Apotropaic Magic

evil eye

luck charms

Apotropaic [ap-uh-truh-pey-ik] magic is the use of rituals to ward off harmful influences like the ‘evil eye’ or invidia (jealous or hostile gazes). This can be a long ritual, or it can take the form of simply wearing an amulet or other token, against bad luck, or gestures such as fingers crossed or knocking on wood. When faced with a bad omen the Greeks made offerings to the Averting Gods, underworld deities and heroes who might offer them protection Apotropaic rituals were practiced throughout the ancient Near East and Egypt. Fearsome deities were invoked to ward away evil spirits.

In ancient Egypt, these household rituals were embodied by the deity who personified magic itself, Heka. Other gods invoked include the hippopotamus-like fertility goddess, Taweret, and the lion-demon, Bes (who developed from the early apotropaic dwarf demon-god, Aha, literally meaning ‘fighter’). In the region today, symbol of an eye is common to represent apotropaic intentions. A Turkish airline has adopted the symbol (known as ‘Nazar bonjuk’) as a motif for its planes. The Yiddish expression, ‘Kain ein horeh’ is apotropaic in nature, and literally translates to ‘no evil eye,’ somewhat equivalent to the expression, ‘Knock on wood.’

Objects were often used in these rituals in order to facilitate communication with the gods. One of the most commonly found magical objects, the ivory apotropaic wand, gained widespread popularity in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1069 BCE), and were used to protect expectant mothers and children from malevolent forces. Likewise, protective amulets bearing the likenesses of gods and goddesses like Taweret were commonly worn. Water came to be used frequently in ritual as well: libation vessels in the shape of Taweret were used to pour healing water over an individual. In much later periods (when Egypt came under the Greek Ptolemies), stele (stone slabs) featuring the god Horus were used in similar rituals; water would be poured over them and—after ritually acquiring healing powers—was collected in a basin for an afflicted person to drink.

Among the Ancient Greeks the most widely used image intended to avert evil was that of the Gorgon (a snake-haired demoness), the head of which now may be called the ‘Gorgoneion,’ which features wild eyes, fangs, and protruding tongue. The full figure of the Gorgon holds the apex of the oldest remaining Greek temple where she is flanked by two lionesses. The Gorgon head was mounted on the aegis and shield of Athena. The eye was also an apotropaic symbol to the Greeks, and were painted on drinking vessels called kylikes (eye-cups) from the 6th century BCE. The exaggerated eyes may have prevented evil spirits from entering the mouth while drinking. Phalli were also believed to have apotropaic qualities. Often stone reliefs would be placed above doorways, and three-dimensional versions were erected across the Greek world. Most notable of these were the urban monuments found on the island of Delos. Grotesque, satyr-like beaded faces, sometimes with the pointed cap of the workman, were carved over the doors of ovens and kilns, to protect the work from fire and mishap. A similar use of phallic representations to ward off the evil eye remains popular in modern Bhutan. It is paralleled by other south Asian uses of the lingam symbol (a black stone fountain similar to a stele). In Roman art, apotropaic imagery was a common theme. Envy was thought to bring bad luck to the person envied. To avoid envy, Romans sought to incite laughter in their guests by using humorous images such as large phalluses, deformities like hunchbacks, or non-Roman subjects such as pygmies and black Africans were common. Romans saw deformity as comical and believed that such images could be used to deflect the evil eye.

In the middle ages, people believed that the doorways and windows of buildings were particularly vulnerable to the entry or passage of evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles (sculptural rain water spouts) or other grotesque faces and figures such as ‘sheela na gigs’ (figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva) and Hunky Punks (other, non-functional gargoyles) were carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Similarly the grotesque faces carved into pumpkin lanterns (and their earlier counterparts, made from turnips, swedes, or beets) at Halloween are meant to avert evil as part of Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The winter was called the ‘time between times,’ and was believed to be a period when souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walked the earth. Figures may also have been carved at fireplaces or chimneys; in some cases, simple geometric or letter carvings were used for these. When a wooden post was used to support a chimney opening, this was often an easier material for amateur carving. To discourage witchcraft, rowan wood may have been chosen for the post or mantel. In European folklore the rowan tree has magical properties. It is called the ‘wayfarer’s tree’ or ‘traveller’s tree’ because it supposedly prevents those on a journey from getting lost.

Apotropaic figureheads carved onto the prow of sailing ships are considered to have been a replacement for the sacrifice of a thrall (slaves) during the Age of Invasions (793 – 1066) by Saxon and Viking sailors, to avoid bad luck on voyages. The dredging of the Thames under London Bridge, led to the discovery of a large number of bent and broken knives, daggers, swords and coins dating back to Celtic times. This custom seems to have been to avoid bad luck, particularly when setting off on a voyage. Fishing boats in some parts of the Mediterranean region still have stylized eyes painted on the bows. The burial of an old boot or shoe by the lintel (a load-bearing building component) of the back door of a house, seems to have similar intentions.

Mirrors and other shiny objects are also believed to deflect the evil eye. Traditional English ‘Plough Jags’ (performers of a regional variant of the mummers play) sometimes decorated their costumes (particularly their hats) with shiny items, to the extent of borrowing silver plate for the purpose. ‘Witch balls’ are shiny blown glass ornaments, like Christmas baubles, that were hung in windows. In vampire folklore, crosses, crucifixes, silver bullets, wild roses, and garlic were believed to ward off or destroy demons. In Ireland and Great Britain, magpies are traditionally thought to bring bad luck. Many people repeated various rhymes or salutations to placate them. In terms of tokens, definitions can be fluid, but typically a ‘talisman’ brings good luck, whereas an ‘amulet’ wards off or protects and is therefore apotropaic. In Western culture, a horseshoe was often nailed up over, or close by, doorways, normally with the ends pointing upwards; it is said to collect good luck, or to stop the luck from falling out. Model horseshoes (of card or plastic) are given as good-luck tokens, particularly at weddings, and small paper horseshoes feature in confetti. Irish Travelers and Roma often sell the flower white heather to ‘bring good luck.’ In Ireland, St Brigid’s crosses (a Christian cross woven from rushes or straw), were kept indoors (in houses and animal houses) to keep away illness for the year. In some Native American cultures, a dreamcatcher made of yarn like a web is placed above a bed or sleeping area to protect sleeping children from nightmares.

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