The Evil Eye might be one of the most widely acknowledged and historically relevant phenomena in the realm of magic, superstition and apotropaism. 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 societies 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 3300 BC and are the oldest eye amulets discovered. They date from the Late Uruk period (3300-3000 BC) and are found mainly in northern Mesopotamia. British archaeologist Max Mallowan 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.
In ancient Mesopotamia, as well as in ancient Greece and Phoenicia, it was believed that the most adept at delivering the curse 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. Aristotle, for example, warns in his De generatione animalium and the Physiognomonica attributed to him 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.
Sumerian statues of priests and deities indeed had blue eyes. Like explained above, the Sumerians considered blue eyes as something magical, strange and special. It’s not known if they feared it, like the ancient civilizations after them, but they made a connection between the eyes and their gods. The first civilizations to actively use blue-eyed amulets to ward of the Evil Eye were the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. Several blue so-called Eyes of Horus were found, a well known talisman and symbol for protection and good health. The ancient Phoenicians started to put blue-eyed symbols on glass beads they strung together as necklaces. In the eye for an eye state of mind, “your blue eyes can’t curse me if my blue eyes are looking at you.” The blue evil eye glass beads underwent a widespread circulation in the region, being used by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. Their popularity directly depended upon improvements in glass production.
That brings us to the naẓar eye amulet. Naẓar means “sight” in the Arabic language, “looking at”. The Evil Eye is a known phenomenon in Islam. “The evil eye is real…”, the Prophet Muḥammad said in one of his narrations. In the Quran, chapter “The Pen”, verse 51-52, God says: “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 Quran Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī 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 continued across Muslim societies throughout the ages. Although Islam disapproves the use of talismans and amulets, the fear of getting cursed kept the blue-eyed glass beads a popular and common tool for protection. Inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, regardless of their religion, were famously afraid of the Evil Eye, seeking refuge from the 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 the 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.” – The Private World of Ottoman Women by Godfrey Goodwin.
In Turkey, the naẓar amulet is known as nazar boncuğu, and is widely used and a common sight. 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,… This popularity is shared by its neighboring country, Greece. In Greece, the evil eye is called μάτι (mati). The process of casting away the curse is called ξεμάτιασμα (xematiasma). Besides lots of amulets, prayers and talismans, Greeks refer to the apotropaic visual device to ward off the Eye similar to the naẓar as mati. The combinations with crosses, images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus and other Christian imagery is common.
Some examples featuring the blue-eyed naẓar:
For more examples, please visit this thread on my Twitter.