“Ciao, how are you?” “So so, we keep going” is the answer. An Italian will never say “I am fine” or “Things are fantastic”. In Italy, people tend to be afraid of causing jealousy and envy so understate all success. According to a widespread belief, envy is at the base of “malocchio”, the evil eye, from the combination of “mal”, bad, and “occhio”, eye. The evil eye is a form of curse, transmitted through the gaze, hence the name, many cultures believe causes injury or bad luck to the person it is directed.
The origin of the evil eye can be traced back at least five thousand years ago in the region of Sumer in Mesopotamia, then in Babylon and the Persian Gulf (1400 BC), and in the Egyptian culture of the 20th dynasty in 1200 BC. Chaldees and Assyrians believed in the evil eye and in their monuments are engraved several “scongiuri” (It is interesting to notice the Italian word, “scongiuro”, which means the ritual to ward off the evil eye and other spells, does not seem to exist in English. In the dictionary we find exorcism, touching wood, miracle, sign, but none of these words is correct. Scongiuro is a gesture, a word, a ritual to summon supernatural powers to send away an evil force). Persians, who called it salty eye, and ancient Indians believed in malocchio and some Vedic poets refer to gazes that bring about misfortunes or cast a curse. From these populations, this belief passed to Greece and then to the Romans who punished by death those who were deemed responsible to have damaged people or crops through a curse.
Even the Bible, the Talmud, and the Coran refer to malocchio: “The avid-eyed man is to become rich and does not think that the evil eye will fall on him” (The Book of Proverbs, 28:22), “He who enters the city and is afraid of malocchio (ayin hara in Hebrew), will pinch the right hand thumb and say “I, son of…, come from Joseph’s seeds and am not dominated by evil eye” (Talmud), “I look for shelter in the Lord of Dawn…from evil spells and from the evil of jealousy when he envies” (Surah 113, Coran).
The evil eye was mentioned by Hesiod and Plato, and Plutarch postulated that it was a manifestation of deadly rays that sprang like darts from the inner recesses of the body. Plinius the Old, listed amulets as medicus invidiae, the doctor for jealousy. Malocchio probably has a mythical precursor in Lamia, queen of Libya. According to Greek mythology, Lamia was a beautiful woman and Zeus had children with her. Zeus’ wife, Hera, enraged by the betrayal, killed all of Lamia’s children. Lamia thus became jealous of all pregnant women and started killing all newborns. Zeus then gifted Lamia with the possibility of removing her eyes at will not to see children, but this led her to develop a higher perceptive power and her eyes developed a magnetic and magical power.
Going several centuries ahead to the Renaissance, many philosophers deeply studied this belief. Gerolamo Cardano thought it originated from physical and psychological causes. Tommaso Campanella and Sir Francis Bacon justified this superstition and exalted local peculiarities. The second added that this evil-causing power some people have derives its strength from envy which acts as a motor pushing the individual to look evil-ly while wishing misfortune.
Still today, belief in the evil eye is widespread across the Middle East, West Africa, Central America, Mexico, Central Asia and most of Europe, only the British and the Americans of the United States seem not to have such a belief. Malocchio is seen as remedy or weapon by envious people and implicates a will to cause bad luck. The dictionary definition is “malevolent power, attributed by superstition to the gaze of certain people”. There are two different types of this phenomenon: malocchio and “affascino”, fascination, which means fascinated through malocchio. Both derive from envy, the first has an evil intent and the second may also derive from innocent admiration of another person’s virtues or fortunes; both will cause discomfort and illness.
Older people even today advise to stay alert when one receives too many compliments and to use amulets or prayers as countermeasures: horns, horse shoes, the little hunchback, garlic, hot chili pepper, or throwing salt behind one’s back. In Sicily, houses were purified with salt put in sachets inside closets or in little mounds along the perimeter of the house, or at least at its corners. There are also prayers and rhymes like “Aglio (garlic), fravaglie (small fish, symbol of Christ), fatture ca nun quaglie (the magic will not happen), corna (horns), bicorna (double horns), cape ‘e alice (sardines heads) e cape d’aglio (garlic heads)”.
