Beware of the Evil Eye, Volume 3

The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World

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John H. Elliott
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , July
     378 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Elliott's Beware the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient Worldis a monumental and definitive four-volume tour de force that extensively covers evil eye belief and practice in the context of the ancient world from Mesopotamia (c. 3000BCE) to the late Roman world (c. 600CE). Volume 1 presents a history of the phenomenon and the research it has provoked before focusing on Mesopotamia and Egypt; volume 2 covers Greece and Rome; volume 3 deals with the Old and New Testaments in the context of wide-ranging related sources; and volume 4 treats post-biblical Israel and early Christianity through Late Antiquity. These well illustrated volumes are the exceptionally informative fruit of this prolific author's decades of wide-ranging research and reflection. To aid the reader's own further research, each volume contains an extraordinarily extensive bibliography.

Most of the readers who have been socialized in the cultures of North America and northern Europe will be amazed to learn about the significant ways in which belief in the evil eye and fear of its malevolent glance have played such an enduring role in other cultures, including the cultural world of the Bible and at least twenty-four passages in the Bible itself. This amazement would be the consequence of two factors: (1) the science-based theory that the eye is a passive organ that receives external stimuli rather than prevailing conviction for most of Western history that the eye is an active agent, like a lamp, that can project particles of negative energy against a variety of vulnerable targets; and (2) culturally flawed modern translations that obscure the explicit and literal biblical references to the evil eye in the original Hebrew and Greek texts, for example by using culturally inappropriate words such as "who has bewitched you" (Gal. 3:1) for baskainō(lit: "to injure with an Evil Eye"). The modern reader is thus left clueless about this widespread phenomenon, as the author stresses (vol. 4,283), even though belief in the power of the evil eye continues to affect the behavior of millions of people around the world even now.

Elliott summarizes the profound effects of the evil-eye belief system under an astonishing range of human perspectives:

  •  Cognitively the belief in the evil eye, also known as "fascination" (Latin: fascinatio), provides an explanation for why there is so much personal and social distress: personally activated "human or demonic malice, human or demonic or divine envy." Positively this belief promises the effective use of a variety of powerfully protective words (Iao Sabaoth), gestures (mano cornuta, mano fica), symbols (phallus, vulva), various apotropaic amulets and charms, and specific rituals―all of which were and are believed "to provide a sense of safety in an otherwise unpredictable and threatening universe" (vol. 4, 162). 
  • Psychologically this belief explains the sense of human vulnerability to threatening forces of evil and loss, especially birthing mothers, newborns, and all potential targets of envy (that is, those who enjoy good fortune). It also accounts for the feeling of fear and dread felt when a person is the subject of a menacing glare or hostile stare―in a dimension with far more seriously negative consequences than those associated with a "dirty look" in non evil-eye cultures.
  • Physiologically this belief supports the revulsion against disabled or physically impaired persons, such as hunchbacks, dwarfs, and those with unusual eyes, such as crossed eyes, blindness, and even knitted eyebrows―all of whom have been suspected of possessing evil-eye powers. 
  • Socially this belief identifies such persons as widows, the disabled, strangers, and aliens as potential possessors of an evil eye, who thus could be a threat to family life, to neighbors, the entire community, and other ethnic groups. As such this belief reinforces all other means of social control and the definition of social boundaries. 
  • Ethically this "belief reflects a perception and preoccupation with inequity in daily life, with disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the mediocre and the outstanding," in a world where all good things are perceived to be in limited supply (vol. 2, 269). In response this belief has functioned to justify the criticism and constraint of "stinginess, greed, ungenerosity, and especially envy" (vol. 4, 163), and thus to promote domestic and civic concord. Positively this belief has encouraged actions of generosity, especially emphasized in the biblical critique of envy. See, for example, the parable of the vineyard owner who asks some of his workers: "Are you envious because I am generous?" (Matt. 20:1-15). And later in b.Ned. 38a, Moses is praised for having a "good eye" because he gave his bread to the poor (vol. 3, 278).
  • Theologically this belief has positively "encouraged values and patterns of social action and personal deportment underwritten by God or the gods. In the case of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, the belief stigmatizes specified dispositions and acts deemed contrary to the will of God and dangerous to the common weal" (vol. 4, 163). Notable is the consistent biblical view that evil arises from within a human being and is not inspired by demonic external forces, as was believed in Greek and Roman cultures.

Digesting these four volumes in order will give the reader a much broader education in the lives of both ancient and many contemporary human beings than may be anticipated by a singular focus on one cultural phenomenon. To be sure, the author has written each volume to stand on its own. Either as single volumes or as the complete set, Elliott's Beware the Evil Eye will richly reward the reader's close attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Scott Bartchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Origins and History of Religion at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 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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