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The evil eye is a kind of curse put on a child, livestock, crops, etc., by someone who has the "evil eye." There does not seem to be any particular reason why some people are born with and others without the evil eye. The curse is usually unintentional and caused by praising and looking enviously at the victim. In Sicily and southern Italy, however, it is believed that some people--jettatore-- are malevolent and deliberately cast the evil eye on their victims. Belief in the evil eye is not necessarily associated with witchcraft or sorcery, though Evil Eye was something Church inquisitors were instructed to look for. Pope Pius IX was reputed to be a jettatore, not because it was thought he was malevolent but rather because it seemed that disasters fell upon persons and places he had blessed.
The superstitious belief in the evil eye is ancient and widespread, though certainly not universal. It is thought to have originated in Sumeria. Its origins are obscure but the belief may have its roots in fear of strangers or other social concerns and simple post hoc reasoning, e.g., praise is given or a stranger passes and later a child is sick or the crops fail. Various rituals have developed to counteract the effects of the evil eye, such as defusing the praise, putting spit or dirt on a child who is praised, averting the gaze of strangers, reciting some verses from the Bible or the Koran, etc. The belief is especially prevalent today in the Mediterranean and Aegean, where apotropaic amulets and talismans are commonly sold as protection against the evil eye. Some folklorists believe that the evil eye belief is rooted in primate biology (dominance and submission are shown by gazing and averting the gaze) and relates to our dislike of staring.
The evil eye is known as ayin horeh in Hebrew; ayin harsha in Arabic, droch shuil in Scotland, mauvais oeil in France, bösen Blick in Germany, mal occhio in Italy and was known as oculus malus among the classical Romans.
See also superstition.
books and articles
The Skinny on the Evil Eye by Hannah HolmesEvil eye - Fortean Times