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The Eyes Have It: The Evil Eye in Greece


Go out armed with a charm (or cross) and hope for the best!

THERE you are in an afternoon meeting, refreshed from a good eight-hours sleep, satisfied from a light and healthy lunch, and eager to discuss with your boss your new plans, when suddenly your head goes thick and hurts all over, your breath becomes short, nausea seeps up your trachea and you lose your sense of balance, being unable to think or communicate properly, as if you're moving in heavy syrup.

You feel alarm, because you can't find a rational explanation for this state. It could be a headache - but it's not just your head that hurts. It could be your blood pressure - but you don't normally suffer from such problems, or you experience that sense of weakness and discomfort differently. Maybe it's something you ate? Can you eat poisonous pasta? That would explain the nausea but what about the head-to-toe aching and dizziness, and that notion of foreboding?

In Greece you won't be considered foolish or insane if you simply assume it's an evil eye curse. The evil eye, a glance believed to have the ability to harm those on whom it falls, can come from anyone at any moment, or you can draw it to yourself. The cause can be zealous admiration, envy or even malevolent jealousy. Children and women are thought to be particularly susceptible, while in many traditions strangers, malformed or blue-eyed individuals and old women are most often accused of casting the evil eye.

Belief in the evil eye is ancient and widespread; it occurred in ancient Greece and Rome , and is found in Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures, being particularly prevalent today in the Mediterranean and Aegean .

The "curse" is usually thought to be unintentional, although it can be deliberate (in southern Italy it is believed that some people - gettatori - are spiteful and deliberately cast the evil eye on their victims). Some folklorists presume that the evil eye belief is rooted in primate biology (as dominance and submission are expressed by gazing and averting the gaze) and relates to our dislike of and discomfort during staring.

In Greece and in Turkey , glass blue eye charms to ward against the evil eye are still regularly sold - very often to be pinned on a baby's clothing. A religiously devout as well as superstitious nation as the Greeks are, they will often wear a protective charm, or mataki, as well as the cross, around the neck.

This is an issue over which Greek church and folklore are both united and separated. They are joined in their belief that the curse of the evil eye (or kako mati) exists, but divided in how it can be warded off or tackled.

The Greek Orthodox Church has recognised the kako mati since the establishment of the faith. The church calls it Vaskania (pronounced Vas-ka-nee-a) and has a special prayer made especially to help cure those who have fallen under the curse.

In talking with members of the church, the Athens News found that a slight division of opinion surrounding Vaskania exists within the Greek Orthodox faith as well. Father Sotirios says that the evil eye is "a form of Satanism, or black magic, which can injure and even kill, " and that it comes mainly from a sense of "acute jealousy, or coveting of others. " Instead, Father Haralambos, from the church of Ag . Paraskevi, took a far more positive stance on it, saying that the evil eye is "an expression of extreme admiration", adding that "it can be compared to putting too much fertiliser on a plant, which will make it wilt rather than blossom." Both agreed that symptoms include dizziness, headache, pain and a loss of one's bearings, and that wearing a cross protects one from the evil eye, whilst wearing a charm can't do you any harm but is not recognised by the church as a form of protection.

As for the prayer that is designed to alleviate the symptoms, the priests were insistent in their belief that it should be done by a member of the church rather than a layman. Common practise in Greek society has it that people are taught the prayer by a priest and will use it themselves to 'treat' cursed friends and relatives, sometimes even over the phone. Father Haralambos says the prayer may work if done from afar, "as long as the spiritual connection and good intentions between the person doing the prayer and the person who is unwell is strong, but that such a phenomenon would be rare." Some believe that for a woman to be able to do the prayer she must be taught it by a man.

Father Sotirios is adamant that the prayer should be done by the church, "if someone outside the church does the prayer, it may have a negative influence. Also, it is a sign that you don't have enough faith in God to help you."

Sister Aimiliani, a nun at the Exaltation of the Holy Cross monastery in Thebes , presents a different view of the curse of the evil eye. She confirms that the church recognises it but adds "what one has to understand is that just as we recognise the existence of demons and the devil, we affirm that they have no more power than we give them."

Sister Aimiliani pronounces that the Vaskania is not just about what others do or feel, but also about what we draw towards ourselves. "We have to accept responsibility for our own passions and sins and what makes us vulnerable as the receiver. We are not just victims," she says. Being the target of the evil eye, she explains, means that there is something inside you that needs to be addressed at the heart. Having the prayer done for you each time you receive the kako mati may alleviate the superficial symptoms, but the process will be repeated and you will remain vulnerable within. It is through confession, she believes, "by regularly opening your heart", that one can release any darkness and negativity that may reside inside us and, in turn, attract more of its kind from those around us like a mirror. "If you face your own sins constantly, you will find both strength and humility, and the evil eye will not be able to affect you."

She adds somewhat mysteriously to this tenet that if one constantly publicises one's good, honourable or admirable deeds and feats without simultaneously celebrating in the same way those of others, "God will in turn publicly present all your faults, sins and dishonourable features to the same extent."

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