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The Material Culture of the Evil Eye: Merging Orthodoxy and New Age Spirituality in Greece

Eugenia Roussou discusses the prominence of evil eye beliefs and practices in contemporary Greece. Traditionally Greek ideas about the evil eye are increasingly being fused with New Age conceptions resulting in new ideas, practices, and religious materialities.

MLA citation format:
Roussou, Eugenia
“The Material Culture of the Evil Eye: Merging Orthodoxy and New Age Spirituality in Greece.”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 20 May 2015. Web. [date of access]

 

As has been argued recently by social scientists, the world today is going through a ‘spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). As a result, especially in the western sociocultural context, the authority of denominational religion is rapidly diminishing, and subjectivized spirituality gradually takes over the field of contemporary religiosity (c.f. Shimazono 1999; Knoblauch 2008). Even in Southern European countries, where religious identity is almost exclusively linked to Christianity, the appearance of alternative forms of spirituality that belong to the so-called ‘New Age’ movement (Heelas 1996; Hanegraaff 1996; Sutcliffe 2003; Wood 2007) is becoming stronger. When it comes to Greece, in particular, these days New Age spirituality claims a vivid position in the religious landscape of the country, and the boundaries between Orthodox Christianity, the official and predominant religion of Greece (Alivizatos 1999: 25), and New Age spirituality appear not only softened but almost collapsed. Denominational religion and New Age spirituality are amalgamated in people’s everyday practices, and Orthodox devotees are often open to incorporating New Age ideologies in their lives. One central sociocultural evidence of such mergence between Orthodox religion and New Age spirituality can be observed through the material culture of perhaps the most popular Greek belief, that of the evil eye.

The evil eye is one of the most popular beliefs in Southern Europe and the Middle East (see, among others, Reminick 1976; Galt 1982; Veikou 1998). It arises from the widely held perception that certain people can transmit a form of negative energy, mainly through visual contact, to others. Such contact results in distress and ill-health experienced by the bodies of the afflicted, subsequently cured via a ritual healing by lay specialists. In addition, people draw on a panoply of evil eye material objects (matakia), which are mainly used as prophylactic amulets against any form of evil. These matakia – literally ‘little eyes’ in Greek – are the focus of the present paper. Drawing on extensive anthropological fieldwork (2005-2009) that focused on the evil eye phenomenon on the island of Crete and in northern Greece, I provide a brief account of how the evil eye materiality depicts a change in contemporary Greek religiosity, when it comes to the relationship between religion and spirituality in the Greek sociocultural context.

 

 

Figure 1: Typical evil eye objects. Rethymno, Crete, June 2005. Photo by author.

 

 

Materiality is centrally situated in the evil eye practice. As can be seen in the picture above, the most typical evil eye material objects consist of blue glass with an eye painted on them. Given that it is primarily the human eye that transmits a form of electromagnetic waves which cause the evil eye, the popular prophylactic items to ward off the evil eye act as a mirror to reflect the gaze away from its recipients. The use of blue glass is not random either. The majority of individuals who can transmit the evil eye to others are believed to be the ones with blue eyes: the blue-coloured eyes are considered rarer among Greeks; consequently, the blue eyes have noticeably more intensity and power and can thus transmit the evil eye more easily. Furthermore, the reflective power of the glass itself is meant to not simply block but also refract the negative energy back to the universe, and, as a result, it is thought to be the best material for evil eye amulets.

In addition to the more normative blue-eyed glass objects I just described, the range of the evil eye materialities has expanded considerably. In both Rethymno and Thessaloniki, the Cretan town and the Northern-Greek city where I respectively conducted my fieldwork, evil eye things were to be found in a plethora of shapes, colours, and designs. These objects ranged from decorative items to jewellery, key chains to kompologia (worry beads), and mobile amulets to religious icons. A renewed interest triggered by fashion in the last decade has lifted matakia higher up on the material ladder of popularity. Advertising has contributed greatly to the trend of the evil eye objects. Popular magazines are full of evil eye jewellery advertisements and online advertising of matakia is prominent. The Greek media have also played a significant role in broadcasting globalizing influences, including New Age trends, and in the creation and expansion of the evil eye trend. As a result, Rethymniots and Thessalonikans, in the words of a shop owner in Thessaloniki, ‘keep requesting to buy those evil eye things they see on television and in magazine ads: evil eye pendants, amulets and other similar things, such as feng shui objects and the like. So, we order and bring them’. This fashionable re-introduction of the evil eye does not only involve changes in the quality, quantity, form, and imaginative variety of evil eye things. It also – and perhaps most importantly – has to do with a change in terms of religiosity: the evil eye material culture currently represents a Greek turn to a more open spiritual field, where Orthodoxy and New Age spirituality are synthesized in practice through material creativity.

