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Posted February 6th, 2010 by webmaster







    There may perhaps be some few who, quite apart from the continuity of the Hellenic race, a question with which I must deal later, would be inclined to pronounce the quest of ancient religion on modern folklore mere lost labour. The lapse, they may think, of all the centuries which separate the present day from the age of Hellenic greatness would in itself  disfigure or altogether efface any tradition of genuine value. Such a view, however, is opposed to all the lessons that have that have of late years been gained from a more systematic study of the folklore of all parts of the world. Certain principles of magic and certain tendencies of superstition seem to obtain , in curiously similar form, among peoples far removed both in racial type and in geographical position. It is sometimes urged by way of explanation that the resources of the primitive mind are necessarily so limited, that many coincidences in belief and custom  are only to be expected, and that therefore the similarity of form presented by some superstitions of widely separated peoples is no argument in favour of their common origin.

    But, for my part, when I consider such a belief as that in the Evil Eye, which possesses, I believe, an almost world-wide notoriety, I fund it more reasonable to suppose that it was a tenet in the creed of some single primitive people, of whom many present races  of the world are offshoots, and from whom they have inherited the superstition, than that scores or hundreds of peoples, who had long since diverged in racial type and dwelling and language, should subsequently have hit upon one uniform belief. Indeed it may be that in the future the study of folklore will become a science of no less value than the study of language, and that by a comparison of the superstitions still held by various sections of the human race it will be possible to adumbrate the beliefs of their remotest ancestors as clearly as, by a comparison of their various speeches, the outlines of a common ancestral language have been, and are being, traced. The data of folklore are in the nature of things more difficult to collect, more comprehensive ins cope, and more liable to misinterpretation, than the data of linguistic study; but none the less, when once there are labourers enough in the field, it is not beyond hope that the laws which govern the tradition and modification of customs and beliefs may be found to be hardly less definite than the laws of language.

    But comparative folklore is outside my present purpose. I assume only, without much fear of contradiction, that many of the popular superstitions and customs and magical practices still prevalent in the world date from a period far more remote than any age on which Greek history or archaeology can throw even a glimmering of light. If then I can show that among the Greek folk of to-day there still survive in full vigour such examples of primaeval superstition as the belief in ‘the evil eye’ and the practice of magic, I shall have established at least an antecedent probability that there may exist also vestiges of the religious beliefs and practices of the historical era.

    The fear of ‘the evil eye’ (το κακό μάτι, or simply το μάτι) is universal among the Greek peasantry, and fairly common though not so frankly avowed among the more educated classes. The old word βασκαίνω and βασκανία are still in use, but ματιάζω and μάτιαγμα, direct formations from the word μάτι, are more frequently heard. It would be difficult to say on what ground this power or ‘overlooking,’ if I may use a popular English equivalent, is usually imputed to anyone. Old women are most generally credited with it, but not so much owing to any menacing appearance as because they are the chief exponents of witchcraft and it is only fitting that the wise woman of a village should possess the power of exercising the evil eye at will. These form therefore quite a distinct class from those persons whose eyes are suspected of exerting naturally and involuntarily a baneful influence.

    In the neighbourhood of Mount Hymettus it appears that blue eyes fall most commonly under suspicion: and this is the more curious because in Attica, with its large proportion of Albanian inhabitants, blue eyes re by no means rare. Possibly, however, it was the native Greeks’ suspicion of the strangers who settled among them, which first caused this particular development of the belief in this district. Myself possessing eyes of the objectionable colour, I have more than once been somewhat taken aback at having my ordinary salutation (γειά σου, ‘health to you’) to some passing peasant answered only by the sign of the Cross. Fortunately in other localities I never to my knowledge inspired the same dread; had it been general, O should have been forced to abandon my project of enquiring into Greek folklore; for the risk of being ‘overlooked’ holds the Greek peasant, save for a few phrases of aversion, in awe-stricken silence.

    My impression is that any eyes which are peculiar in any way are apt to incur suspicion, and that in different localities  different qualities, colouring or brilliance or prominence, excite special notice and, with notice, disfavour.  The evil eye, it would seem, is a regular attribute both of the Gorgon and of the wolf; for both, by merely looking upon a man, are still believed to inflict some grievous suffering – dumbness, madness or death; and yet there is little in common  between the narrow, crafty eye of the wolf and either the prominent, glaring eyes in an ancient Medusa’s head or the passionate, seductive eyes of the modern Gorgon, unless it be that any fixed unflinching gaze is sufficient reason for alarm.

