The evil eye might be one of the most widely acknowledged and historically relevant phenomena in the realm of the supernatural, superstition and apotropaism (the use of magic, objects and incantations to avert evil or bad luck). The evil eye is a common term to refer to a specific curse being cast, intentionally or unintentionally, by the jealous looks of others towards the success of the one they envy. It’s a malevolent glare, scorching with jealousy and hatred and causing misfortune or even injury to the receiver. From the ancient Assyrians, Greeks and Romans to modern-day Italy, Muslim cultures and even as far as South-America, people fear the dreaded stare, taking all kinds of protective measures against it. In this read, we’ll limit ourselves to the famous blue naẓar eye amulet.
Our journey starts in ancient Mesopotamia, where hundreds of votive figures were found in the excavation of the temple of Tell Brak, an ancient city in Syria located in the Upper Khābūr region. The most exclusive feature of these idols were their eyes. These amulets go back to the proto-urban period of about 3300 BC, known as the Late Uruk Period during which the first cities appeared. They are considered to be the oldest eye amulets ever discovered. Despite the religious link to the temple of Tell Brak, such figures have been found scattered over a vast region, roughly covering the Fertile Crescent. British archaeologist Max Mallowan (1904-1978) interpreted these objects as belonging to one and the same series, evolving in shape over time. The group would have been dedicated to an unknown “eye god” venerated in the temple of Tell Brak. These eye-bearing creations were made with a religious purpose, some of the earliest examples of a habit attested all throughout history of civilizations using a depiction of the eye as a symbol of the supernatural. However, Catherine Bréniquet specifies in her Du Fil à retordre: réflexions sur les idoles aux yeux et les fileuses de l’époque d’Uruk (1996) that only the the small engraved alabaster figures found at Tell Brak really deserve to be called “eye idols”, while other types found across the region could very well be instruments used in spinning and other domestic activities.
Among the Semitic people and the ancient Greeks, it was believed that the most adept at delivering the curse of the evil eye were blue-eyed people, likely ascribing magic properties to the blue color because of the genetic rarity in the Mediterranean area. It might be compared to some contemporary African societies, in which people with albinism are still seen as cursed or harbingers of bad omens because their white skin is a rarity. The same applies to blue eyes in the ancient brown-eyed societies of the Near East. Aristotle (384–322 BC), for example, warns in his De generatione animalium and the Physiognomonica against people with all sorts of blue eyes. He explains the occurrence of blue eyes as a sickness due to the same cause as grayness of the hair, and something that should be avoided at all costs.
These Greek and Semitic sentiments were not necessarily shared all across te region. Sumerian statues of priests and deities, for example, were mostly fitted with blue eyes. The Sumerians considered blue eyes as something magical, strange and special for the same reason others considered it a threat, it’s rarity. It’s not probable that they feared it, like those after them, but they made a connection between the blue eyes and their gods. This positive connection may also hold true for another civilization, namely ancient Egypt. According to David Silverman in his Ancient Egypt (2003), the so-called Eye of Horus may very well be the first proof of an amulet used to ward off evil and bad luck, known as a symbol for protection.
The ancient Egyptians were among the first civilizations to actively use blue-eyed amulets to ward of evil. Several blue so-called Eyes of Horus were found during archaeological excavations, in this case blue being considered by the Egyptians as a color of the gods, the universe and the fertile waters of the Nile. Initially, they favored the use of lapis lazuli, a synthetic pigment now known as Egyptian Blue, developed and locally manufactured to use on all kinds of objects.
As much as the Sumerians and Egyptians favored the blue as the color of the supernatural eye, the negative connotations, like described in the books of Aristotle, seemed to gain the upper hand in the region. The ancient Phoenicians started to put blue eyes on glass beads they strung together as necklaces. In the eye for an eye state of mind so typical for the region, “your blue eyes can’t curse me if blue eyes are looking at you.” Two wrongs do make a right in this case, negating the curse of jealousy. The blue evil eye glass beads underwent a widespread circulation in the region, being used by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans alike, their popularity directly depending on improvements in glass production.
Greek trireme ships were manufactured with two blue eyes painted on their prow. Their use was twofold, both providing an interesting insight in the human mind and the use of such supernatural phenomena as a means of protection. Research on the possible function of these eyes on the ancient Greek ships was excellently done by Deborah N. Carlson in her Seeing the Sea: Ships’ Eyes in Classical Greece (2009). She mentions that the eyes were either apotropaic or antropomorphic in nature, with evidence to support both interpretations. With regard to the former, she proceeds to write that the eyes served a protective function by warding off the ill effects of the evil eye. She remarks that these ophthalmoi (eyes) stare directly outward, and not ahead in the direction of a traveling ship. This may again indicate their protective use (i.e. they weren’t used to curse enemy ships). Carlson confirms that the eye motif appear on everything in ancient Greece, from coins to cups to shield and amphora stamps.
This protective function brings us to the naẓar eye amulet. Naẓar means “sight” in the Arabic language, “looking at”. Despite its association with magic and superstition, the evil eye is actually a well-known phenomenon in Islam. In a ḥadīth narrated by Ibn ʿAbbās and reported by among others Muslim and al-Tirmidhī, the prophet Muḥammad said: “The evil eye is real, and if anything were to overtake the divine decree, it would be the evil eye.” In the Qur’an, God says in Chapter al-Qalam 51-52: “And indeed, those who disbelieve would almost make you slip with their eyes when they hear the message, and they say, ‘Indeed, he is mad.’ But it is not except a reminder to the worlds.” The famous scholar and exegete of the Qur’an, Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (839–923 AD), confirms that this verse is a direct reference to the dreaded evil eye, the enmity of the Quraysh tribe being intense enough to hurt the Prophet, had it not been for the protection he received by God.
So the fear for the evil eye was inherited from the ancient civilizations of the Near East and the Mediterranean and continued to be upheld by Islam across the Muslim societies throughout the ages. Although Islam disapproves of the use of talismans and amulets, equating it to a form of polytheism (shirk), the fear of getting cursed kept the blue-eyed glass beads a popular and common tool for protection in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, regardless of their religion, were famously afraid of the evil eye, seeking refuge from dark magic in all sorts of charms. The glass bead and the naẓar amulet as we know it, knew a resurgence across the Empire, resulting in its use being popular in many post-Ottoman countries like Greece, Turkey and the Balkan today. “The intensity and nature of superstition in Ottoman lands varied greatly, except for the ubiquitous blue beads or glass in any form with which to ward off the evil eye” as quoted from The Private World of Ottoman Women (2006) by Godfrey Goodwin.
In Turkey, the naẓar amulet is known as nazar boncuğu, and is a common sight widely used among all layers of society. It is placed on planes, in shops, pinned on the diapers of new-born babies, hanged above doors, sold as pendants or charms, made into jewelry and so on and so forth. This popularity is moreover also shared by its neighboring country, Greece. In Greece, both the evil eye and the amulet against it are called μάτι (mati). The process of casting away the curse is called ξεμάτιασμα (xematiasma). The combination of the blue amulet with crosses, images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus and other Christian imagery are quite common in Greece.
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Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.