‘If Looks Could Kill’

Not only was the gaze of mortal enemies feared in ancient times, but also the watchfulness of vengeful, jealous, and capricious gods. A remnant of this fear is still contained in the expression ‘if looks could kill’, going back to the days when it was firmly believed that a glance or look from someone thought to have the evil eye was indeed fatal. 

The belief in this superstition is prevalent in many countries worldwide, and nothing has been able to root it out. In rural areas of England and the United States and the foreign populated sections of most large cities, the belief in the evil eye’s effect is very much in evidence and is called ‘overlooking’. In modern Greece and Turkey and countries of the Middle East, Asia and Africa, various amulets are freely available to ward off the evil eye, confirming how widespread this ancient belief still is. References to the evil eye date back thousands of years. Mention of the evil eye is made on Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian clay tablets, in the Talmud, the Bible, the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and in medieval literature. Scholars often refer to the belief in the evil eye as a purely Semitic and Indo-European phenomenon, as it is unknown in countries such as China, Korea, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Aboriginal Australia, New Zealand, and native North and South America. 

The belief in the evil eye originates from the concept of an envious and malignant mind able to project evil thoughts and cast spells through the eyes, thereby causing misfortune, illness, and even death to humans and animals. A malevolent influence is thought to flash from the eyes of envious or angry people, infecting the surrounding air and corrupting any living target or inanimate object. In the same category as this belief is the notion, held at the time of the Black Death in England, that even the glance from an afflicted person’s distorted eyes was enough to communicate the infection to others. A similar belief in modern times in certain African and Asian countries is that just speaking to and looking at someone with HIV can transmit the disease.

Plutarch (46–127 CE) tells us that envy exerts a powerful evil influence through the eyes, piercing with the strength of poisoned arrows. The Romans called the workings of the evil eye fascinatio, and according to Pliny the Elder, the faculty of fascination was so well recognised in ancient Rome that special laws were instituted to protect against injury to crops by incantation or fascination.40 In effect, fascination is probably what is nowadays called mesmerism or hypnotism, by which someone is able to exert an extraordinary influence over others. In ancient times, the gods were also believed to look enviously on humankind’s good fortune and to destroy it with malicious joy. The Greek historian Herodotus warns emphatically: ‘I know that the gods are jealous of our success’.41 

Various physical defects such as crossed eyes, drooping lids, chronic red or bloodshot eyes, and heavy eyebrows meeting in the middle, even red-headed people or hunchbacks, in the past, inevitably resulted in an accusation of possessing the evil eye. During the witch-hunts in the Middle Ages, many an innocent person suffered a cruel death for having any one of these afflictions. In the Mediterranean and Aegean rural regions, there is still a tendency to view blue-eyed locals as possessing the evil eye, probably because few of the locals there have blue eyes. 

From earliest times, mostly women, especially old women and suspected witches, were accused of having the evil eye. A fixed stare, particularly if accompanied by a frown or scowl, was seen as aggressively wishing someone ill. Nowadays, especially in rural areas of Europe, it is still believed by some that to stare fixedly and steadfastly into a fire indicates possessing the evil eye. Formerly, children were therefore severely rebuked if they happened to be fascinated by the flames. The ability to overlook was not only confined to humans. Certain animals, with prominent or glittering eyes, such as snakes, toads, rabbits, foxes, and wolves, were also highly suspect. 

Women, especially during pregnancy or childbirth, and children were considered particularly vulnerable to the evil eye’s effects. Anyone who naturally attracted envy, such as very handsome or wealthy people, the proud and the boastful, or a person receiving praise from others or even from themselves, were considered most at risk. Too much admiration of any person or object would bring about the curse of fascination. Thus, the Greek god, Narcissus, by falling in love with his own image, was thought by many to have ‘fascinated’ himself. 

At one time it was taken for granted that any malady not easily recognised, was due to the evil eye. It was commonly thought that the evil eye could make food poisonous and rob it of all nourishment, a belief dating from biblical times and expressed in the Old Testament:  ‘Eat thou not the bread of him, that hath an evil eye’.42 This is as much a maxim today as it was in ancient times, and thus, saying grace before a meal was considered in many homes a protective gesture. 