    Some such explanation will best account for the strange vagary of superstition which brings under the category of the evil eye two classes of things which seemingly would have no connexion either with it or with each other, looking-glasses and the stars.

    To look at oneself in a mirror is, in some districts, regarded as a dangerous operation, especially if it be prolonged. A bride, being specially liable to all sinister influences, is wise to forego the pleasure of seeing her own reflection in the glass; and a woman in child-bed, who is no less liable, is deprived of all chance of seeing herself by the removal of all mirrors from the room. The risk in all cases is usually greatest at night, and in the town of Sinasos in Cappadocia no prudent person would at that time incur it. The reflection, it would seem, of a man’s own image may put the evil eye upon him by its steady gaze: and it was in fear of such an issue that Damoetas, in the Idylls of Theocritus, after criticizing his own features reflected in some glassy pool, spat thrice into his bosom that he might not suffer from the evil eye.

    The belief that in a certain magical property of the stars akin to that of the evil eye is far more widely held. They are, as it were, the eyes of night, and in the darkness ‘overlook’ men and their belongings as disastrously as does the human eye in the day-time. Just as a woman after confinement is peculiarly liable to the evil eye and must have amulets hung about her and mirrors removed from her room, so must particular care be taken to avoid exposure to stellar influence. Sonnini de Magnoncourt, who had some medical experience in Greece, speaks authoritatively on this subject. According to the popular view, he says, she must not let herself be ‘seen by a star’; and if she goes out before the prescribed time – according to this authority, only eight days, but now preferably forty days, from the birth of the child – she is careful to return  home and to shut herself up in her room by sunset, and after that hour to open neither door nor window, for fear that a start  may surprise her and cause the death of  both mother and child.

    So too in the island of Chios, if there is occasion to carry leaven from one house to another, it must be covered up – In the day-time ‘to prevent it from being seen by any strange eye’, at night ‘to prevent it from being seen by the stars’: for if it were overlooked by either, the bread made with it would not rise. Such customs show clearly  that the stars are held to exercise exactly the same malign influence as the human eye: the same simple phrases denote in Greek the operation of either, and the ‘overlooking’ of either has the same blighting effect.

    The range of this mischievous influence – for I now take it that the evil eye and the stars are indistinguishable in their ill effects – is very large. Humans beings are perhaps most susceptible to it.  In some districts indeed new-born infants up to the time of their baptism are held to be immune; till then they are children of darkness, and the powers of darkness do not move against them. But in general no one at any moment of his life is wholly secure. Amulets however afford a reasonable safety at ordinary times; it is chiefly in the critical hours of life, at marriage and at the birth of children, that the fear of the evil eye is lively and the precautions against it more elaborate. Animals also may be affected. Horses and mules are very commonly protected by amulets hung around their necks, and this is the original purpose of the string of blue beads with which the cab-horses of Athens are often decorated. The shepherd too has cause for anxiety on behalf of his flock, and, when a bad season or disease diminishes the number of his lambs, is apt to re-echo the pastoral complaints,


Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos,

‘Some jealous eye “o’erlooks” my tender lambs.’

[Virgil, Ecl. III, 103]


And the pernicious influence makes itself felt in even a lower scale of life. In the neighbourhood of Sparta, where there is considerable silk industry, the women believe that silk-worms are susceptible of mischief from the evil eye; and the same superstition is recorded by de Magnoncourt from Chios.

    Of inanimate things, those most easily damaged in a similar way are leaven, salt, and vinegar – as being possessed of quickening or preservative properties to which the blighting, destructive power of the evil eye or of the stars is naturally opposed. The precautions to be observed in carrying leaven from house to house have already been noticed. Equal care is required in the making of the bread. It often happens, so I have been told, that when a woman is kneading, some malicious neighbour will come in, ostensibly for a chat, and put the evil eye upon the leaven; and unless the woman perceives what is going on and averts disaster by a special gesture which turns the evil eye influence against the intruder, nothing to call bread will be baked that day.

    Similarly it is unwise to borrow or to give away either salt or vinegar at night; but is it is necessary, it is prudent to take precautions to prevent its exposure to the stars, which may even be cheated of their prey by some such device as calling the vinegar (ξείδι) ‘syrup’ (γλυκάδι) in asking for it. Further an object which has been exposed to the stars may even carry the infection, as it were, to those who afterwards use it. For this reason the linen and clothes of a mother and her new-born infant must never be left out of doors at night.

