The Evil Eye in ancient Atlantic Europe, ‘101’.

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star...

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star…

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…

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to an obviously jealous Athena (Aine). Note there are only two snakes protruding from the Gorgon's head...

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to pleased-looking (jealous?) Athena. Note there are only four snakes protruding from the Gorgon’s head – the topmost two resemble horns…

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.


Balor of the ‘Evil Eye’

Another famous character of Irish pagan mythology is Balor. He appears to exist as an adversarial character, and leader of the Fomorian race who were supposed to have occupied Ireland before the Tuatha Dé Danann and the humans opposed and replaced them in the medieval pseudo-historical myths, such as those in the famous Lebor Gabála Érenn. His main attribute was a ‘piercing’ (birugderc) , ‘destructive’ (milledach) or ‘poisonous’(neimnech) eye which could, depending on the tradition do anything from making men helpless in battle to blasting, blighting and destroying. This property is often linked to the popular ‘evil eye’ mythology once so common to Europe, and still current in much of Africa and Asia. Balor was supposedly killed by his own semi-divine warrior-grandchild, Lugh, who himself was said to have been fostered by Manannán mac Lir. As such, Balor appears to have been an inspiration for Sauron in Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, chosen perhaps because he operated as a hypostasis for an ‘evil god’ in medieval and early-modern myths. He even operated as a political representation of Ireland’s oppressors in some traditions, and his showdown with Lugh is a popular folktale.

So … who or what was this character really supposed to be? The key to understanding him correctly is understanding the idea of the ‘evil eye’ as it pertains to Atlantic European mythology. The Evil Eye, Bad Eye or Destructive Eye was a phenomenon known in particular from its recorded incidence among peoples from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Isle of Man and Ireland between the 17th and 20th centuries.

The essence of the Gaelic evil eye belief was that the eye emitted a spiritual force (spirit was anciently considered an ethereal form of light) which could alter what it looked at (touched). This idea (the ‘extromission’ of light from the eye) was known from classical antiquity, and discussed in both scientific and religious theory by medieval European authors such as Robert Grosseteste and Thomas Aquinas. Pride and envy were considered the ‘spiritual’ sins and operated through spirit and thus light, which was considered the substance from which spirit was made. The force of the Evil Eye was supposed to be driven by the ‘deadly sin’ of envy, and caused a loss of vitality and well-being in the subject of the envious gaze: it was a metaphysical interpretation of how the spiritual ‘sin’ of envy (literally translating as ‘in vision’) worked as a malign force which could change things at a distance. It could be a passive force (whereas ‘witchcraft‘ or sorcery was considered an active process), and this distinction was perhaps one of the reasons why the Gaelic peoples (preoccupied by fairies and the ‘bad eye’) did not prosecute witchcraft as a general rule. The ‘Evil Eye’ and its associated otherworld theory was the explanation for misfortune! And the ‘Evil Eye’ was a force by which those ‘spiritual’ beings – the fairies – exerted their power on this world. They envied our ‘substance’ and ‘worth’ and tried to take it from us… they abducted our healthy children and left us their unhealthy ones… they sickened and blighted: It was the mode by which the ‘Otherworld’ interacted with ours!

Considering this, we must now turn our attention to the Gaelic Lord of the OtherworldManannán mac Lir – who ruled the world beneath the sea and behind the horizon where the sun sets. As ruler of this inverted place and we must consider if he might in fact be identifiable with the ‘Balor’ character of Irish myth – a sea-ruler who originally (in some traditions such as the Manx) held the sovereignty of the Land, and whose eye chose the lives to be transferred to the Otherworld… Balor is associated with Tory Island off Donegal, and his ‘race’ is supposed by the medieval writings to have come from the sea. Traditions tell that he was grandfather or father of Lugh (who eventually killed him) and that Lugh was fostered by Manannán, so there is a reasonable argument in suggesting that Balor may be a part of the Manannán hypostasis.

The early Welsh Arthurian tale known as Culwch and Olwen features a central character with features similar to Balor – the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr. The description of him sounds a little like that of Balor in the Irish tale Cath Maige Tuired (Battles of Moytura) in that he is of a giant size and had eyes (or an eye) so huge that they required great forked sticks to open his eyelids. This begs the question of wether the character is a bardic metaphor or a character nested deep in popular mythology. Other similarities include the possession of a desirable daughter over whom heroes fight – with Balor it is Eithne and with Ysbaddaden it is Olwen.

The concepts of decay and death have stronger ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’ connotations for  christians, yet in religious cultures with a belief in reincarnation they are loaded with more positive connotations. This begs the question of why and to whom Balor’s eye was supposed to be ‘evil’? This is not explicit in the descriptions of the ‘Second Battle of Magh Tuired’, in which Balor’s eye is said to be Birugderc – piercing. The ‘evil’ appelation is one of the narrative tales of his behaviour and of christian tradition, such as that collected in the early 19thC by John O’Donovan from Donegal and Tory, and from those of the other folklore records, including those of the goverment-sponsored Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) from the 1930’s onwards, now curated by University College Dublin.