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The Evil Eye & How To Use It

Sometimes you need to borrow from the demon world...

Photo credit: Alex Iby on Unsplash

The Island of Sicily is a place where educated persons will tell you that rationalism has replaced superstition in their lives. At the same time, they surreptitiously hide talismans in their undergarments.

It’s sometimes necessary for humans to borrow from the demon world. Here in the Mediterranean, the iconography is everywhere: heavenly and fallen angels, demons and gargoyles, incubi and succubi, fantasma, all impossible to dodge. It is this expression of the otherworldly that inspires the bulk of Italy’s national art treasure. Yet, not all is as benevolent or inspiring as the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s creation sequence in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Elsewhere in the same fresco are depicted the brothers Cain and Abel who set murder loose in the world.


In addition to guns, knives, car bombs, and so-called ‘white lupara (shotgun)’ disappearances, vendettas and revenge killings are also carried out using spells, potions, and the Evil Eye.

Here in the Zone of Sulfur, zingari (gypsies), maghi (sorcerers), and stregoni (witches) do a brisk business selling amulets and compounding love and death potions. These practitioners include hitmen who specialize in casting the Evil Eye, or ‘u malucchiu as it’s known here. Perhaps ‘hit person’ is the more politically correct term, because many practitioners of the Black Arts — as the ancient tome Maleus Malificarum points out — are women.

For countless generations, fashion conscious Sicilians have worn a little red coral branch on a necklace or a defensive swatch of red fabric under their clothing, to ward off the Evil Eye. Sicilian babies wear their undershirts and gowns inside out. Upon mentioning the names of certain politicians, religious figures, and capimafia, people make the sign of the cross.

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The existence of evil in its myriad manifestations is a feature of the Italian, and particularly the Sicilian, perspective on life, compelling one to remain vigilant and take extraordinary measures against the curse of illness and death. Those who reject the indigenous mindset are predominantly outsiders, police officials and government functionaries from Rome and points north. They prefer bullet-proof vests.

The Evil Eye, known as il mal occhio in Italian and u’ malucchiu in Sicilian, is a thing universally feared throughout the country. The threat involves destruction of a victim by literally drying up his vital fluids, causing immediate illness and even death brought on by the mere glance of anyone possessed of power to project the curse. Belief in the curse is widespread, from Scotland to East Asia, reflecting a universal awareness of the power and influence of the eyes in human interaction. Scientific studies have shown that the human eye can actually project a measurable energy field, something that was known in the Zone of Sulfur from time immemorial.

The Sicilian roots of u’ malucchiu are buried deep in Semitic culture of the Mediterranean, possibly influenced by the struggle for nomadic survival in a parched landscape where persons routinely perished from dehydration. In the Mediterranean world of today, moisture still signifies fertility and life, dryness means barrenness and death. A thin person is commonly referred to as secca, literally, dried up. Youth is wet while old age is dry. Children, fruit trees, milking cows and goats, nursing mothers, and especially men’s sexual organs, all essentially moist things embodying the life force, are targets for u’ malucchiu.

The humble Sicilian peasant, or ‘u’ viddanu,’ saw a world in which good exists only in limited quantities amidst an abundance of evil. The good things in life — loved ones, a fine harvest, productive livestock, economic prosperity, sexual prowess — were always at risk from envious neighbors. The ‘evil’ in the Evil Eye is therefore about loss of power, about infertility, about shortage of body fluids. Priests are particularly feared for their having renounced all forms of sexuality and as a consequence become envious of those indulging in pleasures of the flesh. Though it is generally considered good luck to meet a hunchback, called a gobbo, or even to have sexual intercourse with one, but the female hunchback without a marriage partner is to be avoided as a potential caster of u’ malucchiu.

The Bible connects proponents of the Evil Eye with covetousness and greed. Proverbs 23:6 advises “Eat not thou the bread of him that hath an Evil Eye, neither desire thou his meat,” while Proverbs 28:22 says “He that hastens to become wealthy hath an evil eye…”. To further complicate things, there is the New Testament’s viewpoint in Mark 7:21–22: “Out of the hearts of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, the Evil Eye….”.

Sicilian tradition, however, distinguishes between two distinct types of practitioners of the Evil Eye. One is totally innocent of any sinister intentions, while the other is more the biblical malcontent who intentionally inflicts suffering and death on his neighbors for personal gratification, material gain, or simply for spite.

