The eye is a curious organ.
As well as receiving light, it appears at times to emit it also. This can be illustrated by the way that nocturnal predators’ eyes appear to glow (actually from reflected light), but there is another ‘light’ of the eye: that which, curiously, seems to disappear from it at the moment of death. This is the ‘spark’ or ‘twinkle’ of the eye whose intensity and quality we perceive to enhance and alter when we laugh, flirt or are excited to enthusiasm or anger. This phenomenon perhaps explained the theory of vision common to the ancient world – that known as the theory of ‘extromission’.
Extromission theory believed that the eye emitted light. Light itself was believed in ancient times to be a higher emanation of the philosopical element of fire, and to the ancient peoples it took two forms for which the Latin words ‘Lumen’ and ‘Lux/Lucis’ came into use. Lumen was mundane light – that emitted by candles, or the sunlight coming through windows and was closest to ‘elemental’ Fire. Lux however represented light in its higher spiritual or intellectual form – the divine light, the light of spiritual and philosophical illumination. Plato explains this in his account of the creation of human bodies from the Dialogue of Timaeus:
“…And so in the vessel of the head, they first of all put a face in which they inserted organs to minister in all things to the providence of the soul, and they appointed this part, which has authority, to be by nature the part which is in front. And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight. But when night comes on and the external and kindred fire departs, then the stream of vision is cut off; for going forth to an unlike element it is changed and extinguished, being no longer of one nature with the surrounding atmosphere which is now deprived of fire: and so the eye no longer sees, and we feel disposed to sleep. For when the eyelids, which the gods invented for the preservation of sight, are closed, they keep in the internal fire; and the power of the fire diffuses and equalises the inward motions; when they are equalised, there is rest, and when the rest is profound, sleep comes over us scarce disturbed by dreams; but where the greater motions still remain, of whatever nature and in whatever locality, they engender corresponding visions in dreams, which are remembered by us when we are awake and in the external world. And now there is no longer any difficulty in understanding the creation of images in mirrors and all smooth and bright surfaces. For from the communion of the internal and external fires, and again from the union of them and their numerous transformations when they meet in the mirror, all these appearances of necessity arise, when the fire from the face coalesces with the fire from the eye on the bright and smooth surface. And right appears left and left right, because the visual rays come into contact with the rays emitted by the object in a manner contrary to the usual mode of meeting; but the right appears right, and the left left, when the position of one of the two concurring lights is reversed; and this happens when the mirror is concave and its smooth surface repels the right stream of vision to the left side, and the left to the right. Or if the mirror be turned vertically, then the concavity makes the countenance appear to be all upside down, and the lower rays are driven upwards and the upper downwards…” Plato – Timaeus 4thC BCE
It is evident from this that Plato considered the pupil of the eye a ‘filter’ to remove the Lumen element of light so that the meaning (information) conveyed in the Lux could be made available for the soul to consider! He considered vision and sensation an interaction between emanations of the soul and emanations of the universe. The Greek word for soul, mind, spirit and consciousness is ψυχή – ‘psyche‘. The 5thC BCE playwright-‘philosopher’, Epicharmus of Kos, is quoted as saying “It is the psyche that sees, it is the psyche that hears, all the rest is deaf and blind”.
