evil eye

evil eye
   The belief that certain people can inflict disease or death simply by a glance was accepted by the educated throughout medieval and Elizabethan times, as it had been by Pliny and other classical authorities. Scientists held that vision was an active process, in which the eye emitted rays, and that envy or anger made these rays destructive; Francis Bacon, in his essay 'Of Envy' (c.1600), says the emotion causes 'an ejaculation or irradiation of the eye', inflicting a 'stroke or percussion' on the person envied.
   In common speech, the action was called 'overlooking', and it was generally regarded as *witchcraft, consciously used. Writing in the 1890s in Somerset, Elworthy said the stories about it there were 'almost infinite', and 'one of the commonest of everyday facts'. Sick pigs were said to be 'overlooked', and so were sick children; it was taken for granted they would die, so no effort was made to cure them. Certain protective charms designed to attract, deflect, or confuse a witch's gaze, including *witch balls, *horse brasses, and *threshold patterns, reveal a fear of overlooking; however, spoken curses and physical actions are more frequently mentioned than mere looking in English accounts of witchcraft.
   There are occasional English references to the idea, common in Mediterranean countries, that those with the evil eye cannot control it. *Aubrey mentions a man who accidentally overlooked his own cattle (Aubrey 1686/1880: 80); there is an account from Yorkshire of a man who kept his eyes fixed on the ground so as not to harm anyone, and another who made sure he looked at a pear tree first thing every morning, so that it would take the brunt of his power (Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 155).
   ■ Elworthy, 1895/1958, is a valuable introduction, and there is a collection of essays in The Evil Eye: A Casebook, ed. Alan Dundes (1992), but neither uses many English examples.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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