The Evil Eye as an Engine of Envy
“Cruelty and anger come in floods of rage—it’s true; but who can stand at all against envy?”
This article is the first of a pair about envy in our times.
“Don’t give me the Evil Eye!” In mainstream America, this means nothing more than, “Don’t look at me weirdly.” But a search for internet images on the term “evil eye” will turn up innumerable pictures of the nazar , a sort of amulet, usually blue in color, meant to fight off curses launched by an evil eye. Clearly, even today, the Evil Eye is taken very seriously in many regions of the world, as also anyone who travels abroad extensively can learn.
The folk theory of the Evil Eye originated in the Ancient Near East in far-off antiquity. The precise details of this belief undoubtedly varied among ethnic groups just as it does today. For example, the ancient Hebrews assumed that good or evil was put into the eyes by the heart. There is little direct evidence that the Hebrews of Old Testament times actually feared the projection of evil from a person’s eyes to whatever he stared at, but their descendants certainly came to do so, for later Jewish commentators on the Scriptures wrote much of the Evil Eye.
Rabbi Bahya (a.d. 1255–1340), for example, wrote this about Leah, a wife of Jacob, grandson of Abraham:
We find that the birth of Jacob’s children was influenced by the power of the evil eye. Leah had made a single comment in thanking the Lord for allowing her to have born a fourth son, i.e. more than the three sons out of twelve which she could expect to bear by right, and as a result of this comment she became subject to the power of the evil eye. Immediately after she had made this comment, we read..., “she stopped giving birth.” The mere fact that she had said herself that she had received more than she was entitled to exposed her to the envy of others.
Here, the writer suggests that the Evil Eye’s possessor projects evil power mainly out of envy against anyone who meets with good fortune. Indeed, some Jewish commentators understand the Tenth Commandment—“You shall not covet”—as forbidding the envy that gives rise to sorcery (Ulmer 1994:66). Today, envy seems to be regarded as the main reason for the practice of witchcraft in the form of the Evil Eye.
The Lamp in the Eyes: The Folk Theory behind the Evil Eye
However, the Evil Eye was situated, at least among the ancient Jews, in a larger set of folk beliefs. Consider the following biblical passages. The first is from an account in which Jonathan, son of King Saul of Israel, is leading his soldiers in a chase of their Philistine enemies. Having come upon a hive of wild bees, the famished Jonathan has eaten some of its honey. He says to his comrades,
See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey.
1 Samuel 14:29 NIV
Other suggestive passages occur in Psalms. We find, for example, the following prayers of a man in danger of dying:
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death...
Psalm 13:3 NIV
My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.
Psalm 38:10 NIV
Or consider Jesus’ teaching:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
Matthew 6:22–23 NIV
Many such verses, when read today by many people in western cultures, tend to be passed over lightly, because they seem to be based on unknown values. But these passages fall into place when we gain a general idea of the eyes in the ancient Hebrew mind.
Here is a sketch of their essential thought:
Every living person has a lamp behind his eyes, which projects light onto anything he looks at. That is how he sees it. This means that the sun, moon, and stars are of secondary importance for the ability to see.
The more alive he is, i.e., the more vital force he has, the brighter this lamp shines. This explains Jonathan’s comment about how eating the honey strengthened him: “See how my eyes brightened.” It also accounts for the psalmist’s plea that God would “light up” his eyes so he would not die, and also his complaint that “the light has gone from my eyes.”
When a person looks at anyone or anything, he also projects the light from his eyes. Either that light indicates what his heart thinks about the object of his sight, or it both indicates and projects what he thinks—either goodness or evil. (It is certain that later Jewish commentators assumed an actual projection, resulting in either blessing or curse.)
If the viewer is favorable to what he sees, he sees that thing “in a good light.” If he is negative, he sees that thing “in a bad light.” So, a reference to that good light is in essence a reference to favor bestowed.
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Genesis 6:8 NIV
[Abraham] said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.
Genesis 18:3 NIV
Not only does a good eye indicate the viewer’s positive opinion, but, crucially, it either indicates a desire to bless, or it actually bestows a blessing. In this case, one’s face (i.e., the eyes) is sometimes spoken of as shining a light upon the favored ones:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.
Numbers 6:24–26 NIV
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
Psalm 4:6 NIV
He who has a good eye will be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.
