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Peter Bouras

To Mati. The Evil Eye 3. Witchcraft and the rise of scepticism

In 2003, holistic biologist, and transpersonal psychologist Rupert Sheldrake published a book on The Sense of Being Stared At, which he subtitled - And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.

Sheldrake's biography, career and publications can be accessed at


In The Sense of Being Stared At Sheldrake tries to explain that uncanny feeling - that most of us have experienced - of knowing that someone is staring at us.

In the 100 years to 1990 only 4 scientific experiments had been conducted into this universal phenomenon. Sheldrake has instigated a flood of research into this phenomenon over the past decade.

In the course of his investigations Sheldrake - in Chapter 12 of the book - explores The Evil Eye and the Rise of Rationalism.

Belief in the Evil Eye has played and continues to play a very important role in the psychosocial development of most Kytherians. My mother, for example never praised us or anyone else, without adding the compulsory "ftoosou, ftousou, paethi mou (spit, spit, child of mine.)

Can you recall stories from your family about the evil eye? Could one of your family members conduct spells to counteract the influence of the evil eye?

Do you, or any of your family still continue to wear protective amulets against the Evil Eye?

Sheldrakes Chapter 12 is divided into four sections.

In the third of these four sections, he investigates

Witchcraft and the rise of scepticism

In classical antiquity, belief in the evil eye was very widespread. There were also sceptics who rejected it. One of the dialogues in Plutarch’s book Table Talk opens as follows: ‘Once at dinner a discussion arose about people who are said to cast a spell and to have an evil eye. While everybody else pronounced the matter completely silly and scoffed at it, Mestrius Florus, our host, declared that actual facts lend astonishing support to the common belief.” In the fourth century, St Basil discussed the belief that ‘envious persons bring bad luck merely by a glance’, and dismissed it: ‘For my part, I reject these tales as popular fancies and old wives’ gossip.”
In northern Europe and North America, such scepticism about the evil eye is now taken for granted. So is scepticism about the sense of being stared at. Staring in itself is not normally believed to bring about enchantments or ill fortune, and hence differs from the evil eye. But it is related to the evil eye in that both imply a mental influence that extends outwards from the looker to affect that which is looked upon.
How did this growth of scepticism occur? I will confine the discussion of this process to one particular country, namely England. I do so partly because I am English myself, partly because this history has been well studied by historians, and in particular by Keith Thomas in his remarkable book Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies of Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England, and also partly because attitudes in England have had a strong historical influence on the culture of North America, and on the international culture of science.
In medieval England, as elsewhere in Europe, belief in the evil eye was widespread, and people took precautions against ‘overlooking’ or ‘fascination’ through prayers and amulets. But the very possibility of such malign influences started to be questioned in the sixteenth century, when many traditional beliefs were attacked by the Protestant reformeras superstitions. These religious revolutionaries campaigned against the survival of pagan practices that the Roman Catholic church had assimilated. Scepticism was an essential ingredient in the Protestant Reformation, which in England began in the 1530s under King Henry VIII. Scepticism developed further as a result of controversies about witchcraft.
In the seventeenth century, the English Puritans took to an extreme the attempt to eliminate all ceremonies and observances with pagan, superstitious or magical connections. Some even condemned the drinking of healths as a heathen oblation. In its most extreme forms, this anti-pagan zeal became a sceptical rationalism that turned against the practices of the Reformed Church itself. During the English Commonwealth, from 1645 to 1660, some of the more zealous nonconformists denounced the Prayer Book of the Church of England as ‘witchcraft’, and fanatics interrnpted services, calling on the minister to ‘leave off his witchery, conjuration and sorcery.
In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, there was an upsurge of trials for witchcraft. In some parts of continental Europe, the persecution of witches began on a large scale in the fifteenth century. it began in England only after the Protestant Reformation, in the sixteenth century.
In medieval England there was a general belief that some witches used magic for malicious purposes, while others used it to help and to heal. But these occult powers do not seem to have provoked much serious concern or indignation. Historians have so far found fewer than a dozen cases of supposed witches being executed in England between the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the Reformation; and most of those condemned had been involved in plots against the king or his friends.’ The first specific laws against witchcraft were passed in 1542, in the reign of Henry VIII. New statutes were introduced under Elizabeth I in 1563, and laws against witchcraft remained in force until 1736. During this period, including the worst excesses of the witch-hunts during the Commonwealth, fewer than 1,000 people were executed for witchcraft in England.’9The last execution was in 1685, and the last trial in 1717.
