A 1,800-year-old ring and the curse of the ‘evil eye’

Last year, archaeologists in Croatia found a remarkable 1,800-year-old ring with an ‘eye’ that was used to protect the wearer from spells or a bad curse, often referred to as the ‘evil eye’. The belief that a look of envy or dislike from another person could cause injury, bad luck or even death for the person at whom it is directed has existed for at least 5,000 years and has often led to individuals taking protective measures, such as wearing particular items of jewellery.

The ring was one of about 200 items recovered two metres under soil in the eastern town of Vinkovci, an area known to be occupied long before the Roman period. While the unearthed ceramic items date from the first to the sixth century AD, the unusual ring was dated to the third century. On the ring there is an outline of a rabbit or a mouse nibbling a flower, a symbol of happiness, while above the edge of the ring there is an eye, symbolising protection from misfortune.

Written record of the evil eye goes back to around 3,000 BC to the Sumerians who left behind a clay tablet inscribed with a prayer to ward off the curse. Remarkably, a similar prayer is still used today in many cultures around the world, particularly in the Mediterranean.

It is believed, however, that the believe in an ‘evil eye’ goes back to the upper Palaeolithic period as 10,000-year-old drawings have been found on cave walls in Spain which appear to depict symbols to ward off the evil eye.

The tradition and concept varies widely among different cultures, but belief in the evil eye exists far and wide. It is particularly strong in the Middle East, Central America, East and West Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean region. It has also spread to areas, including northern Europe, particularly in the Celtic regions, and the Americas, where it was brought by European colonists and Middle Eastern immigrants.

The concept appears several times in the Old Testament and is also found in Islamic doctrine, based upon the statement of Muhammad, “The influence of an evil eye is a fact…” [Sahih Muslim, Book 26, Number 5427].

Attempts to ward off the curse of the evil eye has resulted in a number of talismans in many cultures, usually disks or balls consisting of concentric blue and white circles, a blue or green eye appearing on a hand, and various other forms of jewellery depicting an eye. But in addition to talismans or ‘lucky charms’, many cultures have engaged in protective measures in an attempt to ward off the evil eye. For example, Asian children sometimes have their faces blackened, especially near the eyes, for protection. Among some Asian and African peoples the evil eye is particularly dreaded while eating and drinking, because soul loss is thought to be more prevalent when the mouth is open; in these cultures, the ingestion of substances is either a solitary activity or takes place only with the immediate family and behind locked doors. Other means of protection, common to many traditions, include the consumption certain foods, the wearing of sacred texts, the use of certain hand gestures, and the display of ritual drawings or objects. The Romans even wore a large phallus object around their neck for protection, presumably to draw the eye’s attention to it rather than the wearer!

Medical science and objectivity tells us that the eye cannot kill, though for centuries deaths were often attributed to the evil eye. In medieval Europe witches were often identified – and burned at the stake – on the evidence that they had directed an angry glare at someone that resulted in their death. So frightened was the British court system of the evil eye and its bewitching powers that it required that accused witches be brought into the courtroom walking backwards.