“Oh dear, someone dropped a bit of their shopping,” I commented to a couple of mothers.
“No, they didn’t,” said one of them. They laughed, and looked up at a block of flats overlooking the playground. They both agreed someone had thrown the bags out of one of the windows.
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
They made this sign with their hands. They were giggling, partly from amusement, partly from embarrassment.
This sign is called fare la corna. I thought that meant cuckold, that someone’s wife is messing about behind his back.
No, they explained, that is only when you wag it from side to side. When you hold it still, it means the malocchio, the EVIL EYE. They were leaning in close and talking quietly. They did not want to be overheard.
Malocchio!!!!! The Evil eye!!!!!!
I knew all about that, because I used to live in Turkey. I was just a bit gobsmacked to find out I had been living in Sicily for 10 years and had only just discovered they believe in it here, too.
It works like this. If a whole series of rotten things happen to you, you start wondering why, don’t you? Just imagine you are trying to make a cake to impress your mther-in-law, The Godmother, and your oven blows up internally and makes the birthday cake become approximately 2,000 home-made charcoal tablets instead. Then you are collecting your son from school and just once, just this once, you park illegally (diagonally on a zebra crossing) like all the other mothers always do, and you are the ONLY ONE who gets a parking ticket. Then when you get home you find out there is a power cut and you cannot get into your house because your electric garage door won’t open and you forgot the front door keys, so you have to take luncheon in the local takeaway which is called a “friggitoria”, (which translates literally as “frying place”) and feed your son nothing but a massive portion of chips for his lunch, which gives him tummy ache. Then he pukes on your new coat. Then your husband gets home, lets you in and you discover you accidentally left the hot-plate on and have smelted your kettle.
You get the idea? This has to be someone’s fault. Someone has got it in for you! They are casting the evil eye on you.
In Turkey, they interpret it slightly differently. There, they think it is caused by someone who is envious of you. They gaze enviously at your kids, your car, your house or maybe your new coat (which is now stained) and this invokes an extremely ancient animistic magic power that causes you harm. So in their culture, the person who does you harm usually doesn’t deliberately want to, but their envy causes the damage anyway. In Sicily on the other hand, they believe people are simply being plain old nasty.
I lived in Turkey for a year shortly after I had graduated, teaching English as a foreign language to students in Istanbul. I remained so intrigued by this cultural belief that I wrote a novel called Evil Eye. An English girl goes to work in Istanbul and, after experiencing constant setbacks, she gradually starts suspecting someone is casting the evil eye upon her. The novel is based on a lot of my own experiences in Turkey.
Whilst I did go through the more banal setbacks, like getting groped by fifteen men at a time every time I took a bus, I also had some very major scares like catching cholera, being mugged, and being held at gunpoint. I didn’t put everything in the novel because I thought it would come across as too exaggerated! (And don’t worry, I didn’t put the cholera in there either – euch.)
So, if someone is casting the evil eye upon you, how do you protect yourself?
Scattering salt on the floor just inside one’s front door, or outside, is one of the ways Sicilians ward off the evil eye. The fact that it is composed of uncountable grains is supposed to create confusion in the mind of the evil-wisher.
“My mother used to keep doing that,” said one of my friends outside the school. “She would clean the floor, then make it dirty again. The salt ended up all round the house. It drove us nuts! I’ve only just managed to stop her doing it, and she’s nearly seventy!”
Then they ran through a list of shops in the immediate vicinity that throw salt on the floor behind the door every evening before closing up. They told me people also pee in a bucket – every member of the household must make their contribution – and then it is poured on the ground just outside the house like a libation.
In Sicily, if you spill olive oil, you have to throw down some salt immediately. Accidentally spilling olive oil is a very, VERY bad sign. I suddenly remembered once accidentally spilling a little olive oil on the table when I was cooking with my mother-in-law, The Godmother. She immediately flung salt around the place and even flicked some on me, laughing. I thought she was just fooling about and making fun of me for being clumsy, but suddenly I realised she was protecting me, just in case. Olive oil has been sacred in many Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years and I think this is why it is considered such a sign of bad luck to spill it.
They also mentioned the red corna pendant that many Italians wear, that looks like this, and saves you having to make the sign of the horns non-stop.
If you want to ward off the evil eye on the spot, as it being cast upon you, you have to make the sign of the horns pointing downward. It is not just Sicilians who believe this, but many Italians.
