Friday, September 7, 2007

Apotropaism and the Evil Eye

and traps of all kinds

Looking through the exhibition checklist for the show (see previous post) at the Corning Museum of Glass, I came across the term "apotropaic", referring to "objects such as amulets and talismans or other symbols intended to 'ward off evil' or 'avert or combat evil.'" [wiki] The term apotrope comes from the Greek meaning "to turn away", and seems to express itself a great deal in eye symbology.

Take, for example, Mediterranean eye beads, worn or hung in the home to avert the evil eye, which is an incredibly widespread belief, traditionally found all the way from Britain through Europe and Russia and on down into the Middle East and India. The evil eye is invited, either inadvertently or purposefully, by complimenting someone or looking enviously on something of theirs - or similarly, by the staring of strangers. The root of this evil is set in envy, and as a result vocal or obvious admiration of something is taboo in many cultures. Thus the tradition of indirect appreciation, and sayings such as Masha'Allah ("God has willed it"), or Keyn aynhoreh ("no evil eye"), to misdirect the effects of the admiration. Some people believe that the expression of admiration or envy will catch the attention of God(s), and inspire the deity to redress the balance by evening out the fortunes of the admirer and admiree, so to speak.

Eye beads are common throughout Greece, Turkey, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and I have even seen them for sale in Venice. Traditionally they are blue, which is a color said to reflect the blueness of the evil eye; people with green eyes are suspiciously evil eye-like, and there is even some speculation that the blueness traditional to the eye-beads comes from foreigners with blue eyes, who bumble in and compliment everyone in a terribly inauspicious way. The symbol can be seen everywhere - on bracelets, pendants, doorways, keychains and even on airplanes and boats. Wikipedia even mentions eyes being painted on drinking vessels in ancient Greece to protect the drinkers (I wonder what from?).

The tradition of painting eyes on boats, which in the Mediterranean is directly correlated with the evil eye, as well as with the Eye of Horus - which is a symbol of protection and indestructibility - seems to be common all over the world. In most places, such as in Asia and the Norse traditions, the eye on the boat has more to do with seeing, with finding one's way safely. But it's still an eye, and it's still protection.

This idea of bad intentions or evil energy being thrown at or drawn to one is pretty much common throughout humanity. In parts of Africa and Indonesia, black magic and curses are very real and present. I sat next to a man on a bus in Java once who claimed he was a black magician, and who told me all about it. I didn't like him very much and was trying really hard not to have him touch my knee anymore, so I didn't listen as closely as I should have, and have cursed my high morals ever since, as I could have learned more than I did; but nontheless, I was surprised to find the darkness under the everyday life of what seemed, to a tourist like me at that time, to be one kind of simply Muslim culture.

A Javanese shadow puppet, with the traditional black-and-white decoration worked in

One thing I did remember him telling me was that much of the decoration you see in Java and Bali, of the alternating black and white squares, was about black magic and white magic being kept in balance. A warding, of a sort. There are many, many types of warding for bad influences - the eye beads, of course; and horseshoes, which despite folklore about "holding in luck" are held, in older folklore, to be about reversing evil influence (I imagine the evil swooshing around the curve of the horseshoe like a Nascar racer around a corner, and zooming away again). Fish are considered immune to the evil eye by Jews and others, possibly because they are so wet, and the evil eye's effects are often of a wasting, drying kind (and fish are always wet). There are special woods, of course, like rowan branches in British/Celtic tradition, as well as the tying of red string; red thread is also, in Jewish custom, a ward for babies against the evil eye (people do tend to admire babies a lot).

The mention of string brings me back to the Corning Exhibit. I was riveted by the description of "witch balls", which included this blurb: "The evil eye is not the only source of ambient negativity and ill will. “Witches,” for example, can include anyone who actively wishes misfortune or sickness on others, or who causes others to suffer. The witch ball is believed to be the ancestor of the Christmas tree ornament, which was originally meant to protect gifts from outsiders who might covet them. In the United States, witch balls were traditionally filled with colorful bits of paper and string to confuse and repel witches who might be lurking around the house."

This witch ball, an antique, is one of the decorative, bright types of witch balls which you can still find today all over the internet. This one reminds me, oddly enough, of a glass eye bead.

Another source speaks of how witch balls were used to cover the tops of milk jugs, creamers, and bowls, but didn't discuss why; I found myself thinking of the tales of magical beings being given offerings of milk, and malevalent ones liking to spoil it. Witches, for example, are widely-known to cause milk to curdle. Could the witch balls be a sort of charm against that, to begin with, and somehow expanding to mean protection for the whole household? In other literature, witch-balls are commonly described as simply colorful or reflective glass balls that were hung in windows or around the garden, to confuse and sometimes even imprison the malevalent presence which a witch may have sent toward your household. Strings are mentioned only rarely as being inserted, though there are ample examples, both new and old, of glass balls, often with glass threads running across the inside, which are described as "witch balls". Wikipedia describes an appalachian tradition whereby black hair could be balled up with beeswax "into a hard round pellet about the size of a marble and is used in curses. In Ozark folklore, a witch that wants to kill someone will take this hair ball and throw it at the intended victim; it is said that when someone in the Ozarks is killed by a witch's curse, this witch ball is found near the body."

