The Eyes Have It

This post appeared in the North Clare Local in September. 

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(Matteo Ferraresso via Flickr)

Coming from a long line of glasses-wearers, I’ve always been aware of my eyes, and envious of those with perfect vision. It’s an old cliché to say that eyes are the windows to the soul, but we certainly are enchanted by pretty peepers.

Got a dark black ring around your iris? This is called a limbal ring. While we all have them, the thicker yours is, the more attractive you are. As they fade with age, they are a subliminal signal of youth and fertility.

Unusually among species, we humans have a diverse range of eye colours. While huskies and Siamese cats have distinctive blue eyes, most animals have either brown or amber eyes. Humans’ eyes range from blue to brown, and various beliefs have attached themselves to eyes over the centuries.

Brown eyes are the most common globally. Possessors of dark brown eyes are said to be deep-thinkers, but also owners of a mischievous streak. According to The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World, green eyes were said to belong to deceitful characters, while a person possessing hazel eyes was of a “subtle, piercing and frolicsome turn, rather inclined to be arch”.  Those with blue eyes were of a “meek and gentle temper”. I’m sure you, like me, can think of many examples of people in your life who do not meet this criteria in the slightest.

In Ireland, blue eyes are extremely common, so much that we do not think of them as out of the way. I’m sure many readers, especially with a dark hair and blue eyes combination, have experienced stares and comments abroad. Nowadays, blue-eyed visitors to the Mediterranean are likely to receive compliments, but this wasn’t always the case.

For millennia, people across the Mediterranean and Middle East had a strong belief in the “evil eye”. It’s a fascinating, yet nebulous, concept. It could be something as simple as looking on someone else’s crops or possessions with jealously, thereby bringing misfortune upon them. Often associated with witchcraft, it was easy to blame a staring old woman for a bad harvest. This idea that people could cause harm to others by a mere glare was widespread beyond the “evil eye” hotspot. In Ireland, “overlooking” a new-born baby could leave it vulnerable to being kidnapped by fairies.

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Not my cat, but she’s a lookalike! (Daniela via Flickr)

In Greece especially, where lighter-coloured eyes are unusual, it was strongly believed that those with blue eyes were capable of giving the evil eye. So ingrained was the belief, it’s even been incorporated into the Greek Orthodox faith, but there it is linked to the devil and envy. It is also thought to be harmful to the caster as well as the victim. As it’s linked to envy and admiration, it’s also technically possible to inflict the evil eye on yourself. The lesson in this was to remain humble and modest.

A process called xematiasma is used for ridding an afflicted person of the evil eye. This involved special prayers with a healer (the prayers are always passed down from a grandparent of the opposite sex). If they were successful, both the healer and the victim would start to yawn uncontrollably until the malicious vibes disappeared.

There are vast numbers of ways to combat the evil eye. Blue “eye” talismans are common all over the Middle East and Mediterranean, even as far away as Afghanistan. It was thought that giving the evil eye another “eye” to focus on would deflect any misfortune away from the intended recipient. There are multiple hand gestures used to ward off the evil eye. In southern Italy the cornicello is used to ward off the evil eye. A little horn shaped charm, it was supposed to distract the caster (almost always an elderly woman) from performing her magic.

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The late great David Bowie (Adam Bielawski via Wikipedia)

Unusual eyes attract a mystique of their own. For example, Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her so-called “violet eyes”. A quick google will tell you that Taylor was a product of “Alexandria Genesis”, a genetic mutation which bestows supposed superpowers on people. This concept is completely fictional, and Liz’s eyes were more likely to be an extremely unusual shade of blue. One real eye mutation is heterochromia iridium, where an individual has different coloured eyes (or different colours within one iris). More common in animals- I myself have an odd-eyed cat- it’s a distinctive look. Probably the most famous heterochromatic was the late great David Bowie, although his unusual look was from a schoolyard fight over a girl.

While there isn’t much in the way of superstitions about odd-eyed humans, the Turks consider that the white, odd-eyed Angora cat a national treasure, and began a breeding programme in the 19th century to preserve them.  Proof that imperfections can often make us, whether, human or feline, very special indeed.

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