Wander through a Greek or Turkish market, and you’ll feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, the eerie sense of being watched. It’s not the people - they’re way too busy buying and selling and living life to the full. No. It’s everything else.
The eyes are everywhere: swinging merrily from key-chains and bracelets, peering out from plates, cups, saucers and mugs, set into the surface of every bead and every marble. A sea of them watching your every move.
That’s technically wrong, though. Easy mistake, which is why the online world has made a habit of making it. Those eye-like things are actually the exact opposite of the Evil Eye. What kind of shopkeeper would try to sell you bad luck? No - these are charms designed to keep you safe. Want to make friends quickly when you’re passing through the Mediterranean? Don’t disrespect these charms with the wrong name.
The modern term for this is apotropaic magic. Every country has its misfortune-averting superstitious practices. Canadians wear red at New Year (as do the Turks). The British cross their fingers for good luck, and refuse to walk under ladders. And the Greeks?
Well, they stick eyes on everything. They don’t exactly look like eyes though (that really would be alarming). Instead, these talismans are pleasant blue-white splashes of colour, like teardrops, one nested inside the other, darker blue on the outside, lighter blue inside around a black central ‘pupil’.
In Greece, this is called the mati. You’ll see it everywhere because it’s an item of everyday use. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this is just the usual touristy schtick you’re being encouraged to buy - I mean, it can be, but it also fulfils an absolutely vital role in Greek social life. The market vendors aren’t lying to you. For some, this is regarded as a matter of life and death.
According to the tradition, it’s not hard to give someone the Evil Eye (especially if you have blue or green eyes). You can do it accidentally, without a hint of animosity towards your victim. Say you’re wandering through the streets of Athens, and you spot someone wearing an absolutely spectacular hat. “Oh wow,” you think, “good on you - and argh, I really wish I had one of those myself.”
Harmless, good-natured envy? Of course. But the Evil Eye doesn’t care. That you’re displaying any form of jealousy is good enough for these dark forces at work. Out goes the invisible curse, blighting the other person’s day in the mildest of ways. They might spill their next coffee on their lap, or tear a stocking, or lose a glove.
An annoyance, not much to worry about - except, the thing about misfortune is that it’s always a roll of the dice. The tiny flaw you’ve created in someone’s day might be a lapse of judgment that becomes fatal. No way of knowing.
The way you keep yourself safe amidst this constant drizzle of projected woes is simple. Firstly, and a little alarmingly for the uninformed visitor, there is spitting. It’s not really spitting, but it sure sounds that way: ptou sou, ptou sou, sometimes accompanied by a hurried sign of the cross.
This may look disrespectful, but it’s actually the nicest thing a Greek person could do for you, somewhere between a verbal blessing and a spiritual hand-sanitizing. They’re saying, “I do this to keep you safe, for we are friends and I wish you well.” Look for the kind twinkle in their eye that confirms it.
Secondly, you get out your nazar - a term originating from Arabic, roughly translating as surveillance or attention. Your eye-like nazar amulet (called the mati in Greece) will spot the Evil Eye coming towards you, and quickly shoo it away, leaving you good-fortuned enough to have a really great day.
The term “an eye for an eye” (which has made its way much further westwards than the nazar itself) is an instruction for warding off evil in your daily life, rather than something more gruesomely literal, as is more commonly assumed.
And if you suspect you’ve had more than your average daily dose of the Eye, you can follow it up with a prayer - perhaps using the appropriate popular iPhone app to help you remember the words.
The frequency of mati-wearing in Greece tends to reflect the perceived current fortunes of its inhabitants as a whole - which is why there was a big uptick during the country’s recent economic troubles. (Expect to see a lot on display in the wake of the 2020 pandemic.)
But its importance goes deeper. It’s become a bridge between generations, a cultural touchstone for family members to agree upon - and a way of showing affection. Nothing says you care about someone’s wellbeing than a lovingly-crafted mati presented as a gift.
It’s not just Greece, though. You’ll find rituals against the Evil Eye in about 40% of the countries of the world, like Brazil’s olho gordo (“fat eye”) or the Caribbean’s French-originating maljo. They all follow broadly the same patterns - for example, blue being the source of the most power to curse and protect - but every country calls it something different. It’s a stunning testament to the power of cultural traditions to spread across borders and hemispheres, given enough millenia.
In this case, the tradition goes back to biblical times, perhaps as far as ancient Mesopotamia, before percolating out to reach the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts - and just about everyone else along the way. You’ll find traces of it in the most unlikely places (Puerto Rico, for example), but it’s only in the Mediterranean and the Middle East that misfortune-management is done with so much passion and energy.
If you want a sign of this superstition’s toughness in the face of change, look at the religious differences in the countries it’s taken hold in. In Greece, it’s up against Christianity. In Turkey, Islam. Elsewhere, it’s firmly embedded in Judaism. Does it truly fit with Christian, Muslim, Jewish beliefs?
Not really. But just like how a proudly rationalist non-believer in the West will suppress a shudder when a black cat crosses his path, everyone respects the Evil Eye at a gut level, even if they’d struggle to explain exactly why. It’s baked that deep.
So yes, it’s true. You’re being watched. The Eye is everywhere. You’ll know when its gaze settles upon you: a sudden dip in energy, a stifled yawn when you were feeling terrific just a few minutes ago.
A moment of clumsiness with that piece of delicious baklava on the end of your fork, leaving you irritably dabbing at an oil stain on your shirt. Quick! No time to waste. If there’s a knowledgeable Greek with you, get them to perform the xematiasma for you, whispering the necessary prayers.
You clutch your mati and relax. Disaster is narrowly avoided, and you should celebrate your lucky escape. Another round of pastries?
Greece has a long history and a fascinating culture...come and explore it with Wheel & Anchor as we embark on an island-hopping adventure in the spring of 2022...more details here!