There are two specific kinds of materialities whose presence prevail in Rethymno and Thessaloniki, and which depict a change in contemporary Greek religiosity. On the one hand, there are the religious matakia: the evil eye objects that incorporate Orthodox symbols, but are often used as protective amulets against any kind of negative energy. On the other hand, there are the spiritual matakia: the objects that are related to both the evil eye and New Age spirituality, which serve as primary indicators of a new development in the spiritual life of Greeks, and are considered spiritually powerful.

 

 

Figure 2: A popular evil eye object. Thessaloniki, Greece, March 2006. Photo by author.

 

 

I was admittedly quite surprised when I first discovered the ‘religious matakia’. From what I found out later through discussion with people in Rethymno and Thessaloniki, they represented a new trend. Such matakia were considered no less ‘religious’ than crosses and religious icons. Shop owners had them placed next to icons depicting Saints, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin and Jesus. The existence of religious matakia emerged out of the need to reinvent the evil eye material culture, find a way to make it more popular for Greeks and foreign tourists, and refresh the relationship between Orthodoxy and the evil eye, by pushing it toward the direction of popular religion.

A male informant of mine in Rethymno, who is the owner of a shop full of religious icons, evil eye amulets and religious matakia, made a noteworthy statement. I was standing opposite a stand full of religious evil eye objects, observing a couple of them where the evil eye and Orthodoxy were clearly merging: a big, round, blue evil eye bead was hanging from religious icons of Jesus and the Virgin. The owner came to stand next to me and we started discussing the meaning of those objects. A few seconds later he turned to me and said: ‘Even if they [the evil eye and Orthodoxy] had not shared any kind of relationship up to now, well, now they do’.

 

 

Figure 3: The stand of religious matakia in the Rethymniot shop. Rethymno, Crete, August 2005. Photo by author.

 

 

By juxtaposing an evil eye and a more traditional Greek religious symbol, a meaningful emergence, both in physical and in ideological terms, arises. As my informant eloquently asserted, the relationship they had carried before does not really matter any longer. What counts is their present coexistence, and the way in which this interaction is interpreted, negotiated and practised by people. Empowered by Christian symbolism and by the evil eye belief, these objects help people experience the religious world through a material pathway, offering ‘a striking example of how lay men and women successfully integrate religious concerns, popular culture, and profit making’ (McDannell 1995: 269). At the same time, these religious matakia have also found a new practice, namely by being utilized as prophylactic items against not just the evil eye but also against the channelling of (negative) energy – a central concept in New Age spirituality (see Brown 1997). Along with the new mergence through materiality between Orthodox and evil eye symbolism, this fashionable version of religious matakia represents a novel manner of handling an important change in the Greek ‘religioscape’ – that of the appearance and gradual popularity of New Age spirituality – through a culturally familiar discourse and an emerging popular materiality.

When it comes to the spiritual matakia, an amulet which combines a blue-eye bead and a New Age symbol is hardly considered ‘spiritually appropriate’ by the Church, priests and devoted Orthodox adherents. Yet, the majority of my informants found such an object spiritually effective, since it can offer protection against all sources of evil energy. As Anna, a Thessalonikan informant told me: ‘I believe in God. But I also have a feng shui object that has an evil eye on it with me all the time. It has two little angels that hold two hearts and a small evil eye bead on it. So, not only do I get protected from the evil eye and negative energy, but I can also attract love.’ Furthermore, according to a New Age shop owner in Rethymno: ‘[my customers] buy evil eyes, but they also ask constantly for healing objects, like crystals, New Age things, feng shui things, and objects that have some kind of spiritual power.’ As a consequence, shop owners need to invent new ways to attract attention; therefore, they bring to their shops evil eye objects that deviate from the classic evil eye beads and matakia, but are instead infused with New Age symbolism.

 

 

Figure 4: Eastern spirituality meets the evil eye. Thessaloniki, Greece, March 2006. Photo by author.