The first type of practitioner casts the Evil Eye involuntarily, entirely devoid of any bad intention, in fact, usually as part of a genuine act of praising another’s person or possessions. For example, a mother dresses up her toddler and the two go out shopping together. A female acquaintance encountered in the street innocently comments on the beauty of the child.

If an otherwise well-meaning person is aware of the danger of inadvertently casting u’ malucchiu, she will frame the compliment with a blessing to neutralize the curse, saying for example “Com’é bellina! Che Dio la benedica….How pretty, God bless her!” Otherwise, the mother must immediately deny that the child is at all cute and must spit on the ground or make one of the traditional protective gestures behind her back, lest the consequence to her little one eventually proves fatal.

Upon returning home, the child feels ill, cries, vomits, experiences headache and diarrhea. A fever sets in. She soon becomes dehydrated. The doctor, as usual, can do little and gradually the child’s condition worsens. She enters the desert. She begins to dry up.

An older member of the family, usually a woman, recognizes the work of u’ malucchiu and immediately initiates countermeasures. She takes a basin of water and places it over the head of the child victim, then very slowly dribbles olive oil into the basin, drop by drop, until an image can be discerned. If the first drops of oil sink rather than floating on the water, it is a sure sign of u’ malucchiu. If the first drops immediately run together, then an ordinary ailment is to be suspected.

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But the image that eventually forms on the water may assume the form of an eye, or it may even show a profile of the person who cast the spell. Prayers and secret incantations are muttered as the oil slowly drips into the basin: “Malucchiu ngenzatu, Tre Sante m’aiutate, Che poss’ i nt’ a l’occhiu, A cchi ‘e fatte u’ malucchiu (here she pronounces the afflicted child’s name).” Soon the sinister image breaks up into unrecognizable globs of floating oil. This process is repeated until the headache subsides and a reduction of fever and other symptoms follows.

Under an especially tenacious spell, it may be necessary to obtain two sewing needles, one symbolizing the phallus, the other representing a vagina. The point of one is first inserted into the eye of the other, then the copulating barbs are dropped into the basin of water held over the victim’s head. Three pinches of sea salt are added. Taking scissors, the practitioner cuts the water three times, then cuts the air three times in a slashing motion above the basin, muttering the same or a similar incantation while slicing the air and water. The floating oil reforms into a normal pattern and the curse is broken.

If the symptoms involve headache accompanied by pain in the ear, then the situation is more serious and correspondingly more drastic measures involving zolfo (sulphur) are called for. A cone is manufactured by rolling up a sheet of newspaper with the small opening placed into the victim’s ear while the large end is set alight. Alternatively, a burning sulfur stick may be positioned inside the cone to exorcise any demons that might fly out from the ear. Recovery is usually instantaneous and safe, provided that a fire extinguisher is kept within easy reach. As in modern medicine, diagnosis is generally confirmed by the efficaciousness of the cure.

The second type of practitioner is a more vicious home-grown variety that Sicilians call the jiettatore, someone with the power to willingly put the evil eye on his victim, though in some cases the practitioner may not be at all evil per se, but merely afflicted with the ability to project u’ malucchiu onto others whether he or she consciously wants to or not.

These are often troubled individuals who themselves are saddened by the harm they inadvertently cause. They may also be hired guns, stregoni, perfectly willing to do evil in exchange for money and favors. Jiettatori often have blue or green eyes, a genetic legacy of the Norman conquerors who vanquished the black-eyed Arabs and Greeks of the island before the Sicilian Vespers rebellion overthrew French rule in 1282 C.E. and ushered in 500 years of Spanish colonization.

Photo credit: Iris van der Veen on Upsplash

Of course, the best way to cope with u’ malucchiu is to avoid being victimized in the first place. In Sicily, the ubiquitous lemon, sulfur colored, eye shaped and liquid-filled, is pierced with nine nails — square of the Trinacria, a three-legged symbol representing the three points of the island with Medusa’s snake-wreathed head at its center — and hung over doorways to discourage jiettatori from entering.

The "Trinacria," Medusa's head superimposed on three legs symbolizing the three points of the island of Sicily. Red coral, pearls, gold. Author image.

With the constant threat to a man’s sexual prowess posed by u’ malucchiu, the personal protection of choice is an amulet, usually in the form of a cornicellu, a fragment of Mediterranean blood coral worked into a phallic shape resembling a chili pepper or stylized bull’s horn. The cornicellu may be worn on a gold or silver necklace or even a simple red string. Red plastic cornicelli the size of a hefty dildoe are available for hanging from the rear-view mirrors of automobiles or placing in strategic locations around the boudoir.

