Have you ever wished that you could kill with a single glance, like Darth Vader or Voldemort? And has anyone ever looked at you in that way? In modern English we have expressions such as “if looks could kill” and “looking daggers at someone” – but the idea of dangerous eyes was much more real in the ancient world, and it is still taken seriously in Turkey today. This is the story of the Evil Eye, known in Turkish as nazar, whose history stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome through to the Bible, Medieval Europe, and the modern day.
The word nazar derives from Arabic, meaning literally “look” or “glance.” Of course, no culture believes that all eye contact is evil. The harmful power comes from emotions such as envy or greed, meaning that its victims are people who own something precious: a child, a happy relationship, wealth, fame, or healthy crops and animals. The Evil Eye fixes on these fortunate things and – exactly how is not explained – causes them to fall into illness, failure, and conflict.
When faced with this magical power, it is natural that people found a magical solution. Any visitor to Turkey will have seen the blue eye symbol on plates, pottery, jewelry, and glass. Although foreigners often call this symbol “the Evil Eye,” these are in fact made to protect you against the Evil Eye. This works on the principle of similia similibus or “like influences like” – many cultures believe that a symbol in the same shape as an evil force can deflect the evil away, much like the best antidotes to snake poison are often made from the poison itself.
Some historians have linked the blue nazar with the sky god Tengri, which the Turks used to worship before they converted to Islam. But the Evil Eye has such a long and broad history that it is hard to tie it to one religion. There are references to the Evil Eye in Sumerian cuneiform texts from 3,000 BC, from where it became the Hebrew ‘ayin harah, the Greek baskania and the Roman fascinatio. The Old and New Testaments reference the Evil Eye many times – Paul asks in a letter to a Celtic tribe in Anatolia, “Oh you uncomprehending Galatians, who has injured you with an Evil Eye?”
At the beginning of the modern era, thinkers such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Martin Luther, and Thomas Aquinas wrote about the Evil Eye in religious and scientific terms. Francis Bacon discussed the topic at length in his chapter “On Envy” in the 1625 work Essays and Counsels, Civil and Moral. In the nineteenth century, Russian artist Ilya Repin gave the idea a realistic depiction in his painting “A Peasant with an Evil Eye.” Edgar Allan Poe tackles the subject in his poem “Lenore,” whose main character is killed by an Evil Eye.
In more recent times, the US military accused Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega of wearing red underwear to fight the Evil Eye. Popular TV show The Sopranos makes many references to what they call malocchio – the Italian name for the Evil Eye. Istanbul-based artist Murat Bulut Aysan has created a postmodern version of Evil Eye amulets by turning them into placebo pills. Just like the magical (or psychological) effect of the glass beads, Aysan’s pills claim to deliver the same effect in a modern form. Although these pills are not being produced for sale to the public, Aysan told The Guide Istanbul that he would probably become very rich by marketing them as a genuine product.
So it seems that millions of people around the world still believe in a magical power that is at least 5,000 years old. Of course, there is no proof that the Evil Eye actually exists. Perhaps the Evil Eye is a way of teaching us not to be jealous of our neighbor’s success, but instead to search for satisfaction through our own efforts.