 

 

In North America, the New Age movement is explicitly condemned by many Christians. For them, New Age is a ‘“pagan” religion combining the egocentric follies of secular humanism and the evil machinations of the devil’ (McDannell 1995: 264). As a consequence, crystals, herbal medicines, tarot cards, and the rest of the New Age material culture ‘present a serious religious rival to the biblical orientation of conservative Christians’ (ibid.). Conservative Greek Orthodox Christians also condemn New Age material culture. However, in general terms, people in my fieldsites who range from religious disciples to atheists appear to be sympathetic towards the material combination of New Age and evil eye ideologies. Many of my informants buy these matakia so that they bring positive energy to their house, which they have decorated according to the rules of feng shui. Many times, they place matakia and New Age objects next to religious icons. They regard these matakia as amulets that can protect them from the evil eye, from the devil, and from all types of negative energy. The spiritual matakia actually belong to a recently developed New Age cultural wave that has not been inherently Greek but which, nevertheless, has become an integral part of a changing Greek religioscape within which a popular belief and a newly developed spiritual movement are materially synthesized in the course of people’s everyday lives.

 

 

Figure 5: A feng shui ball used for protection against the evil eye. Thessaloniki, Greece, May 2006. Photo by author.

 

 

To conclude, one might argue that the vivid presence of evil eye objects in Rethymno and Thessaloniki points to a Greek movement towards modernity and secularization. The involvement of material objects in Rethymniots’ and Thessalonikans’ everyday practices of religion and spirituality may serve as an indication that Greeks have begun to express themselves through a more modern and secularly influenced material path (c.f. McDannell 1995: 2). Yet, I assert that this is not the case. Rather, the presence of matakia, especially the spiritually amalgamated ones that combine evil eye, Orthodox, and New Age symbols indicates a lack of distinction between the spiritual and the secular, and between the sacred and the profane.

Ultimately, the materiality of the evil eye is indicative of a change in contemporary Greece. Religious icons, evil eye beads and New Age symbols co-habit material objects and spaces. And this is not a co-habitation that lacks interaction. When a Jesus icon and an eye-shaped glass bead are amalgamated into one single item, the signifieds and the symbolisms they carry merge as well. Before these spiritually synthesized objects had made a distinct appearance in the Greek market and gained such popularity, Orthodox, evil eye and New Age symbolisms were very hard to find in combination. People occasionally wore a golden crucifix and an evil eye bead together, yet, these were two different objects, which could easily and immediately be separated. Of course, the choice of putting a religious and an evil eye symbol together is very important. It is a practice that continues to date which is of great significance as far as the renewed affinity between Orthodoxy, spirituality and the evil eye is concerned. However, the interaction between evil eye, Christian, and New Age symbolisms found in one single materiality has only emerged in very recent years. What I have tried to show is how this phenomenon constitutes a material representation of a spiritual mobility that has been taking place in the context of contemporary Greek religiosity. This mobility does not represent a Greek turn to secularization, but a movement towards new spiritual itineraries that are not exclusively Orthodox.

References

  • Alivizatos, Nicos. 1999. ‘A New Role for the Greek Church?’ Journal of Modern Greek Studies 17: 23-40.
  • Brown, F. Michael. 1997. The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
  • Galt, Anthony. 1982. ‘The Evil Eye as a Synthetic Image and its Meanings on the Island of Pantelleria, Italy,’ American Ethnologist 9: 664-681.
  • Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. ‘New Age’ Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: Brill.
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  • Heelas, Paul and Woodhead, Linda. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Knoblauch, Hubert. 2008. ‘Spirituality and Popular Religion in Europe.’ Social Compass 55 (2): 140-153.
  • McDannell, Colleen. 1995. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Reminick, Ronald A. 1976. ‘The Evil Eye Belief among the Amhara’, in Clarence Maloney (ed.), The Evil Eye. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 85-101.
  • Shimazono, Susumu. 1999. ‘‘New Age Movement’ or ‘New Spirituality Movements and Culture’?’ Social Compass46 (2): 121-134.
  • Sutcliffe, Steven. 2003. Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices. London: Routledge.
  • Veikou, Hristina. 1998. The Evil Eye: The Social Construction of Visual Communication. Athens: Ellinika Grammata (in Greek).
  • Wood, Matthew. 2007. Possession, Power and the New Age: Ambiguities of Authority in Neoliberal Societies. Aldershot: Ashgate.

 

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