Nox­ious ghosts and evil eyes

Hu­man­ity has lived in fear of witches’ bale­ful power for at least 4,000 years

BBC History Magazine - - A History Of Witches -

“She has given me to drink her lifede­priv­ing po­tion. She has bathed me in her deadly dirty wa­ter. She has rubbed me with her de­struc­tive evil oil.” Fear of the bale­ful power of witch­craft has, it seems, haunted hu­man­ity for thou­sands of years – as this in­can­ta­tion writ­ten by a res­i­dent of Me­sopotamia proves.

Anti-witch­craft texts found among the cu­nei­form clay tablets of this an­cient civil­i­sa­tion de­picted witches as mostly malev­o­lent women, who prac­tised harm­ful magic. Witches, we’re told, made im­ages of their vic­tims and then twisted the limbs to cause pain. They were also ac­cused of bury­ing th­ese fig­ures in graves in an act of magic that wed­ded the vic­tim to a corpse. As a re­sult, peo­ple were wary of ac­cept­ing food and drink from sus­pected witches in case they trans­mit­ted evil spells.

The an­cient peo­ples of the east­ern Mediter­ranean were also ter­ri­fied by nox­ious ghosts that, on the com­mand of venge­ful witches, in­flicted ill­nesses on the liv­ing. In a bid to com­bat this men­ace, ex­or­cist-priests de­ployed in­can­ta­tions de­signed to dis­pel malev­o­lent spir­its.

Such fears fed into an­cient Egyp­tian and Jewish ideas about witch­ery, and it was dur­ing the rise of th­ese two peo­ples that the con­cept of women pos­sess­ing the ‘evil eye’ came to promi­nence. The evil eye spread plague and lep­rosy, warned var­i­ous Jewish texts, and the Old Tes­ta­ment coun­selled its read­ers: “Eat not the bread of him that has an evil eye.”

By now, the bound­ary be­tween witches and fe­male prophets and di­vin­ers had also be­came blurred, a fact that would have ter­ri­ble con­se­quences for thou­sands of women down the cen­turies.

The left eye of the Egyp­tian god Horus of­fered, it was be­lieved, pro­tec­tion against the glare of the ‘evil eye’

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