26 November 2011

Eye for an Eye

The other day my wife Gina went to visit a relative who has recently given birth to a baby girl and when she returned from the visit Gina exclaimed with incredulity "Ellos ya le pusieron un ojo de venado en su muñeca!" or "They already put a deer's eye on her wrist!". I was just as surprised as she was because the people involved are fairly middle class and well educated but apparently old superstitions and traditions die hard. The "ojo de venado" is an amulet made from the seed of a flowering vine and this seed is large and dark and about the size and shape of the eye of a deer. It's purpose is to ward off the "mal de ojo" or "evil eye" which is also called "el alojamiento". The word "alojamiento" means "habitation" or "lodging" as used in conjunction with the word "hotel" but in this particular case it means "something lodged in the eye".

The "evil eye" concept goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and most of the time it refers to envy. It is mentioned several times in the Bible in both the Old and the New Testaments. For example, in Proverbs verse 23:6 (KJV) it says "Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye" and in Mark 7:22 (KJV) it lists as sins "Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness". The "evil eye" is also mentioned in the Holy Qur'an and is something that the Prophet Muhammad himself was very well acquainted with. Verse 51 of the Sūrat (Chapter) al-Qalam (The Pen) which is the 68th sura of the Qur'an says "Those who disbelieve would almost trip thee up with their eyes.” The Angel Gabriel read an incantation upon the Prophet to protect him from the evil eye.

In Mexico, "el mal de ojo" occurs when someone who is weak, or an infant or a child, is stared at by a person with a piercing glance especially if the stare is a result of jealousy or envy. The stare is said to make the affected person's spirit sick. The symptoms of "mal de ojo" include headaches, high fever, fretfulness, and in the case of children, stomach ache, weeping, and a refusal to eat or sleep. This infirmity is often referred to as "el aliacán". The standard cure for "el aliacán" is the "limpia de huevo" or "egg cleaning". Someone, usually a grandmother, will take an egg (preferably from a black feathered chicken if available) and pass the unbroken egg all over the body of the child while reciting either the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed (whichever one is the local custom). Depending upon the specific situation sometimes they will use a bundle of an herb called "epazote" (Dysphania ambrosioides) instead of an egg. Afterward passing the egg over the body they crack open the egg and put it in a glass jar and set it under the bed (same with the epazote) and in the morning the egg will have become darker and one should be able to see one or more bubble-like "ojos" or "eyes". The epazote has no visible changes. The mother or grandmother then takes the egg (or the epazote) away from the house and throws it in a ditch over her shoulder and returns to the house being careful not to look back lest the "mal de ojo" return.

The "ojo de venado" is supposed to be an "apotropaic" (in English) which means "something to ward off evil". In Spanish it is called an "apotropaico". The charm is made from the dark brownish black seed of a plant whose botanical name is "Mucuna pruriens". In English it is generally called Velvet Bean or Cowhage. The beans grow in pods that have a covering of fine hair-like needles that are very irritating to the skin. Mucuna pruriens often grows near rivers or streams and when the pods pop open the seeds fall into the water and distribute themselves by floating downstream. They end up in the ocean and regularly wash up on beaches, where they are known as "sea beans" and collected as lucky pieces. They are round and flat and about the size of a U.S. quarter. The complete charm consists of the seed with a ribbon or yarn attached with which it is fastened to the body. Often there will also be a holy picture or religious symbol on the bean.

I can't say that I have ever felt the effects of an evil eye but I may have experienced something similar when I failed to put my dirty dishes in the sink or I tracked mud into the house. In those cases perhaps an "ojo de venado" might have helped help but I doubt it. About the only remedy that I have found effective for things like that is to apologize profusely and to beg forgiveness.

24 November 2011


When I was a kid the pilgrims and the good ship Mayflower and the turkey were all symbols of Thanksgiving but I remember that the main symbol was a "Cornucopia" or "Horn of Plenty". In Spanish it is called a "Cuerno de la Abundancia". There are various legends about its origin but the main theme seems to center around Greek mythology. When the god Zeus was a baby he had to be protected from his father, Kronus, who had deposed his own father Uranus and feared being deposed in turn by his own son Zeus even though Zeus was still a baby. Kronus's sister Rhea hid the baby Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete. He was cared for by a number of divine attendants, including the goddess of nourishment, Amalthea, who had the form of a goat and who fed baby Zeus with her milk. The baby Zeus was very strong and while playing with Amalthea he accidentally broke off one of her horns, which then had the divine power to provide unending nourishment, as Amalthea had provided to baby Zeus.

I find the counucopia appealing because I am "cornucopian" who believes that in addition to the continued progress and discoveries of mankind there is enough matter and energy on the Earth (by the grace of God) to provide for the Earth's population well into the future.

In the meantime I think it is fitting to pause and give thanks on this day just for being alive and for being part of this great puzzle. To those of you who can afford to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as those who find themselves in less than a thankful mood or in a difficult circumstance or environment, I salute you all in spirit and the hope for a brighter future for all of us.


20 November 2011

John Buridan's Committee

There is an old philosophical story named after John Buridan who was a French priest and philosopher in the 14th century that somewhat describes the present situation of the budget "Super Committee" in Washington, D.C. The name of the story is "John Buridan's Donkey". It is actually a satire on John Buridan's philosophy of moral determinism which stated that God always encourages virtue and punishes evil and therefore man can determine his reward and punishment through his deeds. John Buridan's critics argued that the rewards and punishments are mainly the result of random events because without random events there can be no truly free will. Their position was that there is no intervention by God since He is not interested in limiting free will through rewards and punishments that would set limits on the free will of man in making choices.

Buridan claimed that man can exercise his free will by delaying his courses of action regarding good versus evil and thinking about the morality of his actions beforehand and that a moral person who is faced with alternative courses of action by the very definition of a "moral person" must always choose the greater good and for this reason be rewarded for his choice through the satisfaction of having done the right thing as well as other potential rewards both spiritual and temporal as judged appropriate by God.

His critics seized upon his exercise in free will through delay and moral reasoning by using the story of the donkey which they named after him. There are some minor variations in the story but the gist of it is that there is a donkey and on one side of him there is a bushel of oats and on the other side there is a bushel of rye. The donkey is very hungry but since the oats and the rye are equidistant from where he is standing and the donkey not possessing much by way of the power of reasoning, the subsequent long delay in choosing which one to eat results in the donkey's untimely death by starvation.

This problem of Buridan's donkey stated in terms of mathematics goes "A discrete decision based upon an input having a continuous range of values cannot be made within a bounded length of time", that is to say, that given this particular problem there can be no time limit in making the choice and this doesn't bode well for the unfortunate donkey since the choice can be made at any time approaching infinity. In digital electronics the problem is called "metastability" or "unstable equilibrium" which involves the amount of time of a system can remain stable. In metastable states, the circuit may be unable to settle into a stable "0" or "1" logic level within the time required for proper circuit operation. As a result, the circuit can act in unpredictable ways, and may lead to a system failure.

Hmmm, "inability to make a logical moral decision before the time runs out and serious consequences such as a system failure as a result". If that doesn't sound like the "Super Committee" problem then I don't know what does. I just hope that they make a decision for the "greater good" before the final gavel sounds or else we may have to relieve John Buridan of the donkey and rename it something else... like "John Boehner's Ass".

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.