Noxious ghosts and evil eyes
Humanity has lived in fear of witches’ baleful power for at least 4,000 years
“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’