    The precaution, as I have said, most commonly adopted is the wearing of amulets. The articles which have the greatest intrinsic virtue for this purpose are garlic, bits of blue stone or glass often in the form of beads, old coins, salt, and charcoal: but many other things, by their associations, may be rendered efficacious. The stump of a candle burnt on some high religious festival, or a shred of the Holy Shroud used on Good Friday, is by no means to be despised; and the bones of a bat or a snake’s skin over which a witch has muttered her incantations acquire thereby an equal merit. But such charms as these are objets de luxe; the ordinary man contents himself with the commoner articles whose virtue is in themselves.

    No midwife, I understand, would go about her business without a plentiful supply of garlic. It is well that the room should be redolent of it, and a few gloves must be fastened about the baby’s neck either at birth or immediately after the baptism. Blue beads are in general use for women, children, and animals. If men wear them, they are usually concealed  from view. But mothers value them above all, because of their colour – (γαλάζιος is modern Greek for ‘blue’) – they ensure an abundant supply  of milk (γάλα) unaffected by the evil eye or any other sinister potency. Salt and charcoal are most conveniently carried in little bags with a string to go around the neck. An effective charm consists of three grains of each material with an old coin. But many other things are also used; when I have been permitted to inspect the contents  of such a bag, I have found strange assortments of things, pebbles, pomegranate-seeds, bits of soap, leaves of basil and other plants, often hard to recognize through age and dirt and grease. One scientifically-minded man recommended  me sulphate of copper.

    Special occasions also have special precautions  proper to them. At a wedding, the time of all others when envious eyes are most likely to cause mischief, the bridegroom  commonly carries a black-handled knife slipped inside his belt, and the bride has an open pair pf scissors in her shoe or some convenient place, in order that any such evil influence may be ‘cut off’. But some of these magical safeguards concern not only the evil eye, but ghostly perils in general, and will claim notice in other connexions.

    If, however, through lack of precautions or in spite of them,, a man suspects that he is being ‘overlooked’, he must rely for protection on the resources with which nature has provided him. The simplest thing being to spit – three times for choice, for that number has magical value – but on oneself, not at the suspected foe.  Theocritus was scrupulously correct, according to the modern view, in making his shepherd spit thrice on his own bosom. Another expedient, though no garlic be at hand to give effect to the words, is to ejaculate, σκόρδο στα μάτια σου, ‘garlic in your eyes!’ or use may be made of an imprecation considered effective in many circumstances of danger, να φας το κεφάλι σου, ‘may you devour your own head!’ Lastly there is the φάσκελον, a gesture of the hand – first raised with the fist closed and then suddenly advanced either with all the fingers open but bent, or with the thumb and little finger alone extended – which returns the evil upon the offender’s own head with usury.

    But in spite of these manifold means of defence, the evil eye has its victims; some malady seizes upon a man, for which no other cause than can be assigned; and the question of a cure arises. Here the Church comes to the rescue, with special forms of prayer, commonly known as βασκανισμοί, provided for the purpose. The person affected goes to the church or, if the case be serious, the priest comes to his house, the prayers are recited, and the sufferer is fumigated with incense. Also if there happens to be a sacred spring or well, άγιασμα as it is called, in the precincts of any church near – and there are a fair number of churches in Greece which derive both fame and emolument from the possession of healing and miracle-working water – the victim of the evil eye is well- advised to drink of  them. There are some, however, who rate the power of a witch more highly than those of a priest, and prefer her incantation to the prayers of the Church. She knows, or is ready to improvise, forms of exorcisms (ξόρκια, ξορκισμοί) for all kinds of affliction. A typical example begins, as do many of the incantations of witchcraft, with an invocation of Christ and the Virgin and the Trinity and the twelve Apostles; then comes a complaint against the grievous illness which needs curing; next imprecations upon the man or woman responsible for causing it; ad finally an adjuration of the evil eye to depart from the sufferer’s ‘head and heart and finger-nails and toe-tails and the cockles of the heart, and to begone to the hills and  mountains’ and so forth; after all which the Lord’s prayer or any other religious formula may be repeated ad libitum. During the recitations of some charm, the witch fumigates her patient either with incense or – what is more effectual where a guess can be made as to identity of the envious enemy – by burning something belonging to the latter, a piece of his clothing or even a handful of earth from his doorway. Or again, if the patient is at a loss to conjecture who it is that has harmed him, recourse may be had to divination. A familiar method is to burn leaves or petals of certain plants – basil and gillyflower being of special repute – mentioning at the same time a number of names in succession. A loud pop or crackling denotes that the name of the offender has been reached, ad the treatment can then proceed as described above.


