Nazar boncukları and the evil eye

Nazar boncukları hanging from a tree in Cappadocia, Turkey.

One day after circle–back when it was still Hogwarts, in fact–Y. gave us students these little blue glass pendants he’d brought back from a recent trip to Turkey.  They looked like little eyes:  a black dot in the center surrounded by a light blue circle, then the white, and then the cobalt blue glass.  The resemblance to the eye is probably intentional:  these little charms are nazar boncukları (singular nazar boncuğu), and are amulets against the evil eye.

I suppose to understand the amulet, one must understand the danger.  Luckily, famed folklorist Alan Dundes defines the evil eye immediately at the outset of his seminal essay on the matter, “Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye: An Essay in Indo-European and Semitic Worldview”:

The evil eye is a fairly consistent and uniform folk belief complex based upon the idea that an individual, male or female, has the power, voluntarily or involuntarily, to cause harm to another individual or his property merely by looking at or praising that person or property.  The harm may consist of illness, or even death or destruction.  Typically, the victim’s good fortune, good health, or good looks–or unguarded comments about them–invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye.  If the object attacked in animate, it may fall ill.  Inanimate objects such as buildings or rocks may crack or burst.  Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccoughs, vomiting, and fever.  If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or a fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die.

Later in the essay, Dundes examines cases of the evil eye across cultures and finds that they largely share a curious attribute:  the evil caused by the gaze of someone possessed of the evil eye results in symptoms that could be described as ‘drying’:  desiccation, withering, and dehydration.  Moreover, he finds that cures are largely related to moisture.  He also attributes the evil eye immunity that some cultures attribute to fish as the fact that they are always wet.

At any rate, various cultures have developed various “apotropaic amulets” (objects that can avert evil influences) or gestures  to thwart the evil eye, and Turkey’s nazar boncukları are one of them.  The nazars can take a few different forms.  They can be these flattish, pendant-like beads that can range anywhere from half an inch to 6 inches across.  They can be smaller beads with multiple facets with an eye on each.  The eyes can be multiple colors, though blue and yellow are the most common.  They can be rimmed in gold, or the motif can be worked in different media.  More interestingly, wearing or using the nazars doesn’t seem like it’s restricted to any particular social class:  Turks of every sort use and gift nazars to each other.  The nazar, then is practically one of the glues that holds Turkish culture together.

In Turkey, the eyes of the nazars are everywhere, but–according to Y.–they’re most frequently seen in abundance on small children, who are purported to be especially susceptible to the evil eye.


One thought on “Nazar boncukları and the evil eye

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