President Giovanni Leone, in 1975, was snapped among students in Pisa making the sign of the horns with both hands. Why? There was a terrible outbreak of Cholera in Naples at that time, (yes, ruddy cholera again!) and some of the students said they hoped he would die of cholera. He made the sign of the horns to ward off their wishes and reflect the evil back upon themselves. His use of this gesture created shock and scandal at the time. If someone wished cholera upon me again, you can bet I would do more than make a protective hand gesture at them.
Different cultures believe in the evil eye and they have their various protections against it.
In Turkey I saw blue glass charms which looked like eyes all around me. People hung huge ones inside their front doors, wore small ones as pendants, and used them as keyrings. I never entered a public office without seeing at least one hanging on the wall. Turkish airlines even painted them on their aeroplanes. They were called Nazar Boncugu, artificial blue eyes to protect against the Evil Eye.
All the cultures around the Mediterranean and the Middle East used to believe in the Evil Eye. The Ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Christians and Jews and the Muslims all believed in it. It is only recently I am finding out that they still do.
The effects on the victims vary in different cultures. Whilst Sicilians may attribute any kind of bad luck to the evil eye, and especially spilling olive oil, in many areas of the Middle East, the worst sign is diarrhoea. Diarrhoea of one type or another has long been the commonest cause of death in these regions. Sorry I keep taking about diarrhoea all the time.
Since many Middel Eastern cultures believe the harm of the evil eye is invoked by envy as much as deliberate evil-wishing, their modes of speech derive from careful avoidance of invoking the evil eye accidentally. Rather than directly expressing appreciation of, for example, a child’s beauty, it is customary to say Masha’Allah, that is, “God has willed it”, or invoking God’s blessings upon the object or person that is being admired.
I remember being corrected fairly regularly by Turks when I said flattering things in a potentially dangerous way.
“Masha’Allah” they would immediately say, to undo the damage.
The evil eye belief in Italy goes back to ancient Roman times. The Romans hung protective pendants called Bullae around the necks of their babies from birth. Bulla means bubble, and the pouchhad an amulet and magical texts inside. Rich kids had ones made of gold, while the poorer ones had leather pouches.
In modern Muslim cultures the amulet against the evil eye takes the form of a blue eye as it resembles water, the ideal antidote to dying of diarrhoea and dehydration. In Turkey they believe people with blue eyes have a bit of their own natural protection against the evil eye. Several people in Turkey looked at my blue eyes and told me I was lucky.
The Hamsa, or hand of Fatima, is widely used as a protective amulet in the Middle East and North Africa; it takes the form of the palm of the right hand, with an eye at its centre.
In Jewish culture, this symbol has the same meaning and is called the Hand of Miriam. Another charm the Sephardic Jews used took the form of a fish. Apparently it says in the Talmud that fish are immune to the dehydrating effects of the evil eye because they live under water.
Whilst many people will say that they no longer believe in these supersitions, they often carry an amulet or hang one in their home, just in case. Old habits die hard, and nobody wants to risk bad luck!
I was given a Nazar Boncugu pendant as a gift when I was in Turkey, and I still wear it sometimes. Maybe I should fling a bit of salt on the floor as well, just to be on the safe side!
The second edition of my novel Evil Eye has just been published and is available as a paperback and a Kindle edition from Amazon worldwide.
Paperback Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk
Kindle Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk
Celeste has only just finished university, but she has already lost her mother and looked after her little brothers for two years. Now she is working in Istanbul.
Running away from her problems seemed a good idea at the time; but now, she is running into new ones.
Her students at the swanky language school seem more interested in their manicures than her English lessons. The morose caretaker of the orphanage where she volunteers stares at her boys like a vulture sizing up its next meal. Worst of all, her landlady – the manager of the orphanage – is doing a bad job of hiding a shady secret. She lets slip puzzling comments that don’t make sense, leaves sinister charms around the house, and puts magic spells in places she should not be going.
When Celeste’s favourite orphan goes missing, she knows she cannot run away from problems any more. She must chase after them – but where will it lead? Can Celeste save the child before her landlady destroys her?
This coming-of-age mystery adventure which unfolds along the shores of the Bosphorus will entice fans of Khaled Hosseini, Alexander McCall Smith and Jason Goodwin.