The Anthropology of Bellydance: Evil Eye

Ack! Season, taxes, time change, prepping for summer research, it is safe to say pre Spring is stressful. What more to worry about? How about the evil eye? If you are in the bellydance world you are, at the very least familiar with the blue glass eye peering from jewelry, in costume shops, perhaps in your restaurant manager’s office but do you know the significance? In this hopefully recurring segment I will give you a brief cultural analysis of things I at least think the professional bellydancer should know about the cultures their dance is significant in.


The evil eye, ayn al-ḥasūd, nazar, ʿáyin hā-ráʿ, "buda", "cheshim mora", to máti, mal de ojo, malocchio is the belief that envy, can either intentionally or unintentionally cause bad luck, sickness, fever, blindness etc in another. Those most at risk are considered young children and babies (from childless women’s envy) but all can fall victim of it. The idea of the evil eye is most prevalent in the Mediterranean, Latin America (do to Spanish conquest), Africa and Arabic areas of the world, and in Judaism and Islam but it can be found throughout the world. The origin of the evil eye concept, appears to have originated from the awareness that we need water to survive so the evil eye dries things up. Milk in mothers and livestock, trees, men’s semen, babies suddenly getting diarrhea or vomiting etc.It is thought that this idea of drying up as the ultimate fear stems from the desert origins of the evil eye, but origins can not really be pin pointed so exactly and I would venture to say all humans probably figured the necessity of reliable water fairly quickly in human history. And for those who have studied the early modern beliefs of witchcraft in Western Europe and England you will see a correlation in this drying things up, with the favorite pastimes of so called witches, so I would venture to say in this blog that the fear of lack of moisture was probably a fairly universal human phenomenon. Also correlating with Western European and English concepts of witchcraft, those who are especially good at dealing out the evil eye are those with light eyes, unibrows and of course women, especially older barren women, who were thought to be only left on Earth after child bearing ages to do the Devil’s work, I mean, what else are women for if not baby making?  ;).

Whatever the origins, it appears that the evil eye is caused either intentionally or not, by praise or being praise worthy. Even an honest and non-envious glance that lasts too long or a compliment paid without touching can allow the evil eye to affect you. This is the reason why it is a practice to sometimes not dress up children and allow them to be dirty in order to avoid the envious look.

Despite the connotation that evil eye has, the victim is also not entirely free of blame. Being boastful and pompous, showing off wealth or success will draw the evil eye to you and according to Jewish belief, you deserve it. Being insensitive to those around you and boasting causes real pain and any pain you cause requires a Divine retribution and the evil eye is one way of allocating that punishment. The lesson being, to take the higher road, there is no need to boast of your success and take care not to hurt those around you with it. This is why, one of the many ways to deter the evil eye is to give the glory back to Divine. Such as the Muslim practice of saying Mash’Allah, literally God will’s it, after paying a compliment so any harm the complement may cause will not affect the receiver.

So now that you know about the evil eye, you are probably a little worried right? You’re out there in the spotlight at your shows and restaurants, taking photos posting them all over Facebook and Instagram, you’re practically begging for the evil eye. So what’s a dancer to do? There are many ways to deter the evil, the most famous being to wear the bright blue nazar as a piece of jewelry. Depending on your background, you want the eye to be very noticeable, one of the first things the eye goes to, so the evil eye will go into it and not you. But if you are of the Western Mediterranean variety you may want the charm to always be hidden, and over your heart. If the charm is seen, it loses its potency. (Sidenote: this was my grandmother’s belief and as soon as I started developing early she feared the evil eye and started sewing charms into the inside of my bra). Another way, is to have a charm right at the entrance of your house, it does not have to be an eye or even eye shaped, just something that attracts the eye first and so all evil eye will go into that. Especially for children, red cords, black beads are a very common deterrent, if it breaks then it is used up and a new one needs to be made. Also peacock eyes, the color blue, fish, the hand of Fatima (Muslim) or Miriam (Jewish) all are beneficial in deterring the evil eye. Or in Italy, a horn pendant is effective. The horn being a phallic symbol and the evil eye being considered almost solely sent out by women.

What if you don’t have any of these charms on you and some unibrowed, blue eyed, barren woman comes strolling into your show staring you down? Well if you follow the Italian beliefs, then the hand symbol of holding your middle and ring finger down with your thumb (think metal heads rocking out, Spiderman shooting web, the traditional horned God symbol) and shoot it back at them. Or make an ‘O’ with your index and thumb and put your index finger through it (literally a “doing it” from middle school). The idea of these hand symbols coming from balancing the malintent female energy with masculine energy or creating wetness via intercourse.

Want to pay a compliment without inadvertently causing the evil eye? Give the glory to Divine and say God wills it or Mash’Allah, spit after paying the complement (hence the Greek tradition of spitting after seeing the bride as she walks down the aisle), or touch the person after paying the complement.

Think you are being affected by the evil eye? Take a bath in salt water, women with pretty hair spend extra time on your hair (per advice from a customer of mine who was so afraid she had given me the evil eye after looking at my hair she took salt from the table and sprinkled it in my hair and spit). Smudge yourself with cleansing herbs such as sage. To officially diagnose the evil eye most processes involve water. Drop oil in water and watch the patterns. If the oil forms an eye shape keep dropping oil while praying asking for the eyes removal till the pattern is no longer eye shaped. Drop charcoal in the water, if it floats you have the evil eye. Drop wax in water if it splatters or sticks to side, then you have the eye. Roll an egg over your body and crack open if it looks cooked or like an eye (though really what egg doesn’t look like an eye) if it does you have the eye. Or drink holy water preferably with the spit of the perpetrator in it. This idea is also seen in the custom of praying over undrank portions of drink from guests and drinking it after they left.

So there is the quick and dirty. I am sure there are a lot of evil eye beliefs I have left out, but this is what I am familiar with. Feel free to add your beliefs in the comments below.