The Evil Eye, Thanatology, and Other Essays
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Pages (PDF): 240
Publication Date: 1912
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Chapters include: The Evil Eye; Thanatology; Serpent-Myths and Serpent Worship; Iatro-Theurgic Symbolism; The Relation of the Grecian Mysteries to the Foundation of Christianity; The Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem; Giordano Bruno; Student Life in the Middle Ages; A Study of Medical Words, Deeds and Men; The Career of the Army Surgeon; The Evolution of the Surgeon from the Barber; The Story of the Discovery of the Circulation; and, History of Anaesthesia and the Introduction of Anaesthetics in Surgery.
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Belief in magic has been called by Tylor, one of the greatest authorities on the occult sciences, "one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind." It has been at all times among credulous and superstitious people made the tool of envy, which Bacon well described as the vilest and most depraved of all feelings. Bacon, moreover, singled out love and envy as the only two affections which have been noted to fascinate, or bewitch, since they both have "vehement wishes, frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions and come easily into the eye." He also noted the fact that in the Scriptures envy was called the Evil Eye.
It is to this interesting subject in anthropological and folk-lore study, namely, the Evil Eye, that I wish to invite your attention for a time. Belief in it is, of course, inseparable from credence in a personal devil or some personal evil and malign influence, but in modern times and among people who are supposed to be civilized has been regarded ordinarily as an attribute of the devil. Consideration of the subject is inseparable, too, from a study of the expressions "to fascinate" and "to bewitch." Indeed this word "fascination" has a peculiar etymological interest. It seems to be a Latin form of the older Greek verb "baskanein," or else to be descended from a common root. No matter what its modern signification, originally it meant to bewitch or to subject to an evil influence, particularly by means of eyes or tongue or by casting of spells. Later it came to mean the influencing of the imagination, reason or will in an uncontrollable manner, and now, as generally used, means to captivate or to allure. Its use in our language is of itself an indication of the superstition so generally prevalent centuries ago. It is, however, rather a polite term for which we have the more vulgar equivalent "to bewitch," used in a signification much more like the original meaning.
Belief in an evil power constantly at work has existed from absolutely prehistoric times. It has been more or less tacitly adopted and sanctioned by various creeds or religious beliefs, particularly so by the church of Rome, by mediaeval writers and by writers on occult science. Even now it exists not only among savage nations but everywhere among common people. We to-day may call it superstition, but there was a time when it held enormous sway over mankind, and exercised a tremendous influence. In its present form it consists often of a belief that certain individuals possess a blighting power, and the expression in England to "overlook" is not only very common, but an easily recognizable persistence of the old notion. Evidently St. Paul shared this prevalent belief when he rebuked the foolish Galatians, saying as in our common translation, "Who hath bewitched you that ye should not obey the truth?" In the Vulgate the word translated "bewitch" is "fascinare," exactly the same word as used by Virgil, and referring to the influence of the evil eye. Cicero himself discussed the word "fascination," and he explained the Latin verb invidere and noun invidia as meaning to look closely at; whence comes our word envy, or evil eye.
All the ancients believed that from the eyes of envious or angry people there was projected some malign influence which could infect the air and penetrate and corrupt both living creatures and inanimate objects. Woyciki, in his Polish Folk-lore, relates the story of a most unhappy Slav, who though possessed of a most loving heart realized that he was afflicted with the evil eye, and at last blinded himself in order that he might not cast a spell over his children. Even to-day, among the Scotch Highlanders, if a stranger look too admiringly at a cow the people believe that she will waste away of the evil eye, and they give him of her milk to drink in order to break the spell. Plutarch was sure that certain men's eyes were destructive to infants and young animals, and he believed that the Thebans could thus destroy not only the young but strong men. The classical writers are so full of allusions to this subject that it is easy to see where people during the Middle Ages got their prevalent belief in witches. Thus, Pliny said that those possessed of the evil eye would not sink in water, even if weighed down with clothes; hence the mediaeval ordeal by water;—which had, however, its inconveniences for the innocent, for if the reputed witch sank he evidently was not guilty, but if he floated he was counted guilty and then burned.
Not only was this effect supposed to be produced by the fascinating eye, but even by the voice, which, some asserted, could blast trees, kill children and destroy animals. In Pliny's time special laws were enacted against injury to crops by incantation or fascination; but the Romans went even farther than this, and believed that their gods were envious of each other and cast their evil eyes upon the less powerful of their own circle; hence the caduceus which Mercury always carried as a protection.
To be the reputed possessor of an evil eye was an exceeding great misfortune. Solomon lent himself to the belief when he enjoined, "Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye." (Prov. 23:6). The most inconvenient country in which to have this reputation to-day is Italy, and especially in Naples. The Italians apply the term jettatore to the individual thus suspected, and to raise the cry of "Jettatore" in a Neapolitan crowd even to-day is to cause a speedy stampede. For the Italians the worst of all is the "jettatore di bambini," or the fascinator of infants. Elworthy relates the case of a gentleman who on three occasions acted in Naples in the capacity of sponsor; singularly all three children died, whereupon he at once got the reputation of having the "malocchio" to such an extent that mothers would take all sorts of precautions to keep their children out of his sight. The great Bacon lent himself also to the belief to such an extent as to advise the carrying on one's person of certain articles, such as rue, or a wolf's tail or even an onion, by which the evil influence was supposed to be averted.
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