The Evil Eye

The evil eye is a curse that one person puts on another. It’s supernatural rather than psychological or metaphorical. It gets placed on someone by looking at them, usually when they’re not aware. But it can be deflected by different sorts of defences or charms that ward off the evil eye and the bad luck it brings.

When I think of the evil eye, from a literary viewpoint, my first thought it – Sauron! The Evil Eye is one of the names of his image and it becomes a synonym for Sauron himself. It’s also called the Red Eye, the Great Eye, or (my favourite) the Lidless Eye. But the idea of an evil eye far predates Tolkien and is wider than the West. One of the first times I came across it in a literary context was in the novel Dracula.

When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me. With some difficulty, I got a fellow passenger to tell me what they meant. He would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye.

Bram Stoker, Dracula, Chapter 1. Jonathan Harker’s Journal

I had come across the evil eye in Bible stories and sermons that I heard as a boy. I just didn’t even realise it at the time.

The Hostile Eye

Those who are rich in the Old Testament are warned not to look on their poor brothers with an evil eye, according to the King James transition (Deuteronomy 15:9). This means they shouldn’t begrudge showing generosity to the poor when they can, or view the poor in a malicious way. There’s a similar meaning in Deuteronomy 28:54 when describing the horrors of a siege. Even the most gentle and refined man will look with hostility on his family when it comes to giving them his food.

There’s another food reference in Proverbs 23:6. Don’t eat with someone who has an evil eye for enjoy their fine food. The idea is that they are stingy and begrudge you eating their expensive dishes. They tell you to eat up but inwardly they’re calculating the cost of each bite! Other places in Proverbs equate this evil eye with greed and envy, since these are sins committed by looking at what you don’t own but desperately desire (e.g., Proverbs 28:22).

The Inner Eye

In the New Testament, the evil eye gets a mention in the world’s most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. It contains a reference to the evil eye in Matthew 6:23 that has been the subject of much discussion.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is clear and healthy, your whole body is full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body is full of darkness. So, if the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Jesus, Matthew 6:22-23

Commentators give many suggestions for what the eye refers to here, such as reason, the mind, the soul or its perception, conscience, practical judgement, heavenly affections, singleness of intention, the seat of desires. I suspect there might be an Old Testament background to this use, as there is with the rest of the sermon. In another place, Matthew uses the phrase ‘evil eye’ to condemn the greedy and envious, those who covet property to which they have no rights and resent generosity towards others (Matthew 20:15).

The Bewitching Eye

In Mark 7:22, the evil eye is mentioned among a list of other sins, such as greed, deceit, lust, envy, slander and pride. The use of the phrase here seems to refer to more than envy. It means a “joy at the misfortune of others” (Bengel’s Gnomen) and a “malicious, mischief-working” intention that leads to “positive, injurious, activity” (Vincent’s Word Studies).

The meaning becomes even more explicit in the letter to the Galatians, where Paul publicly reprimands the church at Galatia for their compromises.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

Galatians 3:1

The word ‘bewitched’ here is an interesting one. Some other versions translate it as:

  • Who has cast an evil spell on you?
  • Who has hypnotised you?
  • Who has cunningly deceived you?

The word for bewitched is the Greek word ἐβάσκανεν (ebaskanen), which means, “To give the evil eye to, fascinate, bewitch, overpower. Akin to phasko; to malign, i.e. to fascinate” (Strong’s Concordance). Here are a few other analyses of the word. This covert eye reference is even more obvious when you take into account the overt eye reference in the second half of the verse. Here are what a few other linguistic tools say about this Greek word.

baskaínō (from baskanos, “to cast an evil spell, wishing injury upon someone; to bewitch”) – properly, to exercise evil power over someone, like putting them under a spell; (used only in Gal 3:1); (figuratively) captivate (“be spellbinding”), appealing to someone’s vanity and selfishness; “to blight by the evil eye, bewitch” (Abbott-Smith)

HELPS Word-studies

to bring evil on one by feigned praise or an evil eye, to charm, bewitch one (Aristotle, probl. 20, 34 (p. 926{b}, 24); Theocritus, 6, 39; Aelian nat. an. 1, 35); hence, of those who lead away others into error by wicked arts (Diodorus 4, 6): Galatians 3:1. Cf. Schott (or Lightfoot) at the passage; Lob. ad Phryn., p. 462.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

The Eye of God

The biblical concept of the evil eye includes the notion of a magical curse but it bigger than that sole meaning. Greed and malice are more common uses. But these interpretations aren’t separate. The curse is put on people out of hatred or for gain.

Ultimately, both Old and New Testaments tell us to take more care of God’s eye than those of any evil human.

The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

Proverbs 15:13

And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4:13

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