submitted by Peter Bouras on 18.06.2005
In 2003, holistic biologist, and transpersonal psychologist Rupert Sheldrake published a book on The Sense of Being Stared At, which he subtitled - And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.
Sheldrake's biography, career and publications can be accessed at
In The Sense of Being Stared At Sheldrake tries to explain that uncanny feeling - that most of us have experienced - of knowing that someone is staring at us.
In the 100 years to 1990 only 4 scientific experiments had been conducted into this universal phenomenon. Sheldrake has instigated a flood of research into this phenomenon over the past decade.
In the course of his investigations Sheldrake - in Chapter 12 of the book - explores The Evil Eye and the Rise of Rationalism.
Belief in the Evil Eye has played and continues to play a very important role in the psychosocial development of most Kytherians. My mother, for example never praised us or anyone else, without adding the compulsory "ftoosou, ftousou, paethi mou (spit, spit, child of mine.)
Can you recall stories from your family about the evil eye? Could one of your family members conduct spells to counteract the influence of the evil eye?
Do you, or any of your family still continue to wear protective amulets against the Evil Eye?
Sheldrakes Chapter 12 is divided into four sections.
In the fourth of these four sections, he investigates
The Evil Eye in modern Greece
In modern Greece, belief in the evil eye is still all-pervasive. Greece underwent none of the intellectual upheavals associated with the Protestant Reformation. And the Greek Orthodox church has a very different kind of theology from the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, more mystical and less intellectual.
Most of Greece was under Turkish rule until the 1820s, and had been so since the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. Among the Turks, then as now, belief in the evil eye was very common. In Greece in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were no intellectual forces encouraging the growth of scepticism comparable to those in England. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Greek intellectuals were exposed to the same kind of rationalism as intellectuals elsewhere, but until quite recently Greece remained a predominantly rural society, and intellectuals a small urban minority.
I first became aware of the pervasiveness of beliefs in the evil eye in Greece when travelling there on holiday. Having noticed the protective amulets against it even in modern cars and air-conditioned buses, I raised the subject with a young Greek engineer, whom I met through family connections. As a modern, scientifically educated person he immediately dismissed the evil eye as superstition. But as the conversation continued, he talked first about his pious grandmother and her beliefs, with a mixture of mockery and respect, and then said he had himself experienced some things that he could not explain. In particular, one day he was with a friend who was reputed to have the ‘eye’ when they visited someone who kept pigeons. The birds took off and were flying around when his friend looked up at them admiringly. One of them fell out of the sky dead.
In 2000, at my request, Socrates Seferiades, an architect living in Athens, carried out a survey about beliefs in the evil eye in urban and rural Greece. At first his attempts to find out about people’s attitudes and experiences met with considerable reticence. He told me, ‘Perhaps, in part, it stemmed from my own somewhat sceptical attitude. Also the manner of posing the question, “Do you believe in the evil eye?” elicited rational responses conforming to a supposedly acceptable social image for our times. However, the question ‘Have you ever had an experience that could possibly be attributed to the evil eye?’ generally brought an affirmative response even from those who professed not to believe in it. I soon came to realize that ostensible belief or no, the evil eye is deeply embedded in Greek culture at many levels, colouring experience and the manner of response to the world. Ill luck or misfortune can be ascribed to the evil eye, hence to other people’s sinful and envious natures, rather than fate.’
Socrates found that it is generally believed that the evil eye can be cast unconsciously, and people with envious or jealous personalities are those most feared. Many people take precautions to protect anything or anybody that is admired, usually by spitting three times, ‘Ftou, ftou, ftou.’ A common expression throughout the Greek world, uttered immediately after expressing admiration, is ‘Ftou, may the Evil Eye not be cast upon him [or hen.’ People often touch wood as well.
