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Does the "Evil Eye" Exist?

And do amulets and rituals have extraordinary power?

There are moments in my work as a therapist when things like the notion of the “evil eye” warrant some thought. As a second generation Italian-American, I was familiar with the Italian version of the “evil eye,” the “mal’occhio” —someone wishing bad things happen to you as the result of envy, but always regarded such beliefs as goofy. So as a person trained to understand the human psyche, I thought I'd explore the phenomenon on my own. Does “the evil eye” actually exist and do amulets and rituals have extraordinary power?

In a documentary film entitled "Mal'occhio" (The Evil Eye) by Agata De Santis, the “evil eye,” was defined as an inadvertent look of envy that caused a person to get a headache or stomach ache and thus necessitating a counteroffensive ritual to “heal” the malady. Numerous scholars were interviewed and in conclusion, could not be definitive in dismissing such beliefs and rituals as ridiculous. From the psychological perspective, the phenomena needed some further consideration.

I began my exploration with my immediate source, my 92 year old Italian born father. It had been many years since we’d spoken about the notion of the evil eye and in bringing up the topic, we both laughed. For effect, I told him that I thought I might have the “mal'occhio,” since my stomach hadn't been right lately. He smiled and said that I must have not eaten well and next time to watch what I ate. But then, just to be sure, he proceeded to place his hand on my head and say some ritualistic prayer that he had been taught almost a century ago in Italy in an attempt to do what a Tums couldn’t. It was a tender moment that led me to recall times in my childhood when, in the busy pace of life, some old relative took the time to see if you had the evil eye instead of getting you an aspirin. The "anti mal'occhio" ritual was always performed by some maternal/paternal older person with the confidence that after their words, you'd be fine. There is something to be said about how powerful both the attention and nurturing attendance to something as basic as a headache or stomach ailment can prove to be. It explains why such beliefs and rituals have survived the centuries. The nurturing nature of caring for and about someone with either a headache or stomach problems and the intentioned attempt to “cure” them of their pain by saying ritualistic prayers when they have found little relief in traditional medicine made sense from a psychological and survivalistic perspective. In the face of twenty-first century science, evolved generations later, there is something to be said about the the power of a “healing” ritual—the power of loving, caring attention. Love and attention when you're not feeling well, like chicken soup, helps a lot.

Then there is the phenomenon of wearing an amulet to ward off the evil eye-- a proactive attempt to avoid the evil eye altogether. For Italians it is a horn, a “cornetto” or a hunchbacked man. Such items must be given to you by someone, never purchased for yourself. It is precisely the fact that this item must be given to you and the subsequent power of a relationship between giver and receiver-- the caring demonstrated by someone who bothers to give you something to ward off the evil eye, something “just in case,” that might explain the curative effect. What is extraordinary is the power of someone giving you something for “protection” that far exceeds the supernatural.

So, the jury is out regarding the “power” of an amulet or whether “the evil eye” exists, but wearing something that someone gave you for protection probably can’t hurt.

More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
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More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
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