The Evil Eye

When talking about amulets, the Evil Eye is often mentioned and evil eye beads are sold everywhere in the Middle East. But what exactly is it?

Evil eye beads [photo: Canva/Burhan Yuzer]

The evil eye as a concept has been around since at least Roman times, and possibly goes back much earlier in time.[i] In Turkey, the name is nazar, which also has become the general name for amulets. This shows just how strong its power actually is - by association, all evil forces are indicated by the term. The evil eye may manifest when jealousy or envy arises in both humans and jinns,[i] perhaps in the face of another’s beauty, wealth, perfection or fortune.[ii] In addition, praising someone or something too excessively without adding a blessing first may also lead to misfortune or accidents. Objects that are admired openly may fall and break, crops that are looking good may wither, milk may turn sour and illness may befall otherwise healthy persons. To avoid the evil eye being directed toward children, it is customary in the Middle East to not praise their beauty or health too extensively. Instead, they may be called ‘blind’ or ‘ugly’, or named after animals.

Tassels, blue beads and red string all work against the Eye. [Photo: Canva/Getty Images]

There are ways to avert the negative effects of the evil eye, and these often manifest themselves in jewellery and costume. Both are closely related to the wearer and thus constitute a logical medium for protection. Perfection attracts the evil eye, so the easiest way to avoid its glance is by simply offering imperfection. This is obvious in for example embroidery with a small but intended mistake or a woven cloth with tiny irregularities. In jewellery, symmetry and evenness are preferably avoided by using uneven numbers for dangles and other elements. Certain colours are known to keep the eye at a distance, reflecting mirrors and swaying tassels confuse the eye, so these are also actively used in jewellery. In this respect, almost all jewellery items are talismanic objects to a larger or lesser extent.

This post is based on the chapter 'The Evil Eye and Other Problems' in my book Desert Silver


[i] The evil eye being cast by humans is called insiya, the evil eye cast by jinns is called jinniyah. The evil eye may be cast on purpose, but also inadvertently. See Abu Rabia 2005 [ii] On the concept of envy in Egypt, see for example Ghosh, A. 1983. The Relations of Envy in an Egyptian Village, in: Ethnology Vol 22 no 3 [i] See Schienerl, P.W. 1984. The Much-Enduring Eye. A popular Apotropaiec Theme in Ancient Amuletic Jewellery, in: Ornament Magazine 7 (4) for a short introduction Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment.

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