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THE SURVIVAL OF THE EVIL EYE SUPERSTITION Washington 1

Amber Washington

Professor Maranzana

ITAL240 SSII

Final Paper

7 August 2018

The Survival of the Evil Eye Superstition

All the peoples of the earth have feared the power of the evil eye, and

an earnest faith in its malign potency can be traced to the dawn of folklore (Callisen, 1937,

para.1).

Within many cultures around the world lies a rich history in folklore and superstitious

beliefs. Rural communities tend to be more heavily rooted in such histories, with Italian cultures

being no exception. One superstition in particular, the Evil Eye, has been present for millennia

and continues to be a strongly-held belief for many in Italian culture, both in the rural

countryside and out in urban cities. With an emphasis on the relation to Italian folklore, this

paper will first explain the Evil Eye superstition itself and then discuss whether the superstition

can survive as rural communities face urbanization.

A firm understanding of the inner-workings behind the Evil Eye is crucial before

discussing the superstition’s survival. As scholar Allan S. Berger (2012) best describes it, the

Evil Eye superstition is “the belief that certain individuals may, by virtue of their gaze, cause

another person, animal, plant, or other property to become ill, die or otherwise suffer grievous

harm” (p. 1099). The superstition then breaks down further into two parts – the possessor of the

Evil Eye and the unfortunate victim. The two roles here hold universally true wherever the

superstition can be found; however, it is believed in Italian culture that a possessor could be born
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with the power to cast the malevolent gaze as well (Fee & Webb, 2016). The dynamic between

the possessor and the victim is fairly straightforward: a possessor of the Evil Eye is generally

someone experiencing envy or anger, and the victim is usually the one who aroused such feelings

in the possessor. It is important to note that the victim is not always at fault for invoking the gaze

as the Evil Eye can be casted accidentally; an unintentional Evil Eye can be the result of

someone not knowing they possess the power. For a possessor unaware of their ability to cast the

Evil Eye, it is either due to the power being inherited or a difference that socially sets them apart

from the rest of their community (Lykiardopoulos, 1981). Additionally, in an effort to define

which gender is more likely to be a possessor, Berger states that it is most often a single, older

woman (2012), yet fellow scholar Amica Lykiardopoulos notes that there really is no preference

between men and women (1981), to which I agree. The feeling of envy, which is also the

underlying driving force behind the superstition, can equally afflict men and women. For

simplicity, it is primarily anyone that can experience envy who holds the ability to cast the Evil

Eye, and the idea of this shall be looked at more in depth.

In order to elaborate on how exactly envy powers the Evil Eye, it must first be

understood that without envy, the superstition would arguably cease to exist. In other words, the

Evil Eye is essentially an unconscious projection of one’s envy onto another person (Berger,

2012), and envy is an unavoidable feature of human nature. In an effort to better explain this, I

will use Berger’s idea behind “behavioral imperatives” in relation to envy being a part of human

nature from his 2013 “The Evil Eye: A Cautious Look” article. In essence, there are three main

behavioral imperatives that have been wired into the human brain: sexual behavior, territoriality,

and hierarchy, with envy being a derivative of the last (Berger, 2013). In addition, there are

ordinary manifestations of envy, such as success, drive, and attainment, and there are lesser ones
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like greed, jealously, and lust. All of these manifestations together create the envy that is a part

of the human experience, yet most people will psychologically disown the lesser ones (Berger,

2013), resulting in the unconscious projection that sustains the Evil Eye. Furthermore, the

manifestations of the fear of envy also exist, which causes one to be apprehensive of praise, good

fortune, or special recognition in an effort to prevent unwanted envy, and thus the Evil Eye,

being brought about (Berger, 2012). It is these newly mentioned manifestations that fully

complete the circle that is the Evil Eye belief; by this, I mean the seemingly never-ending loop of

one trying not to cast the malicious gaze and trying to protect oneself from it at the same time.