    No less widespread in Greece than the belief in the evil eye, and equally primitive in character, is the practice of magic. Few villages, I believe, even at the present day do not possess a wise woman (μάγισσα). Often indeed, owing to the spread of education and the desire to be thought ‘European’ and ‘civilised’, the inhabitants will indignantly deny her existence, and affect to speak of witches as things of the past. But in times of illness or trouble they are apt to forget their pretensions of superiority, and do not hesitate to avail themselves of the lore inherited from their superstitious forefathers. For the most part women are depositaries of these ancient secrets, and the knowledge of charms, incantations, and all the rites and formularies of witchcraft is handed down from mother to daughter. But men are not excluded from the profession. The functions of the priest, for example, are not clearly distinguished from those of the unconsecrated magician. At a baptism. Which often takes place in the house where the child is born and not at the church, the priest opens the service by exorcising all evil spirits and influences from  the four corners of the room by swinging  his censer, but the midwife, who usually knows something of magic, or one of the god-parents, accompanies him and makes assurance doubly sure by spitting in each suspected nook. Moreover if a priest leads a notoriously evil life or chance to be actually unfrocked, the devil invests him with a double portion of magical power, which on any serious occasion is sure to be in request. But, apart from the clergy who their powers to the use or abuse of their office, there are other men too here and there who deal in witchcraft. They are usually specialists in some one branch, and professors of the white art rather than of the black – one versed in popular medicine and the incantations proper to it, another in undoing mischievous spells, another in laying the restless dead. The general practitioners, causing disease as often as curing it, binding with curses as readily as loosing from them, are for the most part women.

    I shall not attempt to enumerate here all the petty uses of magic of which I have heard or read: indeed an exhaustive treatment of the subject, even for one who had devoted a lifetime to cultivating an intimacy with Greek witches, would be hardly possible; for their secrets are not lightly divulged, and new circumstances may at any time requite the invention of new methods. I propose only to describe some of the best known and most widely spread practices, some beneficent, others mischievous. Most of them will be seen to be based on the primitive and worldwide principle of  sympathetic magic – the principle that a relation, analogy or sympathy existing, or being once established, between two objects, that which the one does or suffers, will be done or suffered also by the other.

    If the be desired to cause physical injury or death to an enemy, the simplest and surest method is to make an image of him in some malleable material – wax, lead or clay – and, if opportunity offer, to knead into it or attach to it some trifle from  the enemy’s person. Three hairs from his head are a highly valuable acquisition, but parings of his nails or a few shreds of his clothing will serve: or again the image may be put in some place where his shadow will fall upon as he passes. These refinements of the practice, however, are not indispensable; the image by itself will suffice. This being made, the treatment of it varies according to the degree of suffering which it is desired to inflict.

    Acute pain may be caused to the man by driving into his image pins or nails. This device is popularly known as κάρφωμα, ‘pinning’ or ‘nailing’, and many variations are practised. One case recorded is some detail was that of a priest’s wife who from her wedding day onward was a prey to various pains and ills. The priest tried is vain to relieve them by prayer, and finally called in a witch to aid him. After performing certain occult rites of divination, she informed him that he must dig in the middle of his courtyard. There he found a tin, which on being opened revealed as assortment of pernicious charms – one of his wife’s bridal shoes  with a large nail through it, a dried-up bit of soap (presumably from the bridal bath) stuck full of pins, a wisp of hair (probably some of the bride’s combings) all in a tangle, and lastly a padlock. The nail and pins were at once pulled out and the hair carefully disentangled, with the result that the woman was freed from her pains and her complicated ailments. But the padlock could not be undone, and was thrown away into the sea, with the result that the woman remained childless. The bride had been ‘nailed’ (καρφωμένη) by a rival. In this case, it is true, no waxen or leaden image was used , but the principle is the same. The use of an image is only preferable as allowing the maker of it to select any part of the body which he wishes to torture.