Curse of the Evil Eye
Some time ago, Wanna Marchi, a popular Italian TV personality, sold lottery numbers that she claimed could allow her viewers to win. When some of the numbers actually did win (as probability dictated), the appreciation from her clients grew. However, when more often than not the numbers did not win, it was even better for her. To those who complained, Marchi said that their numbers did not win the lottery because someone had put the “evil eye” on them. In financial terms, this meant that if she took 150 euros ($200), in order to sell the “lucky” numbers, she could now ask for over 2,000 euros ($2,700) in order to dispel the evil eye. When finally Marchi was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated fraud, and extortion, her assets amounted approximately to 32 million euros ($43 million), plus numerous villas and apartments all over Italy.
The evil eye is a lucrative business for many psychics and charlatans. However, the risks run by those who decide to rely on these frauds are often much worse than just a bloodletting to their pocketbooks. Not too long ago, the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl, worried about a persistent pain in her daughter’s stomach, decided to turn to “Wizard Tony” from Lecce. After paying one thousand euros for the consultation, the woman had agreed to submit the daughter to a long series of “sessions” against the evil eye. Left alone with the “wizard,” the girl was raped, and it was only after several months that the girl was able to overcome her fear of the threats that the fraudster addressed to her in order to induce her to silence, and confide to her mother what had really happened during those “sessions.” Cases like this are reported almost every day in newspapers; just as many, if not more, remain hidden.
It’s False, But . . .
The late anthropologist Alfonso M. Di Nola, in The Mirror and the Oil (Yale University Press), called the evil eye “a negative and harmful power exercised by people, things, animals and special situations on other men, intentionally or unintentionally.”
This type of superstition has always existed and, though widespread in the Mediterranean area, is alive and persistent in most parts of the world under different names: “evil eye” in Anglophone countries; “horeh ayin” in Hebrew; “droch shuil” in Scotland; “mauvais oeil” in France; “böse blick” in Germany; and “ayin harsha” in Arabic.
At the basis of the belief there seems to be the power attributed to the eye as a source of ominous and destructive influence. “The Evil Eye,” continues Di Nola, “seems to be originally connected to a magical power attributed to looking, eagerly or enviously, to other people’s property. Hence, one of the names by which the ancient designated it is ‘envy’ that, in its etymological composition, means to look bad or look against (in = against, video = to look).”
Although the evil eye is a belief devoid of any scientific foundation, for those who believe it can have a very real effect. “This belief,” explains psychotherapist Armando De Vincentiis, “can lead to a suggestion so intense that it can generate in those who believe a predisposition for seeking negative opportunities and for becoming a victim of bad luck, according to well-known self-destructive tendencies.” One could almost say that believing in the evil eye can bring bad luck.
“One of my patients,” continues De Vincentiis, “believed she had been the victim of the evil eye and had turned for help to a psychic. The girl already had some psychological weaknesses that the skillful wizard immediately recognized and exploited for his plans. The so-called occult practitioner did no more than confirm the imaginary fears of the women through the use of some rituals that showed the suspected curse. Once the sessions were over, the extremely negative aspect—in addition to a considerable loss of money—was the worsening of her already proven mental health. In the long term, in fact, the belief that she had been the victim of a supernatural and uncontrollable event prompted the girl to interpret everything, even the simplest of facts, from a supernatural point of view. In short, she walked away from reality more and more and an anguish grew in her, linked to the fear of being hit at any time by events beyond her control, as well as her dependence to unscrupulous individuals.”
It would be wrong, however, to think that people who believe in the evil eye are ignorant or naive. A recent EURISPES poll, in fact, shows that victims of frauds and scams in at least 14 percent of the cases have a high school diploma or a university degree. On the other hand, even though superstition seems absurd, we should not feel too guilty for, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “no living creature is subject to the absurd, except for man.” In other words, if we try to make sense of the absurdity of the world (perhaps in a very loose way, such as with superstition) it is precisely because we are endowed with a rational mind.
So, what are the rituals through which psychics are able to convince their customers that they are victims of the evil eye? Here are the most popular ones.
Oil in the water. A drop of oil is put into a dish containing water. Depending on the oil droplet remaining united or being broken down in many smaller droplets, the psychic can draw conclusions about the presence or lack of the evil eye. It is actually a chemical reaction and anyone can experiment with it. Take two bowls and wash them with detergent and warm water. Put a cotton ball soaked in oil inside one bowl. Introduce an equal amount of water to the two bowls. At this point, let a drop of oil fall from the same height in the water of each bowl. On the “anointed” one the drop of oil will remain localized in a very restricted area. Conversely, in the clean one the drop will break. The difference in behavior in the two bowls can be easily interpreted in terms of surface tension, as amended by the presence of traces of oil on the plate treated with the cotton ball.
The presence or absence of the evil eye, in short, depends on the fact that the bowl was washed more or less well or, in some cases, was “prepared” beforehand.
Water and salt. Some psychics propose to dissolve a large handful of salt in a glass of water: if the salt does not dissolve, they claim it is because of the evil eye. Just try it, though, and you will see that the salt will never dissolve for the simple fact that the solution is saturated. Simply increase the amount of water and the salt will completely dissolve.
In another version of this trick, the psychic asks the customer to put the salt in a glass of water: if, after a few days, the salt “rises” to the edge of the glass the presence of the evil eye is certain. It is actually a normal physical-chemical process. If you take a glass full of water and you put so much salt until it is unable to dissolve any more, after a few days the water evaporates. First, a crust forms along the edges of the liquid, and then the water continues to evaporate and salt crystals are deposited also on the bottom of the glass. Meanwhile, the crust on the walls increases and rises to the brim. The phenomenon is due to the fact that the liquid rises by capillarity along the first crust, evaporates further, other crystalline deposits form, and so on.
Eggs and pillows. The previous demonstrations have in common the fact that they can also be produced in good faith. The phenomena, that is, always take place and are always inexplicable for those with no knowledge of physics and chemistry. However, there are other methods used by fake psychics to diagnose the evil eye that involve intentional fraud.
In one of these, the psychic takes a hen’s egg, passes it over the victim’s body and then breaks it into a saucer, revealing inside it some hair, dead insects, dirt, ashes... The truth is that, before the “test,” the psychic prepared the egg, making a small hole at one end and from there inserted the hair and the rest of the dirt, finally closing the hole with a drop of glue. If the victim desires to hold the egg before the ritual, the psychic gives her a “healthy” one and then, in a moment of distraction, switches it with the prepared one.
In another test, disturbing objects such as feathers clotted in balls, dolls full of pins, animal bones and so on are found inside the pillow or mattress on which the victim usually sleeps. In these cases, it is always the psychic or an accomplice who hides the objects where they will be found. In certain situations, the culprit could even be a member of the family of the victim, persuaded in helping the fraudster by making him believe that this is what is needed in order to “cure” the sick person.
Waterproof photograph. This is a system used to convince a client that the protection from the evil eye, following the intervention of magical powers, is assured. Taking a photograph of the customer, the wizard plunges it into a pan of water and then extracts it perfectly dry. It is once again a chemical effect due to the fact that, before the test, the magician has sprinkled the water with lycopodium powder. This is a very fine powder, sold in health food stores, composed of the spores of a plant, which has the power of turning waterproof whatever is immersed in the lycopodium-infused water.
These are just a few examples of how mischievous simple scientific reactions can become when handled by a well-informed crook to manipulate someone willing to believe.
Thanks to my good friends and colleagues from CICAP, Luigi Garlaschelli and Silvano Fuso, for the chemistry detailed in this article, and to Armando De Vincentiis for allowing me to interview him for this article.