The more I try to find differences between the Romans and ourselves, the more similar we seem. Recently I’ve been thinking about charms against evil. In researching my Roman Mysteries books, I noticed that Romans seemed to employ three types of visual charms against evil. left: two modern versions of ancient evil eyes.
1. The first category of apotropaic devices I’ve seen are male or female GENITALIA. These can be painted on walls, carved into paving stones, worn as amulets or formed with the hand. I have heard it suggested that these cause laughter and thus defuse ill-will.
2. The HAND (usually the unlucky left hand) extended PALM FORWARD to ward off something unpleasant. (This is called the Hand of Miriam in Jewish lore and the Hand of Fatima in Muslim countries.) Sometimes the hand has an added eye, the most powerful apotropaic symbol of all.
3. FACES or EYES looking back at the viewer. These counteract the “evil eye”, a powerful gaze of envy or malice. Medusa’s face and actors’ masks, like the one from Pompeii, (above) are the most common examples of this. These eyes are almost always blue.
We would probably like to think that we are less superstitious than the ancient Romans, but I’ve just spent a week in Scotland with the Scottish Book Trust and came across the third category of image everywhere. (Funded by the Scottish Friendly, the Scottish Book Trust takes authors into schools that might not be able to afford author visits in the normal course of events. My particular tour took place in the area called Midlothian south and east of Edinburgh.)
While visiting schools, historic castles and a book festival, I spotted seven different categories of faces or eyes to “turn away evil”:
1. The evil eye in nature! On our second day of touring we stopped for lunch at a garden center with a Butterfly World nearby. I realised that many animals have NATURAL EYES to frighten off predators, their own version of evil.
2. Faces on and in buildings. We stayed in a magnificent hotel called Carberry Tower that was a castle once occupied by Mary Queen of Scots. A wooden Flemish fireplace had little cherub’s FACE looking out and molded plaster ceiling panels had Mary’s FACE looking down, too. (right)
3. Statues and mannequins. The current owner of Carberry Tower has placed a mannequin dressed up as a MONK on an upper gallery of the reception room. There are other statues in the courtyard. I don’t know if they are consciously against evil but they are extremely unsettling.
4. In one of the schools we visited, a Don’t forget to wash your hands decal on a glass door looks just like a modern version of the “hand of Fatima”. It is even the “sinister” left hand.
5. In another school we were given a visitor’s badge with a SMILEY FACE Does this iconic symbol avert evil by making us smile? A circle with a curved smile line and two eye-dots is recognisable to babies as a human face and will elicit a smile in return.
6. In the pretty town of Haddington, our base for the second half of the week, we spotted this neighborhood shop watch EYE SIGN (right) in several shops. This reminded me of the recent news from Newcastle: that an image of staring eyes overlooking bike racks caused thefts there to drop dramatically.
7. On our last day we went to the Borders Book Festival in the pretty border town of Melrose. Within five minutes of arriving I saw two different women wearing BLUE BEAD BRACELET. One bracelet even had the hand of Fatima beside the apotropaic blue “eye bead”. (left) The eye-bead design goes back millennia.
Whether you believe in the “evil eye” or not, staring faces or eyes obviously have as powerful an effect on our subconscious today as they did in Roman times.