Left: cornicellu. Right: Mano fica. Author collection.

Though the cornicellu itself is a man’s talisman, it is occasionally worn by Sicilian women. The amulet may also take the form of a simple pink or red coral twig worn by a girl as a pendant or a broach. Sicilian-American women display a preference for gaudy costume jewelry, thought to catch a jiettatore’s attention and divert the evil power into the glass bauble where it can be safely neutralized with a few prayers uttered sotto voce. Among the poor, a swatch of red fabric sewed onto an article of clothing or undergarment may be the only affordable prophylaxis against jiettatori.

One afternoon in his ninety-seventh year, my aunt arrived home to find my grandfather lying face down on the bedroom floor. She struggled to lift him into bed, then dialed for an ambulance. At the hospital, they shaved off his Garibaldi-style beard and confiscated his set of one-piece long underwear in exchange for a hospital gown. By that time, he was in a panic. The nurses had nicked his talisman, a swatch of red fabric pinned to his underwear. “Get me out,” he pleaded, “They’re going to kill me here.” Just stay for some rest and a few tests, his children insisted, deferring to the doctors. The man had never visited a doctor in his entire life. He died within two weeks, victim of a viral pneumonia contracted in the hospital.

Certain hand gestures are designed to fend off u’ malucchiu as it homes in on the victim like a heat-seeking missile. There is la mano ficaformed by curling the fingers into the fist with the thumb protruding between the first and middle fingers in imitation of the female vulva. Fica, meaning fig, is Sicilian slang for a ‘fuck’ and can refer to the sexual organs of both genders, such as in the saying ‘fare fiche fiche’, meaning to make love.

La mano fica gesture. Left: real. Right: red coral pendant. Author images.

Most powerful is la mano cornuta in which the thumb, middle and ring fingers are folded into the palm of the hand with only the index and little fingers extending outwards and pointed toward a suspected jiettatore.

This hand signal represents the male horns of the goat or bull, the female horns associated with the crescent moon, and the bull’s-head shape of the womb with its fallopian tubes. An identical cornu motif is often found in statues and images of the Virgin Mary and many mythological figures. Cornuto, meaning a person who has been fitted for a set or horns, is what Italians call someone whose spouse is cheating on him with another, in Sicily a justification for murder.

Left: La mano cornuta. Right: La mano cornuta, ivory and gold with blue opals. Author images.

Former President of the Italian Republic Giovanni Leone (1908–2001) shocked the nation when, during an outbreak of cholera in Naples in the 1970’s, he shook the hands of hospital patients while making la mano cornuta behind his back with the other hand. The gesture was documented by journalists and photographers standing directly behind him. It was insulting to the patients and, although President Leone himself was born in Naples, the act was interpreted as further evidence of the contempt displayed by national politicians toward southerners ever since their unification with northern Italy in 1860.

Historical Roots

The hand gestures and their representative protective amulets find their roots in ancient Roman and Etruscan cultures of the Italian Peninsula. In ancient Roman religion, magic amulets such as the mano fica and mano cornuta are often combined with a phallus or "fascinum," alluding to the divine phallus. The word fascinum refers to both phallus effigies as well as amulets, and the spells used to invoke divine protection or break the hold of the Evil Eye.

Top image: Roman amulet featuring la mano fica (left) and phallus (right). Author images.

The word fascinum, and its verbal equivalent fascinare, mean to charm or bewitch. When we are fascinated with someone, as in love, we are willing to believe almost anything, dropping our guard. While there is no direct relationship of the work to the label "Fascist," which alludes to a bundle of wheat (abundance) or rods (the rod of punishment), one can easily deduce that modern day fascists are seduced by power as if under a spell.

Phallic charms of cast bronze or precious metals were ubiquitous in Roman culture and are found in almost all archealogical digs throughout Europe and North Africa, wherever the Roman Empire held sway. The largest known collection comes from Camulodunum in Essex, England, although farmers routinely dig them up throughout Italy, Sicily, and southern Spain. Practically everyone wore them despite the rather vulgar connotations associated with the phallus today. Small fascinum were often attached to babies' clothing, expecially boys, or used as pendants to protect them from the Evil Eye, hence the ubiquitous ring. Most are less than 50mm (2 inches) long.

