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.


Anonymous said...

This reminded me of the time I was shopping in Oaxaca and saw a grandma holding a tiny baby. In Spanish, I said, the baby is beautiful. The grandma smiled then said, kiss her. I thought I must have misunderstood her, why would i kiss the baby. I asked her to repeat. Same thing. I was racking my brain, what other word sounded like beso. Then she pointed at the baby's cheek and I leaned, hoping i was doing the right thing. As soon as I kissed the baby's cheek, the grandma smiled. Later a friend explained that the kiss is to counteract the evil eye, so no harm comes to the baby.

I find it interesting that in the US you don't let strangers kiss your baby because you don't want the baby to get germs. Yet in Mexico, you want strangers to kiss your baby so no illness comes to the baby.


Bob Mrotek said...

Anonymous Joan :)

That is also why in Mexico if you stare at someone's child or try to get them to smile and the person sees you doing it they will often times quickly place themselves between you and the child lest you give the child the evil eye. It took me awhile to figure that out.

Mike Jones said...

Loved this post. I appreciate your sharing of your knowledge of the culture.

Beryl Gorbman said...

When my son was born in 1971, I was working in a drug treatment program, where 99% of the 500 locked-in residents were Puerto Rican. Within the first week, someone put this symbol around his neck. They called in an asabache. It was a seed, but it actually had a natural design shaped eerily like an eyeball on it. When I went to the pediatrician, he said, "What the hell is this?" and I gave in to him to the extent that I moved the evil eye protector from my son's neck to his wrist to prevent chocking. I figured it couldn't hurt.

Bob Mrotek said...

Azabache isn't a seed. It is a polished piece of fossilized wood that is similar to lignite coal. It is known the world over as a sort of soft gem stone but in Latin America it is often used as protection against the Evil Eye. In English it is called "jet" after the French "jaiet". We get the phrase "jet black" from this material. Thank you very much for your interesting addition to this discussion.

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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.