Because fear of fascination or of being overlooked was, and is, so universally prevalent, countermeasures to guard and protect against the malignant rays of the evil eye are many. The custom of blackening one’s eyebrows and darkening one’s eyelids, especially common in the East, was originally believed to protect from the darts of those casting the evil eye. Amulets of all shapes and sizes, multi-coloured mirror charms wrapped with beads, buttons, and tassels to deflect the evil eye, as well as bracelets, brooches, and bangles are also believed to protect. Women still often wear amulets suspended between their eyes in many parts of the world to ward off evil glances. 

According to the laws of sympathetic magic, evil has always been used to repel evil, which is why grotesque gargoyles in church architecture are believed to keep away negative influences. Based on the analogy that ‘like cures like’, or ‘like influences like’ in accordance with the principles of sympathetic magic, it was natural that through an association of ideas the representation of an actual eye would serve as a potent protection against the malignant influences of the feared evil eye. Many charms representing the eye were found in Egyptian tombs. Not only the Egyptians, but also the Phoenicians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans used depictions of the eye and the hand as powerful amulets against the evil eye’s influence. All these nations observed the custom of painting a large eye on the bow of their boats and ships, not only to imitate the vigilance necessary to captain or pilot their vessel, but mainly to protect against the evil eye – a custom which continues to be observed in the backwaters of rural India and other Asian countries. Representations of the eye are still sold as amulets against fascination in all Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and Asia.

Garlic, traditionally considered a devil repellent, was also used as a potent prophylactic. A little bread and salt, both blessed ingredients, sown into a piece of cloth and worn around one’s neck or on one’s person, also protected against being overlooked.

The first glance of the evil eye was regarded as fatal. It was therefore very important that any object intended to protect against the evil of fascination should attract the first, immediate, and fatal glance. As indecency or obscenity was inevitably regarded as attracting attention, these were also believed to capture the focus of the dreaded evil eye. Therefore, the most potently protective amulets have always been considered those depicting something strange, uncommon, or obscene. The most popular of these amulets was a representation of the phallus, named the fascinum by the Italians. For the ancient Egyptians, whose belief in, and dread of, the evil eye was ever-present, their efforts to avert or baffle the evil eye from the living and the dead were constant and elaborate. In one of the tombs of the kings at Thebes, a painting depicts the goddess Hathor presenting a double phallus in the shape of a horseshoe to Ramses IX.43 In this case, two protective symbols have been combined – the representation of the phallus and the horseshoe. The idea of phallic necklaces is of great antiquity and was passed on from the ancient Egyptians to Greece and Rome. Preferred charms in Rome were those representing a phallus made of gold or silver.

Similarly, hideous and contorted faces, seen on masks and used in the rituals and festivals of many religions, are objects used to attract the evil eye and to absorb its harmful influence, thus protecting the person wearing the mask. In ancient Greece, one favoured amulet was that of Medusa’s head, one of the three Gorgons of Greek mythology who had snakes for hair and whose stare could turn anyone to stone. This further bears out the universal idea that grotesque, devil-like images were considered protective against the very same beings and entities they were supposed to represent. 

Another powerfully protective symbol is the human hand. Although the eyes were regarded as the chief medium of communicating evil, touch also played an important part. The personal contact through touch seemed to convey an invisible influence of heightened intensity in addition to that included in the evil eye’s general effect. The most natural and commonly used appendage in touching someone is the hand, which is considered a very powerful protector in warding off evil influences of any kind. Early examples of hands used as amulets are small pieces of bronze cut into shape with eyelets for suspension, found in Etruscan and Greek tombs. In modern times, hand-shaped amulets, also depicting an eye for double protection, known in the Middle East as the ‘Hamsa Hand’, amongst Jews as the ‘Hand of Miriam’, and amongst Muslims as the ‘Hand of Fatima’, are still in popular use.

Given the ancient background and widespread belief in the evil eye, common phrases such as ‘to give someone the evil eye’ or ‘if looks could kill’, suddenly take on a whole new meaning.


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