Interview'One look is all it takes'

Check yourself before you hex yourself: An expert’s guide to the evil eye

In his new book ‘The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery, and Magic of the Quiet Curse,’ Antonio Pagliarulo gives a practical overview of one of history’s most durable forces

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Woman hands burning white sage. (iStock photo/ ninelutsk)
Woman hands burning white sage. (iStock photo/ ninelutsk)

Jews call it the ayin hara, Italians know it as mal’occhio, and among Latinos, it’s mal de ojo. It’s one of history’s most durable forces: The evil eye. But no matter how one identifies it, they should beware of its undeniable power and take steps to defend themselves and their loved ones from it.

At least that’s what journalist and magical practitioner Antonio Pagliarulo says in his new book, “The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery, and Magic of the Quiet Curse,” released on May 1.

“It is a negative force, a baneful force, unleashed through a look,” Pagliarulo told The Times of Israel. “One look is all it takes.”

According to Pagliarulo, there are three ways to unleash it: A jealous look from someone envious of your success; an unintentional prompting if you forget to ward it off with a precautionary phrase or gesture; and by boasting too much (so watch out, social media users).

“When it does come upon you, it does have signs and symptoms,” said Pagliarulo, whose book details what happened to an unfortunate New York couple after their housewarming party. “There’s a whole list. It can affect your finances a lot, your love life, not only your health but members of your family, your loved ones, your home, your car. Nothing is really immune to it.”

Raised in an Italian and Argentine family in the Bronx, Pagliarulo grew up watching his grandmother use a traditional formula to diagnose the evil eye. The formula, handed down over generations made its way from Italy to the United States and involved a bowl of water and spoonfuls of olive oil on the stove, as well as a secret prayer.

“If you have the evil eye, the olive oil will disappear in the water,” Pagliarulo said. “It will not do what it should be doing.” As he noted, “Oil and water don’t mix.”

Pagliarulo described this as the “method most common in Italian culture to remove the evil eye, mal’occhio.”

Not only could Pagliarulo’s family diagnose the evil eye, they could also remove it. One way to do so was on Christmas Eve, in a manner that incorporated going to midnight Mass, with a key step taking place during the moment of transubstantiation. An everyday way to hold off the evil eye was by wearing an amulet — in this case, a red horn called a cornetto.

Illustrative: a ceramic amulet at the entrance door of a house in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

An extensive list of such amulets across many faiths and traditions is shared in the book, including the nazar, a white eye with a black pupil inside a blue circle. The nazar is found in many cultures, including both Turkish and Greek. Recently, it has been enjoying a spate of popularity, including through nazar wearers such as Meghan Markle and Priyanka Chopra.

“You can find [such] amulets just about anywhere today,” Pagliarulo said. “It speaks to the power of the evil eye in our culture.”

‘Evil Eye,’ by Antonio Pagliarulo. (Courtesy)

The list of amulets also includes the Star of David — which Pagliarulo notes is actually the Shield of David or Magen David. (Pagliarulo has learned more about Judaism over the years through his marriage to a Jewish man.) Images of the hand are popular, too, including the hamsa, which is popular in both Islam and Judaism. The recent Spanish feature film “Alegria,” set in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla, included a scene in which a young Muslim woman, Dunia, gifted a hamsa to a Jewish bride-to-be, Yael. For Dunia, it was the hand of Fatima; for Yael, it was the hand of Miriam.

Noting the head-turning cover of the book, Pagliarulo said, “The book itself is like its own amulet.”

To write it, he delved into global history and culture to deepen his knowledge about the evil eye around the world and across time. He found evidence of belief in it dating back at least 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, where eyes were painted on boats and coffins, and possibly even earlier to Mesopotamia. The hand of Fatima or Miriam might have a predecessor in the hand of Tanit, referencing a goddess known to the ancient Phoenicians. Pagliarulo explored ancient Greek concepts involving the eye, such as extramission, in which the eye could emit powerful energy and became weaponized to do so. He found similar views in Hinduism, of the eyes emanating the body’s most powerful force of energy, with a mantra that counteracts such energy.

He sees biblical references to the evil eye in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, citing one such mention in the 10th commandment — “Thou shall not covet.”

“Many scholars over the years have said as much,” Pagliarulo said about connecting this commandment with the evil eye. “Some agree, some don’t.” However, he added, “You want something that someone else has, that’s as simple as it is. Experiencing that emotion of envy and jealousy, that’s where the evil eye manifests.”

Antonio Pagliarulo, author of ‘Evil Eye.’ (Courtesy)

He examines possible New Testament references to the evil eye in the Sermon on the Mount — where Jesus calls the eye “the lamp of the body,” with a healthy eye giving it light and an unhealthy eye giving it darkness — and in the Letter to the Galatians, where the Apostle Paul cites the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who become jealous of colleagues with shorter workdays.

Despite the connection between the evil eye and world religions, Pagliarulo notes a tension between clerical authorities who frowned upon folkways, and the religiously faithful who follow them anyway. It is for this reason that the midnight Mass ceremony to remove mal’occhio must be done out of view of the priest. Pagliarulo similarly writes of a grammar-school nun who disapproved of the cornetto amulet he wore as a youngster.

“It all goes back to folk magic,” Pagliarulo said. “It’s not being about getting the approval of the priest or anyone else — but by the people who have what they have in front of them, specific relationships to nature that have always existed alongside the faith of the communities.”

Finding personal ways to keep the evil eye at bay can help reconnect with the natural world, according to the author.

Indian children observe as women make demon faces before selling them at their roadside stall in Hyderabad, India, October 16, 2014. According to Indian superstition, hanging these clay masks outside the house wards off evil eye. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

“The basic tools are water, oil, herbs, leaves, rosemary, basil,” Pagliarulo said. “They’re readily available to someone in their own community. Very often, very powerful magic is deeply connected to the land around you.”

Beyond solutions from nature and the long list of amulets, the book offers another way — learning how to cast the evil eye oneself.

“In some cases, if you are in a particular environment,” Pagliarulo said, “and you feel as if you’re being harassed on a daily basis by someone that gives you negative energy and it really affects you in this way, it serves you well to know how to cast the evil eye.”

“If you’re in danger,” he said, “you need to be able to defend yourself. Don’t cast the evil eye for fun. It takes a great deal of energy. You have to use your own energy. It takes practice, it’s not something that should ever be taken lightly. Intention is what counts.”

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