Image credit: Trustees of The British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence

Be a Practitioner or Get Out of the Way

Most cases of garden-variety u’ malucchiu can be deflected in traditional ways. But if one really wants to do serious harm, there is recourse to many other time-tested methods. To make an enemy fall ill, one effective procedure involves taking an orange or lemon to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, pealing a small section, then piercing the exposed flesh with pins or nails while reciting the victim’s name. After the fruit is thrown into a well, the victim becomes ill and dies.

If a woman wants to capture a man’s attention, she needs only to slip a few drops of a potion containing her menstrual blood into his food. If a man wants a woman, a drop of his semen in her wine or coffee gains her affection. It is unfortunate that love thus acquired, like the magic spell itself, seldom endures. A disaffected spouse may decide, after consultation with a local stregone, to place a hex on his or her partner by applying the appropriate magic symbols in red felt pen or, even better, in blood to the back of the partner’s wardrobe, a spot unlikely to be discovered but where, undisturbed, they can work evil on every garment in the closet.

In Sicily, one is constantly challenging and deflecting challenges while concocting new and more creative ways to torment others. Experts in concocting spells and potions are always at hand to help out with the details. Of course, today's practical-minded individual doesn't really need their help.

A late acquaince of mine suffered from flu-like symptoms over a long period of time and was treated by his doctor with the usual course of symptom-suppressing drugs. There would be periods without episodes when the fellow’s health returned to normal, then he would fall ill again. His doctor noticed a pattern in the recurrent bouts of illness, suspecting they were purpose-caused, and checked the patient’s blood for poisons. The man’s wife had been dosing his food with arsenic for years, but by the time the prognosis was revealed, his vital organs had become irreversibly compromised and he died a short time later. Perhaps if he'd worn a Roman fascinum or red coral cornicello under his clothes, or taken his expresso away from home, he'd be alive today. Just saying.

Of course, wearing one’s clothes inside out, hiding amulets inside one's bosom, or throwing up a fanatical display of hand signals like a bad case of Saturday night fever is only recommended as a last resort. The best method of avoiding trouble is to keep out of harm’s way, stay uninvolved, show respect, and observe omerta, the code of silence. If you hate somebody, then cast a preemptive spell on him or her before you’re compelled to cut their throat. If you can’t control your philandering spouse, well, that’s a rather big problem.

U’ malucchiu (evil eye), and black magic in general, is a legacy of the oldest of our gods and a unifying thread that runs through Judeo-Christian literature and through all the cultures and peoples that at one time or another claimed the Zone of Sulfur as part of their empire and left their footprints in the zolfo-rich Sicilian gene pool. The association of once-benevolent Platonic demons with Christianity’s fallen angels and their ownership of the symbols and craft of evil-doing is a reflection of the island’s polyglot cultural heritage and its checkered political history.

The inspired Sicilian imagination needs no further proof of the existence of evil — u’ maluchhiu, the evil eye, is reality, just as murder is a fact of life. Belief in the evil eye predates history and will very likely survive even rationalism and the materialist culture that permeates the post-modern world. The human propensity for unparalleled cruelty is therefore taken for granted here because demons are considered a projection of basic human nature and, as the theologian Augustine taught, a manifestation of the evil that lurks in men’s eyes and hearts. Despite their divergent viewpoints on the twin sciences of demonology and magic, Plato and Augustine agree on one thing: it is the unseen demon world that, for better or worse, provides the true role models for humankind.

The educated Sicilian may declare that black magic and u’ malucchiu are simply Jungian manifestations of a common dynamic in the shared psychology of people of Latin-Greek-Arab heritage. One might also argue that persons susceptible to u’ malucchiu are simply paranoiacs and hypochondriacs, simple fools who bring the symptoms of illness upon themselves and are cured just as easily. Suffering begins and ends in the mind of the affected individual.

Nonetheless, for most of history this was insufficient explanation for mother’s milk that dried up, babies that died, fruits that withered on the vine, and men who found that for some unexplainable reason the cock had ceased to crow.

Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash

Where to acquire amulets

Fine arts and antique jewelry auctions (Christie's, Sothbys, Bonham, others) are reputable places to purchase vintage amulets.

Source: Christie's

The author offers a large number of vintage cornicelli, mano fica, and mano cornuta, as well as fascinum, for sale. Coral and mother-of-pearl items are all genuine Mediterranean sourced, mostly late 19th and early 20th century. Ivory is vintage, pre-ban. Roman amulets are 300 BCE to 200 CE. All are from the author's personal collection. Replica pieces in sterling silver and 14-18K gold can be ordered.

Please enquire regarding availability and pricing using the contact page on this website.

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