Every few months, it seems, there’s a new archaeological discovery in Jerusalem that relates to the Bible or ancient Judaism. It makes a refreshing change that this week scientists have announced the discovery of a 1,000-year-old clay amulet that refers to Allah. The dime-sized amulet belonged to a man named Kareem and is inscribed with the words “Kareem trusts in Allah, Lord of the Worlds is Allah.” This treasure, lifted from one of the oldest sites in Jerusalem, gives us a rare glimpse into everyday life in medieval Jerusalem.
The piece was unearthed in the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David in Jerusalem Walls National Park by archaeology teams from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University. The amulet was found underneath the plaster flooring in a small room. It’s possible that it was sealed there deliberately, in order to protect and bless the building.
The inscription is written in script that is typical of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its zenith roughly a millennium ago. The Abbasids are believed to be the descendants of the prophet Muhammad’s paternal uncle, Al-'Abbas ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib. Several other objects recovered from the same site, including an intact clay lamp, date to the same period. This period saw Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid empire, rise to prominence as a center of technology, science and culture. As a result, this era is generally referred to as the “Islamic Golden Age.”
The amulet itself served a practical religious purpose. Yiftah Shalev of the IAA told Haaretz that “The purpose of an amulet like this is to gain personal protection.” “Since time immemorial, the purpose of amulets like these is to seek protection from the evil eye.”
The evil eye is essentially a kind of low-level curse inflicted on you by those who wish you ill through direct eye contact. The desire to protect oneself from it is something that ancient Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims (to say nothing of other Asian, African, Caribbean, and European groups and peoples) all hold in common.
In modern parlance, we use the expression “evil eye” to refer to the superstition that someone can put a hex on you, but in the Bible the phrase “evil eye” can actually refer to a few different things: stinginess, jealousy, and coveting other people’s property. As scholars W. D. Davies and Dale Allison point out in their work on the subject, for ancient Jews the evil eye was the opposite of generosity. It was associated with greed and desiring the things that others have and, as such, was the literal opposite of Jesus’s commandment to care for others. According to the popular wisdom book known as Ben Sira, “an envious and evil-eyed person begrudges bread and it is lacking at his table.” Many scholars think that when Jesus warns his followers to make sure that their eyes don’t grow dim (Matt 6:22-23) that what he really means is that they should try not to be envious. And the tenth commandment, “thou shalt not covet,” is arguably a blanket prohibition against using the evil eye.
For classical authors the evil eye was a power that certain individuals—and sometimes whole tribes or groups of people—possessed to inflict harm upon others. Around the Aegean less common eye colors were often associated with the evil eye. Thus, those with green and blue eyes were often suspected of having cast the evil eye, if only unintentionally. For the Romans it was the inhabitants of Pontus (Turkey) and Scythia (a large region that stretched from Turkey to the Ukraine) who possessed this power. The Roman-era moralist and biographer Plutarch writes that those who lived on the Black Sea had the ability to enchant anyone upon whom their gaze fell, their breath touched, and even those to whom they spoke. Plutarch actually attempted to explain how the evil eye works, and combines ancient theories about optics to explain how it was that the eyes could give off a fiery beam that affects those who received it. The basic idea was that eyes were deeply affected by what they looked at, so if you looked at something disturbed you yourself could become disturbed. This same theory led an author pretending to be Aristotle to explain how it is that consumption, eye infections, and skin mites are so infectious: they come in at the eyes, apparently.
The most potent wielder of the evil eye, however, as any reader of Harry Potter knows, is the Basilisk. In antiquity the basilisk was not a large snake; it was apparently only “twelve fingers” long and sometimes had the head, legs and wings of a rooster. According to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, anyone who looked into the eyes of a basilisk would die immediately. Trying to spear the creature, he adds, is futile: the poison from the creature could travel up the lance and kill you. A simpler solution was to throw it in a hole with a weasel. Apparently the smell of the weasel would kill it.
In Islam, belief in the evil eye is based on a statement of Muhammad in which the prophet says, “The influence of an evil eye is a fact.” The potency of the evil eye and its potential to harm you by making you sick, lovesick, or just plain unlucky explains why across time and cultures there were so many devices designed to protect people from it. Apotropaic objects, as they are known (apotropaic literally means “to turn back” in Greek), have been used all over the world, but the best known today is the Turkish nazar, a handmade glass object (often a bead) that features concentric circles in dark blue, white, light blue and black. This is frequently combined with the symbol of a hand or adapted into the shape of an eye.
Perhaps the simplest way to ward off the evil eye, for those for whom social graces are irrelevant, is to spit at (or pretend to spit at) “evil” three times. Practiced by both Jews and Romans, this method is almost guaranteed to ensure that those nearby flee your presence.