Eyes, Envy and a Glimpse of World Mythology

Have you ever gotten the stink eye from a patient? How about the evil eye of envy from another optician or optometrist when you’ve earned recognition or found success in your practice? It might mean more than you think.

We usually try to keep this blog focused on the real-life issues that affect optometrists and their patients on a daily basis, but an article published this week on opticianonline.net piqued our interest in the mythology of the evil eye all around the globe. As eye doctors, we usually focus on the physiological aspects of the eye. But what about the metaphorical eye that lets us “see the light” of a new idea or “see into the soul” of a lover? We hope you can “look” at this digression from the norm as an enjoyable expansion of your ocular intelligence.

We were surprised to learn that mythology about evil eyes is common in countries ranging from the Arabian Peninsula to South America, and from Christian Europe to India and beyond. Most cultures who attribute power to evil glances share a belief that such a look can bestow a curse. We were even more fascinated to discover all the ways people have tried to protect themselves from these curses.

Many of the most well-known methods for this “evil eye” protection are amulets modeled after the eye of Greek mythological figure Horus. His right eye, was believed to have been torn out in a fight and then offered to the recently deceased Osiris. It was believed that the serpent-haired Medusa, who could turn men to stone with just a single hideous glance, was the bearer of the original evil eye. Shaped like a falcon eye with a teardrop marking underneath, the Osiris eye has been used for centuries as a talisman for protection against the staring eyes of Medusa.

Other cultures employ different strategies, ranging from the seemingly ridiculous to the simple and innocuous. In some parts of Mexico, for example, a curandero folk healer sweeps a raw chicken egg over the body of an evil eye victim to absorb the negative power, and then breaks the egg into water and puts it under the patient’s bed. If it cooks, it’s a sign that the evil eye was having influence. In Assyria, sometimes protection is as simple as a pinch on the buttocks. Historically, Irish children have placed a shilling and sovereign in their pockets and sprinkled water over them as protection.

Even modern-day nihilists and psychoanalysts have jumped into the milieu. One nihilist text, for example, attributes people’s unwillingness to look directly into the evil eye as a denial of the purposelessness of the universe (a core tenet of the philosophical doctrine). Freud thought that the Medusa legend was a castration complex.

Is It All About Envy?

Most recently, an economic scholar from American University published research putting forth the theory that belief in the evil eye is related to envy and social inequality. In relatively unstructured societies with a lot of economic inequality, according to author and Assistant Professor Boris Gershman, making people envious would have been dangerous. In many of those cultures, the evil eye was a sign of envy in the person casting the dark glances. Therefore, avoiding the evil eye was a “rule of thumb” for avoiding jealousy from others, particularly if the people possessing powers of the evil eye were from a different class or race.

Today, getting the “evil eye” or the “stink eye” is synonymous with a simple disapproving look. Most people in the U.S. no longer believe that such looks hold magical power, but we’re not free of fear from the envy, hatred and jealousy of others. Perhaps we could repurpose the beautiful images of the Horus eye as a reminder that encouraging envy and inequality is almost always a bad idea.

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