Academic journal article Folklore

Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and the Magical Symbolism of Iron Working

Academic journal article Folklore

Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and the Magical Symbolism of Iron Working

Article excerpt

Whilst undertaking an archaeological survey in the area around the northern Ethiopian town of Aksum in late 1995 I spotted what appeared to be an obvious short cut on our map. Suggesting to my Ethiopian colleague that we could take this route, he dismissed me with the statement: "we cannot go through that village. They are all Buda there." What, I asked, was the Buda? The answer came back that these people were variously mad, dangerous, strange, outcast and had the power of the evil eye; they would be liable to curse us. This was not the first time that I had come across such a belief; it was well known in the town itself that many of the artisans engaged in metalworking possessed the power of the evil eye, and walking past green pea fields, what I had mistaken to be simple scarecrows (pieces of rag and plastic tied to poles) actually turned out to be amulets protecting the crop from those with the power to blast it.

The more you look beneath the veneer of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the more apparent it becomes that Ethiopia is rich in folk belief and superstition. This contribution is the result of a number of years' research and first-hand experience within Ethiopia of notions surrounding the evil eye--especially in relation to the power of the blacksmith or artisan. We will consider the dynamics of Ethiopian evil eye belief set against the widely recognised and rich magical symbolism associated with iron working in Africa; this symbolism and the magical powers that iron working artisans possess, it seems, may have a common and much more universal foundation. It is clear that there are globally a number of interlinked themes associated with the evil eye belief. The ability to cast the spell by the eye is usually associated with certain distinct groups of people, often based on gender or kinship links. In some cases the possessors of the evil eye may not actually know that they have the power to cause harm. In Ethiopia, for instance, it is low caste peoples who may transmit this power, in Iran it is kin-based, whereas in ancient Israel it was traditionally a spell associated solely with the priesthood. There is no doubt that the symbolism of the "look" carries connotations of envy (Gravel 1995, 7), or perhaps harks back to the Ten Commandments and the idea of "coveting" (Roberts 1976).

From an anthropological perspective, recent research has emphasised the roots of this belief in the breakdown of patron and client relationships; the downtrodden-frequently artisans--being envious of the wealth and possessions of their social superiors whom they serve. It is the social superiors who may create and perpetuate this myth of the evil eye, often, it is argued, as a means of social control (for example, Galt 1987), turning groups of artisans into untouchable pariahs. The actual spell itself, which may be no more than a covetous glance or a statement praising somebody or something, may have a number of unpleasant side effects. The following have been variously reported by my Ethiopian informants of being symptoms of being struck by an evil eye spell: wasting sickness, domestic accidents, infertility, plain bad luck, sick livestock and blighted crops. In common with elsewhere in the world, these spells may in many cases be combated by the use of counter-magic, such as invocations, exorcism, charms and amulets (Gravel 1995, 11).

Within Africa, even in highly urbanised and Christianised areas, there exists a wide variety of traditional belief systems that focus on casting and combating spells, essentially forms of black and white magic. Traditionally, these areas would be the domain of the "witch doctor" or seer, wizard, shaman, wise man/woman, whatever they may be called. As a rule, the evil eye belief described here comes broadly under the notion of witchcraft, itself--according to one of the greatest scholars of the subject--an organic and hereditary phenomenon, and one often based on envy of material or social standing (Evans-Pritchard 1937, 100). …

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