Beware the Evil Eye Volume 2

The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World - Greece and Rome

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John H. Elliott
Volume 2 of 4
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    James Clarke & Co.
    , June
     2016.
     370 pages.
     $55.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498204996.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World is a comprehensive four volume set that considers beliefs and practices surrounding the concept of the evil eye. The second volume of this series, Greece and Rome, examines the evil eye as it appears in Greek and Roman personal letters, literary works, art, and personal items spanning the time period from Homer through late antiquity. Author John H. Elliott suggests that ancient Greek and Roman society possessed a complex system of belief surrounding the evil eye and that there is ample evidence of real concern that harm could befall individuals, animals, and even inanimate objects because of an evil eye attack. 

Throughout the book, Elliott suggests that beliefs and concerns surrounding the evil eye, in antiquity and in modern day examples, should not be disregarded as simple superstition or as characteristic of uneducated people, but as part of a broad system that demonstrates how these people functioned in their societies and how they viewed their place in the world. Elliot’s extensive knowledge of the time period and the cultural context surrounding evil eye belief makes this book an appropriate resource for scholars of religion, classics, or archaeology. However, his writing style and explanations are clear enough that Elliott’s arguments can be followed without extensive previous knowledge of the topic, making it also accessible and approachable for a broader audience outside of academia. 

This volume is organized into five main chapters, with chapters 2 and 3 further divided into several smaller sections with subtopics. (Two very minor criticisms are that these larger chapters could have been more clearly divided, and that the addition of an index to this volume would have made specific topics easier to locate.) In chapter 1, the introduction, Elliot outlines basic elements common to beliefs surrounding the evil eye, extant before the Greco-Roman period in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and how these are further expanded in Greek and Roman contexts. Examples of personal correspondence on papyri, mainly between family members, are provided from 2nd to 4th-century letters that demonstrate that the evil eye was a cause for concern for the authors as they offered prayers that their loved ones be spared from harm. These letters serve to begin the volume by providing concrete examples of many of the themes that Elliott develops in subsequent sections of the book, dealing with specific groups of people who were considered most vulnerable to evil eye attack and formulaic blessings to deflect harm. 

Chapter 2 contains an overview of evil eye belief during the time period between Homer and the end of the 6th century throughout Greek and Roman territory. Much of the discussion within this chapter is centred on understanding the terminology used in antiquity to refer to the evil eye and tracing the development and meaning of related terms throughout this time period.

Chapter 3 is titled “Salient Features of Evil Eye Belief and Practice” and is divided into several sections, each with subtopics, examining specific elements of evil eye belief. The first two sections of this chapter delve into how ancient writers described eyes as active organs, able to transmit dangerous emanations to people and things around them, sometimes in the form of an attacking demon, the evil eye or baskania demon. Emotional states, particularly feelings, were thought to trigger these harmful emanations, even without any purposeful ill intent on the part of the person casting the evil eye. Anthropologist George Foster’s theory of the “image of limited good” and Peter Walcot’s anthropological writings on the classical period are both used to understand the social utility of repressing expressions of envy, as well as minimizing causes for envy, in ancient communities. 

The next sections in chapter 3 discuss beliefs surrounding who could cast the evil eye, who were likely victims, and how to thwart these attacks. Notably, attacks by the evil eye could be attributed to people of any age, gender, or social standing, as well as to gods, demons, animals, and even the dead. The people most susceptible to becoming victims of evil eye attack were those who were at precarious life stages, such as children, newlyweds, and new mothers. Chapter 3 finishes with a section on how to avoid or deflect evil eye assault through specific rituals meant to negate attracting the attention of an evil eye caster, ways to ward off harm such as small ritual behaviors, and methods of protection from attack using material items such as apotropaic amulets and inscriptions.

 Chapter 4 briefly addresses the subject of a potential transcendent good eye and explains that this was not an element found in Greek or Roman contexts, although it is found in later Islamic thought. 

Chapter 5 offers Elliot’s conclusion that ancient Romans and Greeks conceived of the evil eye as being a dangerous but natural occurrence, without moral consequence, and that concern about it reflected a preoccupation with individual well-being and material standing in relation to other people in a community. Worry about attracting the evil eye led to behavioral strategies that attempted to minimize the envy that others might feel, resulting in a proliferation of material items such as amulets and household votives intended to deflect this type of harm. 

Overall, Elliot’s use of textual sources, from both very well-known authors such as Pliny and Aristotle as well as everyday personal writings, such as the papyri letters from the Oxyrrinchus site, emphasize that the belief in the evil eye phenomenon was widespread and not confined to a particular class or place. Material culture analysis and the inclusion of good quality photos throughout the book allow the reader to easily visualize how the fear of the evil eye permeated these societies and was expressed in a variety of ways. Elliott successfully combines the available evidence on evil eye belief and practice with compelling theory about the functions this belief may have served for individuals and the social structure as a whole. While it certainly stands alone as an enjoyable and informative resource on the evil eye in a Greek and Roman context, it also invites the curious reader to read the other books in this four volume series.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melody Everest is a gradaute student in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John H. Elliott is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the University of San Francisco. Among his numerous publications are 'A Home for the Homeless,' 'The Elect and Holy,' 'What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?,' and '1 Peter' (Anchor Bible).

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