Consequently, there are an outstanding number of ways to thwart the Evil Eye. To detail

all of the numerous protective measures would be futile; however, it seems necessary to at least

bring up why there so many in the first place. Focusing specifically on Italy, the country is

divided into to three main regions: Northern, Central, and Southern Italy, and of these regions are

innumerable more subdivisions (Magliocco, 2004). Present in these areas are distinct and unique

cultures, all of which contribute to the superstition being anchored deep in Italian folklore. As a

result, there was ample space for folkloric remedies to the malignant gaze to spring up and be

shared across cultures, ultimately creating the literal thousands of spells to revert the Evil Eye

that scholar Sabina Magliocco (2004) notes in her work, “Witchcraft, Healing, and Vernacular

Magic in Italy” (p. 159). To offer a simple explanation, the spells, remedies, and other items

(such as amulets) that counter the Evil Eye work to provide good luck to cancel out the

evilness/bad luck. With all of this information in mind, there is nothing else left to the mechanics

behind the Evil Eye to unfold.

Now that a clear understanding of the Evil Eye has been achieved, the survival of the

superstition can now be adequately discussed. This particular superstition has references dating
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back to 7th Century B.C. in Assyrian and Acadian literature, and it is still prevalent in modern

day amongst millions in a multitude of countries around the earth, thousands of years later

(Berger, 2013). It appears that the belief has survived well enough thus far, but the question I aim

to answer is: will such a folkloric concept like the Evil Eye survive as society becomes

increasingly more urbanized and progresses into the future? In short, I say yes. Recall the earlier

discussion of envy being a part of human nature and it becomes evident that as long as envy

exists, superstitions rooted in envy will remain, which means the Evil Eye has quite the lifespan.

With everything so far considered, the superstition’s longevity actually transcends the cultural

bounds of both rural and urban communities since envy cannot be confined to the social status or

class that defines such communities. Moreover, since envy is attached to humans themselves,

envy, now the Evil Eye belief, can travel alongside the believer, however far they may go from

their origins. This point can be portrayed by the example of Italian immigrants migrating to the

United States with the superstition and passing it to their descendants (Berger, 2013),

contributing to the growing millions of urbanized people that are still influenced by the folkloric

belief. To definitively answer the question I posed, there is no foreseeable end to this superstition

as the belief itself stems from the very nature of humans.

Altogether, the Evil Eye is a superstition with an origin that stretches back for millennia.

The belief that one could cast a mere gaze upon another and cause some form of harm has heavy

roots in Italian folklore, as proven by its presence across the numerous Italian sub-cultures. A

substantial analysis of the superstition’s driving force, envy, and its position in human nature

builds a firm understanding of how the Evil Eye has managed to survive and continues to thrive.

To reiterate, the manifestations of envy and the fear of envy come together to fundamentally

create the unconscious projection of envy onto others, yielding the malicious energy that can turn
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a gaze into the Evil Eye. Following this evaluation of how envy is the main factor behind the

superstition’s conception, the answer to the question concerning the survival of the Evil Eye was

revealed. Given envy’s inseparable relationship with humans, it became undeniably clear that the

Evil Eye superstition will last for as long as the relationship continues, and a fear of envy

remains. Consequently, the social status and/or class that a believer in the superstition faces was

shown to be nearly irrelevant to the Evil Eye’s longevity as people in rural, urban, and the

communities in-between all share the same propensity for envy. In all, it is this propensity shared

by mankind that supplies no doubt about the continued survival of the Evil Eye.
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References

Berger, A. S. (2012). The Evil Eye—An Ancient Superstition. Journal of Religion and Health,

51(4), 1098-1103. Retrieved from

http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy4.library.arizona.edu/stable/23352769

Berger, A. S. (2013). The "Evil Eye": A Cautious Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 52(3),

785-788. Retrieved from

http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy4.library.arizona.edu/stable/24485029

Callisen, S. A. (1937). The Evil Eye in Italian Art. The Art Bulletin,19(3), 450-462.

doi:10.2307/3045692

Fee, C. R., & Webb, J. B. (Eds.). (2016). American myths, legends, and tall tales: An

encyclopedia of American folklore. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Lykiardopoulos, A. (1981). The Evil Eye: Towards an Exhaustive Study. Folklore, 92(2), 221-

230. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy4.library.arizona.edu/stable/1259477

Magliocco, S. (2004). Witchcraft, healing, and vernacular magic in Italy. In Witchcraft

continued: Popular magic in modern Europe (pp. 151-173). Manchester: Manchester

University Press.