A “dirty look,” a “withering glance,” “if looks could kill,” and “to stare with daggers” are a few common expressions that derive from one of the most universal of fears, the evil eye. It has been found in virtually all cultures.
In ancient Rome, professional sorcerers with the evil eye were hired to bewitch a person’s enemies. All gypsies were accused of possessing the stare. And the phenomenon was widespread and dreaded throughout India and the Near East. By the Middle Ages, Europeans were so fearful of falling under the influence of an evil glance that any person with a dazed, crazed, or canny look was liable to be burned at the stake. A case of cataracts could spell death.
The evil eye is one of the most universally dreaded bad luck beliefs, found in virtually all cultures. How did such a belief originate independently among so many different peoples? One of the most commonly accepted theories among folklorists involves the phenomenon of pupil reflection: If you look into a person’s eyes, your own minuscule image will appear in the dark of the pupil. And indeed, our word “pupil” comes from the Latin pupilla, meaning “little doll.” Early man must have found it strange and frightening to glimpse his own image in miniature in the eyes of other tribesmen. He may have believed himself to be in personal danger, fearing that his likeness might lodge permanently in, and be stolen by, an evil eye.
This notion is reinforced by the belief among primitive African tribes less than a century ago that to be photographed was to permanently lose one’s soul. The Egyptians had a curious antidote to an evil stare—kohl, history’s first mascara. Worn by both men and women, it was applied in a circle or oval about the eyes. The chemical base was antimony, a metal, and while soothsayers prepared the compound for men to smear on, women concocted their own antimony formulas, adding preferred secret ingredients.
Why should mascara be an evil-eye antidote? No one today is certain. But darkly painted circles around the eyes absorb sunlight and consequently minimize reflected glare into the eye. The phenomenon is familiar to everyone who has ever watched American football players who have smeared black grease under each eye before a game. The early Egyptians, spending considerable time in harsh desert sunlight, may have discovered this secret themselves and devised mascara not primarily for beautifying purposes, as is the standard belief, but for practical and superstitious ones.
So mascara and American football – who would have thought?…..