The Evil Eye's Ancient Power Still Resonates Today

By: Dave Roos  | 
Evil eye amulets, Turkey
Blue evil eyes hang on a tree in winter in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The evil eye is said to cause physical and mental illness and these amulets offer protection from it. Ayhan Altun/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The evil eye is a belief that certain individuals possess the power to harm others simply by looking at them with envy or malice.
  • Across various cultures, talismans and rituals are employed to ward off the effects of the evil eye, protecting individuals from misfortune.
  • While the concept may seem superstitious to some, belief in the evil eye continues to influence cultural practices and beliefs worldwide.

What do fashion model Gigi Hadid, Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and my 98-year-old grandma have in common? A belief in the "quiet curse" of the evil eye.

In 2017, Hadid released a line of shoes emblazoned with the nazar, the traditional eye-shaped amulet believed to ward off the evil eye. Markle has been frequently photographed wearing evil eye jewelry, like necklaces and rings featuring the nazar and also the hamsa, the hand-shaped talisman favored by Jewish and Muslim cultures to deflect the evil eye.


My late grandmother didn't wear eye-catching evil eye amulets, but she was keenly aware of the dangers of sharing good news in public for fear of inviting the envious glances that released the evil eye. "Kinehora," she'd say in Yiddish, followed by three staccato spitting sounds, "Pooh, pooh, pooh," the protective spell of all Jewish grandmothers. (Kinehora is a contraction of three Yiddish words, kayn ayin hara, meaning "No evil eye.")

Despite their differences in age and cultural backgrounds, all three women are proof that belief in the evil eye symbol is as persistent today as it was 5,000 years ago. As long as there is envy, jealousy and "negative energy" in the air, the evil eye will always be with us.


What Is the Evil Eye?

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. At this shop in the bazaar, you can buy an evil eye talisman, an evil eye bracelet or other objects to protect you from the evil eye. Emad aljumah/Getty Images

"The evil eye is a curse that's unleashed by a glance or a stare," says Antonio Pagliarulo, author of the new book, "The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery and Magic of the Quiet Curse." "And it's born of envy and jealousy, but also of resentment, anger or greed. Most of the time the curse is intentional, but it can also be roused unintentionally, which is where you get the 'spitting' or different hand gestures to ward it away."

The evil eye originated from the ancient belief that the eyes are conduits for energy, both positive and negative. Even a passing glance, if directed with enough malice or envy, can zap the recipient with a beam of bad juju or bad luck.


That's exactly how Plutarch, the Greek philosopher and historian, described the evil eye 2,000 years ago. In a collection of essays called "Moralia," Plutarch explained that the emotions of the mind increase the violence and energy of the body's powers. When someone is overcome with jealousy, their body literally fills up with evil. And because the eyes are so physically close to the mind, the evil energy shoots out of the eyes as a malevolent glare, and into its victim.

What Are the Effects of the Evil Eye?

Any bad outcome can potentially be traced back to the evil eye. If you suffer illness or injury, it was brought by the evil eye. If you lose your job or get robbed, the evil eye was behind it. Even inanimate objects can be afflicted by the evil eye. If your basement floods or your smartphone dies, that's also the evil eye at work.

Babies, children, pregnant women and animals are most vulnerable to the evil eye, which is why cultures the world over prescribe different amulets and rituals to protect them.


In Turkey, it's a custom for family and friends to give a small blue-and-white nazar token to newborn babies to ward off the evil eye. In India, some parents use kohl to draw a black dot on their infant's face to deflect the evil eye, known there as nazar or drishti. My grandmother and some other Jewish parents tie a red ribbon to a baby's crib to misdirect the evil eye.

When it comes to pregnancy — a condition fraught with uncertainty and anxiety — believers in the evil eye will avoid any behavior or speech that "tempts fate," as Pagliarulo puts it.

"In the Italian and Catholic culture that I was raised in, there was no such thing as a baby shower," says Pagliarulo. "That was seen as a dangerous thing to do." Instead, pregnant women would wear amulets and say special prayers to ward off the evil eye, and newborn babies had ribbons pinned to their onesies in the hospital to protect them.