As an organ believed capable of emanation, not just reception, it is of no surprise that beliefs developed suggesting that the gaze of the eye can cause harm. Humans are acutely adjusted to the significance of the manner in which others look at them – a look can convey love, contempt, and any one of a number of other emotions or communications. Aside from the reaction of the perceiver of a gaze, the active principle of light extromission believed in by the ancient Greeks and others allowed that the eye emitted a spiritual force, and if this was evilly intended it would interact with that which it perceived in a harmful way. The most famous mythological account of a harmful gaze was that of the Gorgon – Medusa – whose gaze turned men to stone…
That the gaze of Medusa could turn men to stone was a paradoxical inversion of the eye’s connection to light and thus the philosophical ‘element’ of fire. As Plato expressed it, fire and earth (of which stone was an expression) were the principle diametrically opposed elements of creation, and air and water were those which linked the two fundamental elements in a fourfold system. In Empedocles’ reckoning, the root-element Earth would correspond closest to the consolidating principle of ‘Love’ and Fire to the dissipating principle he called ‘Strife’ – the two contesting forces ascribed to the universe. Medusa’s gaze of stone, rather than light was perhaps a feminine idea of ancient established solidity. The flashing fiery gaze of love was the daimon that inspired the Trojan War, at the advent of Greek (and Roman) oral history’s ‘time of memory’. Being in love might be more dangerous than the stare of Medusa! Plato’s dialogue ‘Symposium‘ examines this theme in more detail. Lizards and snakes, being considered ‘cold and dry’ by the ancient elemental reckoning, were linked to the element of Earth and the cold distant chthonic and oceanic realms – the legendary Basilisk, like the snake, could seemingly transfix its prey (‘turn to stone’) with its unblinking stare. Legends are circumlocutive expressions of higher truths and maps of the heavens, as well as good stories…
Yet another European mythological figure with a ‘dangerous eye’ is from the Irish ‘Mythological Cycle’ medieval texts: Balor of the Fomorians, the probable inspiration for Tolkein’s Sauron, whose name also elicits something of the scaly-haired Medusa, or perhaps the legendary Basilisk. The legendary Irish ‘Fomorians‘ were – akin to the Greek Titanes (of whom Medusa was one) – considered a race of giants associated with the sea. They, like the Titans, probably haunted the ancient shores of furthest Okeanos (perhaps even as far as Tory Island!): far away in time and space in the ‘time before memory’…
From the 6thC CE, the western Christian church increasingly began to classify for its adherents the ‘sins’ which it believed were the spiritual errors that led its followers away from God: These were “superbia, avaritia, invidia, ira, luxuria, gula & pigritia” – the ‘seven deadly sins’ of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Of these, the majority were deemed ‘sins of the flesh’ or ‘material sins’. However, two were ‘sins of the soul’, namely envy and pride.
Sins of the Soul were therefore deemed to be those which occupied a spiritual dimension and affected the world in spiritual ways. Envy (Latin: Invidia – ‘in vision’) corresponds exactly to the power known as the Evil Eye. By the ancient extromsission theory of vision the light of the soul illuminated what it perceived as a ‘ray’, and an evil soul would therefore have a negative invidious influence upon what it perceived. Likewise, the common belief that spiritual beings operated in spiritual ways is the foundation for the belief in old Atlantic Europe that ‘fairies’ envied the goods and children of people and wished to spirit them away… The supposed sin of the adversarial Christian spirit called ‘Satan’ or ‘Lucifer’ and his troop of rebel angels was that of pride.
The ‘Evil Eye’ belief in the Gaelic provinces of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man remained important until the late 19th century. It evolved (perhaps as a result of widespread ‘witchcraft’ paranoias of the 16th-18th centuries) to engender two forms: The first (and oldest) belief was that it was a passive force derived from latent human foibles of jealousy (innate sinfulness). The more sinister form of the belief was that which believed the ‘Bad Eye’ to be the actual mode of witchcraft by which magical/spiritual harm could be done by a marginal and jealous socially-disempowered person. In Gaelic areas, there are as many records of belief in the possible abduction of vital forces by fairies as there were by supposed ‘witches’ or even by jealous neighbours. This may be a main reason why there were so few reports of judicial or popular murder of people for ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’: The alleged ‘perpetrators’ were generally not believed prosecutable in court on account of their lack of corporeality, and/or could not be ascribed the criminal concept of mens rea.
The Gaelic ‘Evil Eye’ belief manifested to observers between the 16th and 20th centuries as the apparent desire by people to offer a blessing on any thing which they had expressed admiration of. People feared that they might passively or unintentionally cause harm. They also obviously feared that their admiration might invite blame if something went wrong. The fact that people who own something that invites envy are prone to that other ‘spiritual sin’ of pride compounds the social aspects of the belief. Ontologically, the message is ‘pride comes before a fall’, or before a loss. The proud are envied, and the envy is ultimately a force which opposes them. Morally, this suggests that modest-living and modest-speaking is the ideal which invites the least trouble in life… This ideal was to become an important cultural shibboleth of many old Atlantic European subsistence cultures, now fallen victim to certain malign aspects of modernity.