The theological arguments put forward by Roman Catholics in continental Europe against witchcraft mainly concerned its supposed dependence on a contract with the Devil. But these arguments had little influence in England, where almost all the allegations against witches were about damage to lives and property through magic, curses and ‘overlooking’.’6 These were the traditional reasons why people feared witches, and they had little to do with theology. ‘The people’s hatred of witches was not a form of religious intolerance; it sprang from fear of their hostile acts towards their neighbours, not from outrage at their supposed association with the Devil.”
However, while increasing numbers of people were being tried in the courts for witchcraft, scepticism about the very possibility of witchcraft was growing. Some Protestant theologians denied that witches and devils could possibly have the powers attributed to them by the Roman Catholics, finding no biblical authority for such opinions. Instead they asserted that diabolical spirits were all in the mind.
The standard sceptical position was defined as early as 1584 by Reginald Scot in his book The Discoverie of Witchcraft. He identified four categories of witches. The first kind were not witches at all, but had merely been accused out of malice. The second category believed themselves to he in contact with devils, but were suffering from delusions. The third group were genuinely malicious and secretly injured their neighbours, but not by supernatural powers; rather, they used natural means such as poison. And finally, some were charlatans and impostors who defrauded country people by pretending to be able to heal diseases, tell fortunes or find lost goods.’
The English laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736. They were replaced by a new Witchcraft Act that prohibited accusations of witchcraft or sorcery. The new law also made it an offence to claim to be able to use magic, tell fortunes or find lost goods. The previous situation was reversed. It was no longer an offence to be a witch; instead it was an offence to pretend to be a witch, or to accuse someone of witchcraft.’ This official scepticism reflected educated opinion. Nevertheless, beliefs in the power of the evil eye and malicious spells persisted among the less educated. Such popular beliefs were classified as superstitions. From the eighteenth century, educated opinion became increasingly rational­istic.
There is an important distinction between being rational, that is to say using reason, and rationalism. Rationalism is both a belief system and a social movement. Some of its roots were in classical antiquity and in medieval scholasticism, but in its modern form it was shaped first by the Protestant Reformation and then by the mechanistic revolution in science in the seventeenth century. It became the predominant spirit of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, and has been the characteristic belief system of intellectuals ever since, whether capitalist, socialist or communist. Rationalists rejected both popular folklore and many religious beliefs on the grounds that they had no rational foundation.
Rationalist attitudes have had a deep and enduring influence on the culture of science, and rationalist assumptions are usually treated as if they were self-evident scientific truths. They have, in effect, become rather like religious dogmas. Although many people equate science with the rationalist ideology, others, including myself, do not. Science is not a dogmatic belief system or an ideology; it is a method of enquiry. In this spirit of enquiry, we can investigate whether phenomena like the sense of being stared at actually exist, using the experimental method. If they do, we can expand our scientific understanding of the world. If they do not, we have good reason to dismiss them.
But such an investigation is inherently controversial. The sense of being stared at was long ago classified as a superstition, and surrounded by an intellectual taboo, a boundary that should not be crossed. No educated person wants to be thought superstitious, precisely because this undermines his or her claim to be educated. To go against this taboo involves a serious loss of intellectual standing, a relegation to the ranks of the uneducated, the childish and the superstitious.
In England, scepticism about anything historically associated with witchcraft, including psychic powers, has dominated the scientific and academic worlds for generations. Whatever intellectuals may think in private, scepticism is usually an integral part of their public image.
A similar attitude is now found among intellectuals practically everywhere. The rationalist attitudes that grew up in northern Europe have been disseminated through educational systems all over the world. They were propagated with crusading zeal by communist governments in the Soviet Union, China and other places. In most countries, rationalist beliefs are found in their strongest form in universities, within institutional science, and among technocrats.
Each country has a different intellectual history, and although sceptical rationalism goes back several centuries in England and in other parts of northern Europe and North America, it is relatively recent in most parts of the world, and usually confined to a small urban elite. Even within such elites, it often seems like a thin veneer superimposed upon more traditional beliefs, as for example in modern Greece.

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