In 2021, the state-run religious authority in Turkey caused a stir by proclaiming that wearing evil eye talismans was prohibited under Islam, because one shouldn't attribute power to anyone or anything but Allah.


The Ancient Origins of the Evil Eye

wedjat eye
The wedjat eye, the left eye of the Egyptian god Horus, symbolized light and provided protection against the evil eye curse. It was one of the most popular amulets in ancient Egypt. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It shouldn't be a surprise that some of the cultures with the richest and most vibrant evil eye traditions today — among them Italy, Greece and Turkey — are found near the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. The region has produced rituals and charms to ward off the evil eye for thousands of years./\r\n/

The oldest evil eye talismans discovered by archeologists are the so-called "eye idols" excavated from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Tell Brak in modern-day Syria. The small figures, carved out of gypsum, have oversized eyes and functioned as protective idols against the evil eye as far back as 3300 B.C.E.


In ancient Egypt, the Eye of Horus (also known as the wedjat) performed the same function. The recognizable symbol, painted on homes and buried in the tombs of pharaohs, offered protection from the evil eye in the realms of both the living and the dead.

Plutarch wasn't the only ancient Greek writer to describe the evil eye and its effects. In a third-century romantic novel called "Aethiopica," the Greek writer Heliodorus of Emesa made an explicit connection between jealousy and the evil eye:

"When anyone looks at what is excellent with an envious eye he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality, and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him."

As for the blue-and white "glass eye" beads and other nazar amulets sold in Mediterranean marketplaces, historians believe they started as the blue-hued Eyes of Horus from Egypt, then evolved and spread throughout the region through successive empires including the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans.

"I think the evil eye has survived for millennia because it's a facet of the human condition; it's in our spiritual DNA," says Pagliarulo. "Everyone has felt envious or jealous at some point in their life, and everyone has been the target of someone else's envy or jealousy."


Protecting Yourself From the Evil Eye

evil eye charms
This model wears a variety of evil eye charms, including a hamsa (hand-shaped pendant) and a Turkish evil eye pendant. Dark blue is for karma and fate protection, while light blue is for general protection. Siro Rodenas Cortes/Getty Images

Pagliarulo comes from a long line of believers in the evil eye and a long line of "folk magicians" who are skilled in the ways of detecting and lifting the curse. Pagliarulo's grandmother kept a bowl of water in her kitchen in which she would pour droplets of olive oil. The shapes and patterns that formed in the water would tell her if a family member or concerned neighbor was stricken with the evil eye.

"In the town in Italy where my grandmother was from, she was very well-known as a person who could remove il malocchio, the evil eye," says Pagliarulo.


To lift the curse, Pagliarulo's grandmother, a devout Catholic, would prescribe certain prayers or the wearing of a talisman. Sometimes matches or herbs were burned, or a pinch of salt was rubbed on the victim's neck.

In his book, Pagliarulo shares some of his own methods for warding off the evil eye, including daily meditation, honing his "intuition" and wearing certain amulets ("I wear a lot of amulets!" he says). Feel free to celebrate accomplishments and blessings like a new job or a new baby, Pagliarulo advises, but avoid being boastful or prideful.

Pagliarulo insists that belief in the evil eye doesn't have to be based in fear or superstition. Instead, it can be freeing.

"Energy is energy; the evil eye is out there," says Pagliarulo. "But rather than focus on fear, you can focus on awareness and taking positive steps to protect yourself and your loved ones."


Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any scientific explanations for the belief in the evil eye?
While the belief in the evil eye is primarily rooted in cultural and folkloric traditions, some scholars suggest psychological and sociological explanations. These include concepts like envy, subconscious cues and the impact of negative energy on psychological well-being.
How does the belief in the evil eye affect social interactions?
It can foster caution and suspicion, especially in cultures where it's prevalent. People may avoid flaunting their successes or possessions to prevent envy and potential harm.