As anyone who uses London’s bus network will know, it carries all sorts of characters. I was recently sat on the lower deck of the 68 to West Norwood, when I noticed a man stood in front of me seemed to be growing agitated. I couldn’t figure out the reason, but it soon became clear. He suddenly moved, and started to aggressively address a man sat in a row behind me.
‘Have we got a problem?’
I turned round. The man seated behind was taking out an earphone to hear what this person was saying.
He continued, clearly intent on intimidation. ‘You’ve been staring at me this whole time. Now I don’t know where you come from, but where I come from, that’s a problem, yeah?’
The atmosphere soured. But the man behind made clear there was no problem, and the aggrieved passenger eventually walked back, muttering angrily. I don’t know whether there had been purposeful staring or not. Perhaps the accused was simply zoning out to his music, and the other was paranoid.
Just another unpleasant instance of toxic masculinity in public, you might say. But it got me thinking about the fact that simply looking at someone – or even the perception of this – can cause so much trouble.
There’s no doubt that being stared at can feel uncomfortable. We are hard-wired to notice faces – we can even see them in inanimate objects – and are acutely attuned to signals of hostility. Pictures of watching eyes have been found to deter thieves. One TV analysis of the 2016 US Presidential Election race contrasted Donald Trump’s expressions of narrow-eyed resolve with Hilary Clinton’s tendency to appeal with non-threatening wide-open eyes (our brains associate those with babies).
Given our sensitivity in this regard, it’s of no surprise that there’s an ancient superstition about being looked at malignly. A belief exists across a remarkable number of cultures that a person’s gaze can bring bad luck and misfortune. In English it’s most well known as the ‘evil eye’.
Like all folk beliefs, its details vary from place to place, but there are common themes. One, as documented by the ancient Greek author Plutarch, was that the evil eye was caused by envy: he wrote that envious eyes could emanate harmful rays of energy. The Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon elaborated on this idea:
The scripture calleth envy an evil eye […] some have been so curious as to note, that the times, when the stroke or percussion of an envious eye doth most hurt, are, when the party envied is beheld in glory or triumph; for that sets an edge upon envy: and besides, at such times, the spirits of the person envied do come forth most into the outward parts, and so meet the blow.
Here Bacon seems to allude to hubris on the part of the afflicted, and some believe you can bring the evil eye upon yourself simply through immodesty or narcissism. From her own childhood, Leila Ettachfini recalls how her mother deflected compliments with the expression ‘mashallah’ (‘God has willed it’) to avoid the evil eye. Others believe that unlucky people are cursed to give the evil eye through no fault or ill will of their own.
In his 1895 book The Evil Eye: The Classic Account Of An Ancient Superstition, Francis Thomas Elworthy noted the beliefs in his native Somerset, where sudden sickness or death in livestock would be blamed on being ‘overlooked’ by someone in the community – this might have once resulted in accusations of witchcraft.
He also explains that the verb to ‘fascinate’, while having a positive meaning in modern English, has more sinister roots in the Latin fascinatio – to bewitch. In the Roman empire, fascinum were phallic symbols used to ward off evil – their obscenity perhaps acting as a distraction. Similarly, in more modern times the ‘cuckold’ horns-gesture has been deployed against those suspected of carrying the evil eye.
Belief in the evil eye has a particularly rich tradition in cultures around the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Elworthy attests to the persistence of the superstition in nineteenth-century Italy through an incident with a bookseller:
At Venice I entered a large second-hand establishment, and was met by the padrone all smiles and obsequiousness, until he heard the last words of the title of the book wanted, sul Fascino. Instantly there was a regular stampede; the man actually turned and bolted into his inner room, leaving his customer in full possession of his entire stock. Nor did he venture to look out from his den, so long as I waited to see what would happen.
Other objects suggest the evil eye’s considerable age. In Syria, eye-shaped amulets have been found from as far back as 3,300 BC. Perhaps the most familiar talismans today are blue eye beads known as nazar, and the hamsa/khamsa, which shows a hand, often with an eye in its palm – these are commonly found across North Africa and the Middle East.
John Psathas is a New Zealand composer with Greek heritage. But strangely, in his own words, almost all his trips to Greece have involved ‘some unpleasant and often bizarre’ experiences. These misfortunes included motorbike accidents, a lengthy salmonella infection, and even a donkey bite to the groin (don’t laugh – it could happen to you).
After ‘an unprecedented onslaught of bad luck’ during a trip in 1998, his concerned sister consulted someone with expertise in such matters. He recalls:
The soothsayer, when checking my aura by long distance (these days such matters can of course, be conducted over the phone via free-call numbers), gasped, went silent, and declared I was so heavily and completely hexed that my halo was utterly opaque.
In 1999 Psathas composed a short, virtuosic piano piece named after a word for the evil eye – Jettatura. Like the blue-eye amulets found in his ancestral homeland, this piece is ‘my talisman, my good eye’.
Jettatura is ‘an uncomplicated moto perpetuo […] shot through with defiance and aggression’. The music seems to emerge from a wellspring of chaotic energy, opening with spiky accented motifs that leaves us without any clear sense of pulse. A series of fast figurations down in the bass register intensifies its demonic feel.
A more sparse section follows, a left-hand ostinato with rapid right-hand phrases shooting right up into the eerie stratosphere of the piano – their improvisatory jaggedness perhaps reflecting Psathas’ interest in jazz.
Rhythmic energy seems to be a feature in much of Psathas’ music, as is the prominence of percussion – his marimba concerto Djinn showcases legendary Greek themes, while Planet Damnation is a work for solo timpani with orchestra.
In his musical career at least, he seems to have had good fortune. He has collaborated with famous names from Dame Evelyn Glennie to Salman Rushdie, and composed music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Jettatura showcases the pianist’s dazzling skill much as the talisman dazzles the evil eye. And while it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at superstitions, the persistence of this belief across so many cultures suggests it is tapping into some deep human needs. Perhaps it is a way to rationalise the arbitrary cruelties of the life, a warning to keep hubris in check, and an awareness of potential hostility from those around us – as was so vividly exhibited by the man on the 68 bus.
As Elworthy put it, over 100 years ago:
We in these latter days of science, when scoffing at superstition is both a fashion and a passion, nevertheless show by actions and words that in our innermost soul there lurks a something, a feeling, a superstition if you will, which all our culture, all our boasted superiority to vulgar beliefs, cannot stifle.
Whether you put much store in the evil eye not, the enormous variety and artistry of the talismans made to protect us from its gaze have their own perennial fascination – that is, in the modern sense of the word.
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Find out more:
Jettatura is published by Promethean Editions.
Elworthy’s book previewed on Google Books.
John Psathas’ website.
Quinn Hargitai on the evil eye for BBC Culture.
More videos of Konstantinos Destounis on YouTube.