In recent times, we’ve all seen the abundant proliferation of a symbol people call the “evil eye.” As someone who frequents metaphysical shops and events while also working at a boho boutique, I’ve seen countless “evil eye” products and even more people who are incredibly attached to the symbol. The idea of warding off the evil eye has a major presence in art history so I figured I’d give some background for those curious about the famous symbol.
The form of evil eye protection we are most familiar with nowadays, the blue and white concentric circles, has cross-cultural origins in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries. A common form of this symbol is a Nazar, an amulet often lined with gold deriving its name from the Arabic word for sight/attention. It is also often in the form of beads, which are the influence of Turkish boncuk, glass beads that have most likely carried through the culture for centuries. The hamsa is also a popular variation, a symbol shared by Judaism and Islam.
I’ve brought up these symbols that have gained popularity among the present-day masses because they represent an idea that has linked countless cultures both in religious practice and, most importantly to me, in art history. This is the concept of apotropaia, or symbols that ward off evil. Many art historical objects found in antiquity were apotropaic, displaying feats of artistic genius in the name of spiritual protection. In Egypt, apotropaic wands were found made from hippopotamus ivory. These wands are fascinating for many reasons: they were often used to invoke safe childbirth, they were buried with individuals broken to contain their power, and they demonstrate the concept of a fierce creature(the hippo) protecting humanity from evil.
This last point leads me to my absolute favorite apotropaic symbol, Medusa. It’s extremely likely that Medusa’s original monstrous image was used as an apotropaic symbol, a far different image from what we’ve seen of her today. She was even placed on roof antefixes in Southern Italy to protect homes and temples. While quite a different look from the Nazar, the concept of the gaze still applies to her. The brash facial expression is another example of the fierce warding off the fierce, her tongue-out look echoing other fierce gods/goddesses like Kali or Tlaltecuhtli.
Overall, I feel it’s very important to know the origins of symbols we use today, especially when it leads to the kind of cross-cultural unity we see with the evil eye.