Bhutanese spirit trap: see? They're everywhere

Then there are sprite traps (corruption of "spirit traps"), which are made from red thread woven or tied onto a branch (often rowan), sometimes with a bit of copper wire. The traps are placed in front of the front and back doors of a dwelling or other building. Once a spirit is caught, the threads are cut and placed inside a witch bottle (which appears to be a less-expensive form of witch ball), and the bottle is often buried under a doorstep or hearth or other place around the home. Back again to thread or string inside a glass object!

Another form of bad-feeling catcher: the Dream-catcher, which is traditionally hung above Ojibwe newborn's beds to catch everything evil but let everything good through

Other stories, particularly of witch bottles which have been dug up recently around England, show that many witch bottles were filled with actual human bits such as hair or fingernails, bent pins and urine. This was apparently a way to point it toward a witch who may have been doing harm. When someone was unable to pass water, or took sick, or died, you would know who the witch was.

This might explain why the witch balls/bottles, the ones I find especially fascinating, with the string and other stuff in them, are so rare. It's only on occasion that they are found, dug up or unearthed in some other way, and then I wouldn't wonder if they didn't often get thrown away, as I would guess the buried ones might be a bit creepy and dirty. In any case, my searches for images of the American kind of witch ball, with the bits of paper and string, have been mostly fruitless. I do wish I could find more pictures of them, as the image in my mind is strong, and I'd love to compare.

Witch bottle found under a house in England

As Brian Hoggard over at says, "How fearful of supernatural intrusion into your home would you have to be before you'd consider lifting your hearthstone, digging a hole and inserting a bottle filled with pins and urine?" Which brings up an interesting point. Even today, I know when I'm having extremely good fortune, I can't help wondering when it's going to end. It feels weird to boast about things - superstition kicks in and I'm compelled to knock on wood or make light of my fortune. I work hard at not congratulating myself on being happy, for the happier I get, the more I notice where I could be. "There but for the grace of God go I," becomes my mantra, other peoples' misfortune a persistent dark spot at the edge of my fortune.

This feeling that the bad things are out there, waiting to pounce, must have been very pronounced in the old days. I always think of the Salem witch trials, or Cromwellian England, or even, to a lesser degree, McCarthyism, as these moments when that feeling - the one that tells us this happiness is fleeting, that there is bad luck (or, if you prefer, bad intentions) lurking just beyond reach - has taken over an entire populace. They are horrible moments, periods of extreme unease when no one feels they can trust another person, when the winter of the soul sets in and no one is certain of anything anymore, least of all why. Some of my friends would have us believe that this moment, now, 2007, is one of those times: when getting in and out of the US is becoming more and more difficult and there is free license to look into all our private affairs for no reason at all; when people living next door to each other are encouraged to turn each other in.

That may be true; but I get through it by working, all the time, to try to generate some light in this darkness. Hanging onto the wonder, looking at minutae and seeing the joy and the life in it - and helping others to see and remember those joys - is one of the best ways I know to find our way. May you all find your paths without stumbling.

Some links:
- Curious Expeditions discusses some interesting bottles which may or may not ward off bad luck for the drinker (much as the Greek cups do), among a collection of other remarkable, though less magic-oriented, bottles.
- An excellent page on the history of the Ojibwe's use of dreamcatchers and the woman ethnologist who carefully and extensively studied them.
- An unusual, completely unopened witch bottle made of ceramic, with a face on it, in the BBC News
- Another witch bottle in the BBC News.
- One place to buy eye beads, if you're interested.


Crystal King said...

Actually, on the cups in Greece (and Rome), eyes were painted on the cups because they were wide and covered the eyes of the drinkers when they were raised. Some thoughtful artisan came up with the idea of putting eyes on the cups to compensate and it caught on...nothing to do with the evil eye. :)

Heather McDougal said...

Wow, that's an interesting explanation, I think I might like that better. What a great idea.

You should check into changing the Wikipedia article...

Heather McDougal said...

Gak, I just looked at the Wikipedia article and it's not there anymore. Am I going crazy, or did I read it somewhere else? In any case, CAUGHT! Without my references to hand.

I'll look into it, and find out where I read that.

Anonymous said...

The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has witch bottles, and some rather macabre things that have been dug up containing frogs and so forth. You can see a photo of one of their witch bottles on the poetry competition page here:

If you haven't been there, it is one of the ultimate cabinet of curiosities