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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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1.2 The Evil Eye

Another side of the theory of extramission led to the belief in the ‘Evil Eye’: simply by looking at you for a little bit too long, an enemy could harm you.

The Evil Eye was particularly associated with envy; the eyes drew this envy from the soul and then sent it out to another person. There was even a risk of looking at one’s reflection and ‘evil-eyeing’ oneself! One way to avert the Evil Eye was to wear an image of an eye, or have one painted on a wall or boat, which was believed to send out powers which prevented evil from striking. The Evil Eye has many enemies: images which are particularly effective at distracting or deflecting it, which may be represented in Roman art surrounding or attacking the Eye.

Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye, depicting the Evil Eye being attacked on all sides.
Figure 3 Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye, c. second century CE

In Figure 3 you can see the enemies of the Evil Eye – the ways of stopping its malign influence – which include animals like the raven, cheetah, scorpion or centipede, and objects like swords, tridents and arrows, as well as powerful or protective images like the phallus. Perhaps the most common method of all to avoid the effects of the Evil Eye was to call on the Roman god Fascinus, represented as a phallus. The phallus image was carved into doors, floors and walls, hung from wind-chimes, and worn as a necklace or ring. It was used by both adults and children, but children were thought to need extra protection. In the section Making collyria you will see one being worn by Dr Laurence Totelin as she makes up a Roman remedy. Another way to avoid the danger of the Evil Eye was to spit.

This was only one of the magical aspects of preserving one’s own health and damaging that of others: you will encounter others later in this course. The belief in the Evil Eye still persists in many cultures today, and you may like to carry out a search on the internet to find an image of one.