Evil Eye

Ottoman Physicians

Ottoman Physicians

Project Overview: 

Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval times professed distinct theologies but amazingly similar popular beliefs about the need for a defense against a shared threat: the Evil Eye. This fear persists to the present day, creating a collective repository for protective symbols in all three faiths. That precedent-setting material culture endures, even among those who now appear diffident about their religious identities.

Particularly around the medieval and modern Mediterranean littoral, Jews, Christians, and Muslims collectively feared the Evil Eye. Praying to one deity, whether in synagogues, churches, or mosques, Abrahamic believers lived parallel lives; they touched but never merged. Yet members of each faith feared the same threat in the Evil Eye, launched upon them by the jealous glance or desire of an open or hidden enemy. Scriptural sources were found to justify the creation of a pervasive symbolic material culture of protection, one that now extends from the Mediterranean across the Atlantic to Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Although the concept of the Evil Eye is shared by practitioners of the three great monotheisms, the material manifestations of this belief also reveal distinctive cultural nuances, many of them gendered. Color-coded protective devices feature the deepest blue of lapis lazuli in beads of glass for the common devices intended to ward off the Evil Eye, variously known in Arabic as al-‘ayn; in Hebrew as rah ayin; in Spanish as mal de ojo; and in Italian as malocchio).  

(See figure 1, a Turkish Islamic Eye from Istanbul, Turkey, nearly the same as one created in Orthodox Christian Greece, figure 2. Photographs by the author.)

Figure 1 Turkish Islamic Eye

Figure 2 Greek Orthodox Christian Eye

Among Jews and Muslims, the Hand (of God) or of Fatima, respectively, also repelled the Evil Eye. Often the Hand’s power was enhanced by blue beads to ward off evil.

(Figure 3: An Egyptian Hand with blue Evil Eye beads. Photograph by the author.)

Figure 3 Egyptian Hand with blue evil eye beads

Vivid coral red also served the same apotropaic purpose. Depending on Sunni or Shi‘i Muslim contexts, respectively, the Hand, known as the Khamsa (or Five), represented either the Five Pillars or the faith of Islam – or the five sacred members of the Prophet’s family (Muhammad, Fatima, his daughter, ‘Ali, the Prophet’s first cousin and closest male relation – and Fatima’s husband, and their two sons, the Prophet’s grandsons, his most direct male heirs: Hassan and Husayn.) This project aims to capture the shared material culture of fear and protection summoned by believers across their intersecting medieval spaces.


Project Team: 

Denise A. Spellberg, Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas at Austin