submitted by Peter Bouras on 18.06.2005
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 first of these four sections, he investigates the
Background history of belief in the Evil Eye
The belief that influences are transmitted through the eyes by looks is found in many traditional societies. The negative effects of looks are attributed to the evil eye, the eye of envy. It blights what it looks upon, causing ill health and misfortune. ‘He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye,’ warns the biblical Book of Proverbs (28:22). Young children, cattle, crops, houses, cars and indeed anything capable of being envied are supposed to be affected by the evil eye.
The positive effects of looks, especially loving looks, are also widely acknowledged. In India, many people visit holy men and women for their darshan, literally their look, which is believed to confer great blessings.
The evil eye used to be thought of as a kind of ‘fascination’, the casting of a spell through the eyes, from the Latin fascinum, meaning a magical spell. This original usage still survives in relation to the legendary power of snakes to immobilize birds by their gaze. In the mythology of ancient Greece, the glare of the snake-haired Medusa turned men to stone. The mask of the Medusa, also known as the Gorgon’s head, was on the shield of the goddess Athena, and signified her terrifying power.
Here are some reflections on the evil eye by one of the founding fathers of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon. This passage is from his essay ‘On Envy’, published in 1625, the year before he died:
There be none of those affections which have been noticed to fascinate or bewitch, but love and envy; they both have vehement wishes, they frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions, and they come easily into the eye, especially upon the presence of the objects which are the points that conduce to fascination, if any such there be. We see likewise that Scripture calleth envy an evil eye... [There] seemeth to be acknowledged, in the act of envy, an ejaculation, or irradiation of the eye. Nay some have been so curious as to note, that the times when the stroke, or percussion, of an envious eye doth most hurt, are, when the party envied is beheld in glory; for that sets an edge upon envy.
The word envy itself is from the Latin invidia, from the verb invidere, to see intensively. But although envy is the emotion most frequently associated with the evil eye, other negative emotions like jealousy and anger are also believed to affect people through the eyes, as in the familiar phrase ‘she looked daggers at him’.
Some scholars regard belief in the evil eye as practically universal. The Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge wrote: ‘II]n no part of the world is it doubted that its influence exists and the belief in it is beyond all doubt primeval and universal. Moreover, every language, both ancient and modern, contains a word or expression which is the equivalent of “Evil Eye”.’
There are some modern societies, however, in which this belief has more or less died out, as in England. And, contrary to Budge’s opinion, there are parts of the world where it is not as predominant as he thought. Some scholars claim that it is almost absent from the indigenous cultures of the Americas,1 and also that it is rare in subSaharan Africa, in Aboriginal Australia, and in Oceania.
But even if a belief in the evil eye is not universal, it is very widespread and very ancient. Allusions to the power of fascination are found in Sumerian sources from the third millennium BC, and there are many references to it in Assyrian documents, and in ancient Greece and Rome. The evil eye is referred to repeatedly in the Bible, and even more so in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature of the Jews. It features in Nordic epics, Irish and Scottish myths, and in many other European literatures.
Belief in the evil eye is also very common in the Islamic world. The prophet Mohammed sanctioned the use of talismans against it. Several verses from the Koran are believed to have a protective effect, particularly the prayer for protection in Surah 113, ‘I seek refuge in the Lord of Daybreak . . . from the evil of malignant witchcraft, and from the evil of the envier when he envieth.’ In the Greek Orthodox church, there are several officially sanctioned prayers for defence against the evil eye and for the protection of the angels against it. A belief in the evil eye and in the destructive power of envy is still very common in southern Europe, throughout the Islamic world, in India, and in many other countries.
Those who believe in the evil eye generally accept that some people have the evil eye more than others, and also that some of those who have the evil eye may be unconscious of the power they exert. But even though there are individual differences in the power of the look, envy makes all looks more dangerous. Because envy is closely linked to praise and admiration, these are also feared.
