The belief in the magical powers of the Evil Eye is among the most ancient and universal of all beliefs. Virtually “every language, both ancient and modern, contains a word or expression which is the equivalent of ‘Evil Eye’.”(1) The powers of fascination often mentioned in connection with the Evil Eye are the powers that irresistibly attract, bewitch, or enchant by a motionless glance. In ancient times, the ability to fascinate was traditionally attributed to female figures. Thus, throughout history, the possessors of the power of the Evil Eye were women, goddesses, and witches. The eye-womb correlation is given further credence by the fact that so many goddesses endowed with the powers of fertility and generation – most notably Venus, Aphrodite, Isis, Ishtar, and Artemis – are regarded as “protectresses of fascination.”(2) It is therefore not surprising to find a connection between the eye-cult and these goddesses of death and rebirth.(3) The association is of such ancient origin that it receives mention in the earliest cuneiform clay tablets of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.
The eyes are the most exclusive feature of the hundreds of votive figures found in the excavation of the Syrian “Eye Temple” of Tell Brak, a temple that was exclusively “dedicated to the worship of Ishtar (Inanna).” The eye-idols, as they are known, are representations of Ishtar. The variations on their single iconographic form are almost without end. Some of the figures don headdresses, some wear necklaces, others are decorated with chevrons suggestive of breasts, and there are others whose necks and heads are abstracted phallic or vulvar forms. Each is unique and yet they are the same. These fascinating eye-idols, which date from about 3500-3300 B.C.E., are more ancient “than the pyramids of Giza and the whole of [the] Minoan culture of Cnossus.”
It seems reasonable to suggest that the images of Ishtar served a prophylactic function. In later times, and with much the same intent, the Great Goddess was invoked under a variety of names in prayers against the Evil Eye of jealousy and envy.
The ancient Sumerians thought that blue eyes were a sign of the gods. The Sumerian nobility were blue eyed and fair haired, as most of their busts show.
One of the earliest mentions of the Evil Eye is in a Sumerian text dating to the 3rd–4th millennium BC.
Taking advantage of the stone’s natural banding, agates were carved to resemble an eye. The votive inscriptions indicate the placement of the object on an altar or in a temple as a gift to a deity. The stones were thought to have some inherent power that would help protect the life of the person named in the inscription. These amulets probably adorned the cult statue of the god inscribed and were most likely worn in precious gold settings.
1. Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans. (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1968), p. 358.
2. Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: The Origins and Practices of Superstition. (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1958), p. 132.
3. O. G. S. Crawford, The Eye Goddess, op. cit., p. 98.