Even Greek sceptics did not deny that people suffer from symptoms they attribute to the evil eye. For example, the poet Spyro Harbouri said he does not believe in the evil eye himself, but those who do can be affected because of their beliefs: ‘People believe in it because they believe in witchcraft, which they consider as evil. Therefore they believe they can be exorcized. It’s all in the mind, autosuggestion. If they believe in voodoo, then it exists.’
Even though nationalists consider themselves immune because they do not believe in the evil eye, some conceded that they might still be susceptible to the negative effects of other people’s emotions. Yet because of their rationalist beliefs, they deny themselves the possibility of being helped by traditional methods of healing.
Some people thought that their own emotions could affect others adversely, like Anna Barry, who lives in Athens:
I believe in the evil eye absolutely, or at any rate the projection of our negative emotions influencing others. I feel very bad about it but I think I sometimes do this. If someone annoys me intensely I sometimes wish something bad will happen to them out of anger and unfortunately it sometimes does.
Others were not so sure, but felt they might have cast the eye unwittingly. For example:
I don’t think I believe in the evil eye, but once I was sitting at McDonald’s drinking a milkshake, when a very handsome young man was coming up the stairs and I said to myself, ‘What a devastatingly handsome young man!’ and immediately he tripped on the last step and fell, dropping all the potatoes he was carrying.
If all the supposed effects of the evil eye were on people, they could perhaps be explained purely psychologically, as sceptics suggest. But some of these effects are said to be on animals, such as horses, or on plants, or on inanimate objects. For example, Despina Penimeni tells how the looks of a family friend devastated her mother’s three favourite plants.
lie visited us on three different occasions in the same year and admired my mother’s ten-year-old geranium, her gardenia and her fir tree. The day after his visits, the plants he had admired were dead. I specifically remember that the fir tree looked as if it had been burnt by fire. My mother has the reputation of having green fingers, but she did not manage to revive her plants.
All sorts of objects are supposed to be affected. For example:
A young woman reputed to have the ability to cast the evil eye visited us one day. tlpon entering the living room she admired one of our paintings saying, ‘What a lovely painting that is.’ Unbelievably it fell off its hook there and then! (Dr Michael Stavropoulos)
Anna Mihailides, a potter, believes in the evil eye herself, but her mother, also a potter, took a rationalist attitude and often mocked people’s belief in it. Nevertheless:
Whenever a particular friend visited my mother’s workshop while she was firing her ceramics in the kiln, a high percentage would inevitably break. She would try to keep her friend away on such occasions. It seems to me a part of my mother did somehow believe in the evil eye after all.
Dimitni Yiatsouzaki is another partial sceptic:
I don’t believe in the evil eye. But I fear it. When I’m on my motorbike and see someone who I think is in some way admiring me, I immediately pray to the Virgin Mary, in whom I don’t believe either, except at the moment of fear!
Even modern machinery is believed to be susceptible. Poppy Stavropoulos relates how she was visited by a woman friend who had returned from eastern Europe in poverty, making her living by selling books from door to door.
We talked of the good old times. We had a meal together and I gave her some of my clothes as I could see she was in need. I drove her to the station. All the way, she kept on saying how lucky I was, what a lovely house I had, how well I lived, and so on. After saying goodbye, I tried to start the car and it made horrible noises and smoke came out of the engine. It was almost brand new then. The mechanic said the starter had caught fire and could have set the whole car alight. He had never seen anything like it before. I think it was the evil eye of envy, even unwittingly.
As well as amulets and charms, people use a variety of other methods to cast off the evil eye and gain relief from its spell. The Orthodox church has a number of officially approved prayers for protection against it and for driving away its effects. Father Ioannis, the parish priest of Enithrea, explained it as follows:
The Orthodox church absolutely accepts the existence of the evil eye. I consider it to be a projection of bad and negative thoughts that can affect people very strongly. These thoughts or intense feelings stem from envy and jealousy... Parishioners come to me quite often to be exorcized. I always start by making the sign of the cross three times with a cross held in my hand. A gold cross is best. At the same time I sprinkle them with holy water. The Devil abhors the purifying and healing powers of holy water. I then recite one of the prayers of exorcism against the evil eye.
