campbell 1973; Herzfeld 1985; Loizos and Papataxiarchis 1991). Given that this is the surest way to avoid rousing one’s envy, the evil eye may be seen in this context as playing a socially acceptable role in humbling the conspicuous display of wealth and tempering the stress arising from social and economic differences. Although this view may explain evil eye’s function at a social level, it does not identify the symbolic processes to which victims and healers like Mína attribute a great deal of embodied and material meaning. For this reason, the analysis that follows focuses specifically on the intervention required for curing mátiasma, intervention that requires the metaphysical force of the máti to be mediated through symbolic materials (like oil and charcoal) that come to encompass it before they “disintegrate” and “take it away.”

Integrity and Body

The focus of this post has been the analogical relationship between the body and the material cultural objects used to combat the evil eye. As noted, in both Iran and Greece, diagnosis and cleansing of the evil eye occur through the medium of a separate material object. In the case of Iran the egg is the means of diagnosing the evil eye. If the egg does not crack, it is possible that the illness or accident has another source. Contrarily, if the egg does crack, the wave of negative energy of the evil eye has been successfully displaced into the egg. In short, when the egg breaks, the inflicting force has been transferred from the victim to the egg, where, along with its shell, its energy is broken and, as most people agree, recovery is immediate. In Greece, in contrast, the evil eye is detected when the oil does not adhere to itself but rather blends with the water, counter to its expected nature. The cure, similarly, is the oil’s act of dispersal. In the initial prayers, the oil becomes integrated with the evil eye. Then having dis-integrated, the now purified and sanctified water and oil are transferred back to the victim’s forehead in the shape of a cross. In both cases the principle of integrity is central, either in the immiscibility of the oil (its natural tendency to remain separate from, rather than mix with, water) or in the intactness of the eggshell and its contents. Thus, we observe that: 1) the evil eye is considered a fluid energy that can be transferred from one material body to another, and 2) the physical integrity of the medium—or rather its dis-integration—is actually how the eye comes to be dis-integrated from the victim’s body. This suggests an analogous relationship between the body of the afflicted victim and the intervening object (egg and oil).

Specifically, integrity is a central concern with respect to the inner and outer dimensions of the body.  In Iran, for instance, the body is made up of physio-sacred substances (like blood) that channel qualities such as purity and impurity and which can be changed or influenced by outside forces (for example, through the consumption of food or when the evil eye strikes) (Wellman 2015, forthcoming). The body further depends on the dynamic interplay between the pure inside and the corrupting outside. Integrity, for Parvin, means this balance of the pure inside and the corrupt outside. In Greece, integrity is restored in the transference of the evil eye from the victim to the healer as part of the healing process. It explains why one must sit with uncrossed legs and arms if one is to be healed, opening their body to permit the outflow of the evil eye and the inflow of blessings. It also explains the phenomenon of the sympathetic khasmouritó yawning, which, along with its historical ties to the mouth as a doorway for souls and demons, conjures the image of one body intervening in the inflow and outflow of energy. In both contexts we find iconic or metaphoric resemblances between healing agents (egg and shell, vessel of water/oil) and the bodies they come to mediate, especially if we consider, the body to be a unit of inner and outer dimensions, as Persians and Greeks do. For example, in both Greece and Iran, pregnant women or recently birthed women are considered to be more open and hence, more vulnerable to the evil eye. Children, too, are thought to be vulnerable, and in Greece especially so until their bodies are “sealed” in the rite of baptism (Kavadias 2015, forthcoming).

Moreover, the metaphoric resemblance between the body and household architecture is compelling. In both instances, thresholds and passageways of the body and of the home are sites of potential danger. Amulets, while worn to protect the body from the gaze of passersby on the street, are also placed at the threshold of the door to protect the home from outsiders who pass through. In both cases, they repel or absorb the flow of negative energy. Finally, this division between inner and outer explains the imperative for Parvin to discard the eggshell in the flowing water, letting it be carried away into the wild, just as Greeks exhort the eye to go reside with snakes and skinks on the mountaintops away from civilization, away from the domestic realm.

In this post, we have argued that the material objects necessary for diagnosing and curing the evil eye in Greece in Iran are a technology of transference and mediation, shifting the “strike” from the body of the afflicted to an outside object. David Morgan has shown the significance of the body as a site for exploring “the social, aesthetic, and practical character of religion in everyday life” (Morgan 2015:1). Our comparative analysis of the evil eye extends this research to show how the body not only registers social, aesthetic, or metaphysical forces, but also how the rituals and material culture of evil eye affliction in Iran and Greece form an extension of the body or a site of bodywork. There exists, we argue, a resonance between material symbols and the body that they come to represent; primarily, the body’s physical integrity in the face of metaphysical forces such as energy (both positive and negative), substance (such as water or oil, or egg), sacred verse, prayer and the spoken word, and finally, gifts (e.g., the prayer rug).

Moving forward, the case of the evil eye in Iran and Greece raises several questions. The first concerns the afflicted body as a site of cultural work (cf. Bourdieu 1990). How does the evil eye, ostensibly an immaterial force registered through the body’s aches and pains, challenge divisions between material and immaterial domains, especially where “medical” and “spiritual” matters are kept apart in allopathic medicine? Secondly, in what other ways do objects of material culture come to express cultural beliefs about the body, especially where parallels are drawn between the two? If, as we have begun to argue, material objects of healing come to transfer the evil eye from the victim’s body, then it seems that one ought to also consider how evil eye afflictions contrast or relate other understandings of “trust,” “intimacy,” and perhaps also “spiritual kinship,” that organize families and communities. How do bodies, which are necessarily emplaced within networks of relations, either come to resemble or diverge from another by sharing (or not) qualities, energies, or forces as though they were palpable, bodily substance?


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