• Ever thought about the word ‘fascination’? We use it all the time. It happens to illustrate one of the longest lived superstitions in the world. You see, despite the very real dangers that men and women actually faced long ago, the issue they
often stressed over was…the EVIL EYE. Roman author Horace called it “the unlucky glance that poisons.”
• What havoc could an unlucky glance cause? Long-ago folks from all social classes firmly believed it could wither crops, kill domestic animals, make people sick, and bring them misfortune.
• It wasn’t just the Italians who bought into the notion, either. Then and now, around the world, a belief persists that the human eye is capable of inflicting an injury on humans, animals, and whatever else its gaze happens to fall upon. In the 1930s, King Alphonso of Spain brought disaster in his wake and was thought to have the evil eye. So was Pope Pius IX.
• In Greco-Roman times, evil eye protection began at birth. Young and old routinely wore neck or wrist amulets in the shape of frogs, crickets, animal horns, or eye symbols. The most popular by far? A charm in the shape of a sturdy phallus, which in Latin is called “fascinum.” Some phalluses had wings or a eye, making them even more potent protectors. From the moment of birth, babies were decked out with such symbols. The teething ring used by infants was usually a phallus carved from pink coral. (Not an easy image to erase from your mind’s eye!)
• Evil-eye averting amulets of two millennia ago were far from dainty. They weren’t concealed, either; a fascinum was designed to attract and thwart malicious glances. Museums from Rome to Madrid are full of these talismans, some of them pretty clunky, as these photos show.
• Since homes, workplaces, crossroads, and vehicles needed protection too, Romans and Greeks placed the fascination objects everywhere—as lamps, windchimes, and art objects. (For his multiple war triumphs, Julius Caesar had various of them dangling from his chariot during the splashy day-long parades.)
• The sheer abundance of anatomically correct phalluses, including supersized ones portrayed in countless paintings, used to flabbergast the archaeologists of earlier centuries—until they connected the dots between the fascinum and the Greco-Roman obsession with warding off bad luck.
• Depictions of exuberant male organs are still ubiquitous in Italy and other Mediterranean locales. These fascinating (in dual senses of the word) objects are found in gardens, imbedded in mosaics, carved into sidewalks and walls, and posted over the doors of bakeries and wineshops and workshops in Pompeii and countless other ancient sites. Some are bathroom crude; others are exquisite works of art. They still embarrass visitors, who tend to read a lot more into the sex lives of the ancients than was probably true!
• Before you chuckle smugly at the superstitious antics of the long-ago Romans and Greeks, take a look at these headlines from our own world:
• ‘Evil eye’ killed fresh graduate? (source: Arab News.com)
• [Pakistani President] Zardari sacrifices black goats to ‘ward off
the evil eye’ (source: ThaiIndia News.com)
Not convinced? Then check out the pictures in this blogpost. And if the spirit moves you, go window shopping in today’s global marketplace, where trinkets and devices from red thread to blue glass eyes promise to deliver freedom from being fascinated.
(This blogpost is excerpted and expanded upon from an entry in Vicki Leon’s new book, How to Mellify a Corpse, from Walker Books 2010. Please contact the author for permission and crediting to use elsewhere.)
NOTE to blog readers of the August 4 blogpost on Spartacus:
• Question: What was the most unusual true statement in the interview? Answer: Spartacus and his rebel army did camp on Mt Vesuvius for some time. When the Roman army surrounded the base, the rebels used thick vegetation to climb down the opposite side—where they were able to take the army by surprise from the rear. Result: Glaber’s forces got a whipping, Spartacus and company got a dandy supply of Roman weapons.