In addition, all over Greece many people are reputed to have the power of curing physical illnesses that could be due to the effects of the evil eye. They often use special incantations or secret prayers that are passed on from mother to daughter or from father to son, and perform a ritual. One method involves a glass of water with a hair of the patient placed in the water or under the glass. The water is blessed with a thrice-repeated sign of the cross. A small amount of ash, often from a burnt carnation clove, is dropped on the water. If it floats, the disease cannot be attributed to the evil eye. If it sinks, it can. The water is used to form a cross on the brow of the patient while the healer murmurs the secret prayer under his or her breath. The procedure ends with the patient drinking a little of the water.
The commonest method involves the use of oil and water, as described here by Mario Georgakopoulos, a lawyer in Athens:
My grandmother can cast out the evil eye. She learned it from her mother, and her mother from her mother in turn. She has often exorcized me, and I have watched her do it to friends and relatives. On rare occasions she will exorcize over the phone, using the secret prescribed formula. This must never be said to another person, at the peril of losing its efficacy and therefore one’s power to cast the spell out. With her finger dipped in oil, my grandmother places a few drops in a cup full of water. If the oil spreads evenly over the surface, the presence of the evil eye is indicated. If the oil remains contained in a drop floating, then the evil eye is not indicated. The prayer is repeated continuously like a mantra throughout the whole procedure. She continues to place drops of oil in the water until there is a definite separate blob of oil, indicating that the process is complete and the evil eye has been cast out. She yawns throughout and feels
exhausted at the end. Granny requires about ten minutes to recover, though now that she is getting older it takes her even longer and she tires more easily. She can’t do more than two a day any more.
Some patients also yawn repeatedly during the ritual, but apparently this is less common than yawning by the healers. Dr Hero Thomopoulos thinks this is part of the process whereby the healer removes the harmful influence:
As the healer begins to feel the effect of the spell, his eyes may start running and he yawns repeatedly. He can feel so bad that on occasion he is physically sick, but recovers quickly, usually within ten minutes. In effect, the evil is taken away through the healer. One begins to feel better almost immediately after this, traditionally described as ‘your eyes being opened’. Certainly there is always a feeling of lightness and relief as if a weight has been lifted off you.
The traditionalists cite many examples that seem to support their beliefs. Some, like Monica Diamantopoulos, in Athens, even argue that it is a helpful belief, and that the cures can bring genuine relief:
Believing in the evil eye is a very useful psychological trait. People are helped enormously to face the daily problems of life if they can blame someone or something for untoward misfortunes. It is a great relief to feel that a health problem can be solved. It is a way of resolution, a fix, a way around a problem, perhaps, but nevertheless a resolution. A poor man’s psychology. It helps me from being crushed by the weight of adverse events or circumstances and the stress of life. It’s a pity people don’t believe in it in contemporary Western society, in America for example. Here in Greece, a surprising number of people do, many university graduates and sophisticated people. It’s a good thing.
Sceptics argue that both the afflictions and the cures are all in the mind. But even if the cures are a kind of placebo effect, placebos actually work, and have genuinely beneficial effects, no one knows how.
On the other hand, the scepticism that predominates in countries like England liberates people from fears of envy and malice. It frees people from chronic paranoia about the looks and intentions of others. Disbelief in the evil eye is reassuring, and it can be empowering.
Beliefs in the evil eye, and rejections of these beliefs, influenced the evolution of theories of vision, and hence theories about the nature of the mind, as we see in the following chapter.
Whatever the psychological advantages and disadvantages of belief in the evil eye, the fact is that people do seem able to influence others by their looks. The sense of being stared at exists in both humans and other animal species. If this sense evolved in the context of predator— prey relationships, as I suggested in Chapter 10, it is not surprising that fear is one of the emotions aroused by staring.
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