I discovered something of the power of these beliefs for myself when I lived in southern India, working in an international agricultural research institute near Hyderabad.4 A few weeks after I arrived, I was invited to dinner at the house of a senior government officer, a Muslim. While we were drinking whisky and soda, I made some complimentary comments about one of the pictures hanging on the wall, and to my astonishment my host immediately plucked it from its hook and presented it to me. Only with great difficulty did I manage to give it back.
A week or two later, at another social gathering, I made a favourable comment about the tie an Indian acquaintance was wearing. He took it off and gave it to me, saying graciously but implausibly, ‘I bought it for you.’ It was difficult to avoid accepting it. Through these and other experiences I realized that praising or admiring something often led to socially embarrassing consequences. At first I assumed that this must be because of an exaggerated sense of hospitality, or exaggerated modesty; but I soon learned that there was more to it than that.
The English word admire comes from the Latin roots ad = to + miriari = to wonder, meaning to wonder at. To praise or admire something is to imply that you want it, or envy it, and hence you can bring ill fortune through fascination or the evil eye.
One of the best antidotes to praise is generosity. By giving people that which they have admired, their envy is defused. But this only works in limited circumstances. For example, it does not work for children, who cannot generally be given to those who praise them.
Worst of all is the admiration of babies. The Roman writer Pliny tells how a nurse tending a baby would spit three times in its face to protect it if a stranger saw the baby, especially when it was sleeping. In Turkey, babies are spat on if they are looked at admiringly. ‘Abusive and false epithets are employed by Turkish women under all circumstances worthy of inviting praise or admiration, in order to counteract the supposition of ill-feeling or malice underlying the honeyed words of the speaker.’ Similar behaviour is found in many other places. It was common in Scotland as recently as the nineteenth century.
I found for myself that these beliefs are still very strong in India. I once took an American woman to visit a family I knew in a village in Tamil Nadu. There was a baby in the house, and my companion lavished effusive praise on his cuteness and his beauty, quite unconscious of the alarm she was causing. The baby was quickly whisked away. I later learned that the family had felt obliged to carry out a special ritual, with special mantras, within a circle of salt, to protect him against the dire consequences of this admiration. The most dreaded praise is that from childless women, since they are thought to be most prone to envying other women’s children.
Crops are also thought to be vulnerable. In the fields in Tamil Nadu, the farmers often place upside-down pots on sticks in the fields. The pots are painted with large, eye-like spots for protection against the evil eye.
On a bus journey from Tiruchirapalli to Tanjore, in Tamil Nadu, I first began to think of an experimental test of the efficacy of such traditional practices. I was sitting next to a young Indian scientist with whom I was engaged in conversation. I commented on the painted pots in the fields we were passing, and he replied, ‘This is all just superstition. Uneducated people believe it.’
I wondered how he could be so sure that these practices were completely ineffectual. There had been no controlled experiments on the subject. Do painted pots help protect fields, or not? No data existed. Instead, it became clear in our conversation, there were two conflicting belief systems, the traditional and the rationalist. My companion was himself divided between them. At work, he was a professional scientist and a rationalist. At home, in his Hindu family setting, he was a traditionalist.
We thought about how to test whether these painted pots had any measurable effect, and came up with a possible experiment. If half the fields along the roadside had the standard protective eye-spot-painted pots, and the other half did not, would there be any difference in yield per acre, or in the incidence of pests and diseases? The fields in each sample would of course be selected at random; the experiment would have a randomized design that could be analysed by standard statistical methods.
In practice, such an experiment would be difficult to organize. Randomly selected farmers would probably be unwilling to forgo the traditional protection of their fields against the evil eye for the sake of scientific research that offered them no benefit. But perhaps they might agree to take part if they were paid well enough to do so.
The scientific method could, in principle, help us move beyond a mere conflict of beliefs. It should be possible to find out by experiment if negative intentions can indeed affect that which they are focused upon, and in particular if eye spots on pots offer any measurable protection to crops, even if only by frightening wild animals. As far as I know, no such research has ever been done.
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