According to ancient traditions, the so-called malocchio causes persistent headaches, nausea and loss of strength. When someone believes to be suffering from unexplainable strikes of bad luck and has the above-mentioned symptoms, he/she will try to have a “diagnosis”. Usually an old lady, who has received this wisdom by the fire during Christmas night, would take a dish with water and would drop three drops of oil. If the oil almost fragments and mixes with water, the person was a victim of malocchio, if instead the oil widens over the dish there is no curse. In the first case, a ritual accompanied by prayers is carried out to free the victim. The ritual would include the use of milk or herbs like rue which apparently has amazing properties. The ritual ended with a prayer and the marking of the “victim” with a cross traced seven times with an oiled finger, which shows the commingling of religion and superstition.
The use of herbs against malocchio could be found also in Ancient Rome where basil was used while in Cyprus, even today, olive leaves are burnt. In Sardinia, fighting malocchio was done with the use of a peculiar piece of jewelry called So Kokku or Sabegia, depending on the area. It is made with a stone set between two silver decorations. Usually the stone is an obsidian but also coral or onyx are used. The stone is supposed to absorb what in Sardinia is called “s’ogu malu”, malocchio, or “mazzinas”, so that it would not get to the person wearing it. When the decorations fall off it means the stone is saturated with bad energy and it must be changed with a new and pure one. This jewel was first loaded with “brebbus”, the Sardinian equivalent of “word” or “verb”, and then gifted by mothers, godmothers, or grandmothers to brides or pregnant women and it was worn near the heart or, in case of pregnancy, near the belly to protect the unborn child.
Everybody can be a victim of malocchio or affascino, and for the second a kiss or spitting accompanied by prayers are considered immediate preventive rituals. The kiss, however, is also a means to cause the affascino. In 1722, the Tribunal of the Holy Office accused Camilla Rubino of practicing fascination and, in particular, she reinforced the “affascino” of her victim by means of compliments and kisses given as a preventive measure: “She kissed her three times on the face and at the same time Anna Maria felt three punctures in her heart, like three nails, […] and from then on she felt anxious, lost her appetite and could only drink water[…] after twelve days the above mentioned Camilla went to Anna Maria’s house and kissed her again three times and she immediately felt and gained her appetite. Only her uterus remained swollen but shortly after it deflated”.
Malocchio is so much part of the Italian culture that a comedy film was made in 1983 with Lino Banfi and Johnny Dorelli. Titled Occhio malocchio, prezzemolo e finocchio (Eye, evil eye, parsley and fennel), which makes fun of superstition.
Malocchio is not only a superstition but big business. According to statistics, the business surrounding superstitions and evil magic is worth billions. In Italy, according to Codacons, there are over 160,000 people who operate in this field and 13 million Italians (one out of four) ask for their help. This is a quest for help that makes no difference among age, class or sex. Forty percent are between the ages of 35 and 55, ten percent are teenagers. There is even an Italian website where there is a price list for all magic and we learn that sending a malocchio costs $1200, while removing it costs $900. In reality costs are always much higher and it is common knowledge that some people have been fooled into paying hundreds of thousands of euros to so called witches and wizards.
Many international websites advertise amulets against malocchio at a price that goes from a few dollars to several hundred dollars even involving Tibetan monks for a cross-cultural protection. It seems healthier (and cheaper), as some say, to shield oneself from negative energies imagining to be like a mirror that sends malocchio back to the originator. Religion, in a recurring commingling of sacred and profane, is always there to help and an old Sicilian saying reminds us to recite this saying when one thinks he/she is being evil-ly looked: “Supra ri tia, ca supra ri mia ci sta Gesù, Giuseppe e Maria” (On you, because on me I have Jesus, Joseph and Mary), followed by the sign of the Cross. Some also add the symbol of horns made with pointed index and pinky fingers just to be double sure.
Fun fact is the origin of cows having a bell around their neck: the bell was supposed to send away evil spirits. Ancient Romans, instead, to reach the same goal, hung a copper or iron phallus with tiny bells by the front door of their houses and several beautiful examples of such ornaments are at the Paestum archaeological museum in Southern Italy. Today, not many people believe in superstitions but good luck symbols are still widespread and the general attitude seems to be: “It is not true but I believe it”!