Here “a good eye” results in generosity to others.
The reverse is also true: looking at someone while projecting a bad light upon him can launch a curse. It is fairly certain that in the ancient Hebrew culture, the primary motivation for looking at another human being “in a bad light” was envy. So in effect we have in the Hebrew mind two sins that are committed by one’s eyes: envy and the desire to perpetrate violence. This is how Jesus alludes to these sins:
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
Matthew 18:9 ESV
Envy: the Motivation for Attacking Someone with the Evil Eye
Researchers have been uncertain as to whether the same motivation for the Evil Eye exists everywhere in the world. It is remarkable, however, that quite a few languages connect the eye with the notion of envy.
A connection with the eye exists in Latin, where the notion of envy is expressed as invidia, a noun derived from the verb invidere ‘to look against someone’, i.e., ‘to look at someone in a hostile manner’.
Many languages unrelated to European tongues also seem to refer to the eyes in order to express the idea of envy. For example, in Mofu-Gudur, spoken in northern Cameroon, we find this:
This man has too much eye = ‘This man is very selfish’
Doing eye on something of someone = ‘Envying someone for something he has’
In the scriptures, perhaps the most startling reference to the Evil Eye occurs in Galatians 3:1. In this letter, the Apostle Paul expresses shock that his beloved assemblies of new Christians have been persuaded to abandon their full trust in Jesus for their future. Instead, they have listened to the “Judaizers,” those Jewish followers of Christ who nevertheless assert that you have to follow Jesus and Moses by living out the full requirements of the Jewish laws.
Paul exclaims, You unthinking Galatians! Who has cursed you with the evil eye? Now, our English versions usually soften it to something like, ‘Who has bewitched you?’ But the Greek verb is βασκαίνω (baskaino) ‘perform a curse by means of the evil eye’.
What motivated these “Judaizers”? Paul speaks of envy in Philippians 1:15: some preach Christ out of envy…. Indeed, the truth that God’s love in Christ is freely given has never sat well with mankind, even with many reputed followers of Jesus. Once again, we find envy to be the motivation for the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye in Contemporary Times
It is easy to find fear of the Evil Eye in many societies today. Mothers tie a little string around their babies’ wrist, hoping to deflect an evil spirit’s attention away from this vulnerable little person. The trade in amulets seems to be brisk. Southern European populations appear to share in the Evil Eye belief in one way or another. The Mal de Ojo is well known among the populations of Central and South America. The traditional African societies and Indian cultures are always on guard against it, also.
Where a notion of reincarnation is accepted, such as in traditional African societies and Indian culture, the destructive force of envy can be exercised by the dearly departed. A child might turn out to be the reappearance of a displeased ancestor, angry at those who did him harm and intent on afflicting their descendants with revenge. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe writes of this fear in his seminal novel Things Fall Apart.
Because good is viewed as limited, no one can acquire significantly more good than his neighbors without enlisting illicit means against them. The most illicit of all means is witchcraft, and the Evil Eye packages evil in a form very convenient to anyone interested in harming other surreptitiously. It is, after all, difficult to prove an attack from someone’s eyes—it amounts to more of an article of faith that such an attack has been made.
For, although this device can be intentionally deployed against another person or group of people in order to destroy them and gain what they have, it also can, in many societies’ assumptions, be practiced unconsciously. A young child not yet at the age of discretion, for example, can be the involuntary and unknowing wielder of this force.
In the Salem Witch Trial hysteria of 1692, among the accused were a beggar woman named Sarah Good and her four-year-old daughter. There seems to have been no accusation of any Evil Eye attack per se in these trials; nevertheless, the willingness to impute involuntary sorcery to even a child might be true about any sort of fear of sorcery.
A Final Question
So much for traditional societies in our time. Is it possible, however, that the Evil Eye has been resurrected in the democratic West, but in a form even more destructive because it is now politically weaponized, and that we are now experiencing its effects? That is the subject of the blog posting to come.
 Nazar ‘eye’ (Turkish).
 The author spent years living among the Mofu-Gudur people.
 These were Jewish believers who had really never accepted the decision of the Acts 15 Council in Jerusalem that encouraged Gentile Christian converts to not live by the laws of Moses.
 This sense might also explain Paul’s direct reference to eyes in the same verse: Before your own eyes Jesus Christ was openly shown to have been crucified.