The Evil Eye

An alumna of the University of Chicago who has lived in many parts of the world, GERTRUDE GRAY PARRATT makes her home with her husband in Mexico City.

One of the world’s oldest and most insidious health problems is mal ojo. Almost everybody suffers from this affliction at one time or another. Children are especially susceptible. Even pets and plants are among its victims. Most North Americans have had the good fortune to develop an immunity to mal ojo, but in Mexico it still causes much distress.

Mal ojo literally means; the “evil eye.” According to the cur anderos, or Mexican folk doctors, the peculiar stare of certain individuals can cause no end of suffering and misfortune. Many centuries ago the shaman priests and folk doctors studied this dreaded curse very carefully. After thorough research, they discovered a magic repellent that would intercept and thwart even the most evil of evil eyes. This was an ojo de venado, “eye of the deer.” But to be effective, the eye had to be worn as an amulet around the neck at all times.

In those early days it was fairly easy to obtain real deer eyes for this purpose, but the perishability factor soon posed another problem. After wearing a real deer eye for a few days, the wearer usually found himself so unsavory socially that his plight rivaled the afflictions of mal ojo. This bad “side effect” induced the ancient folk doctors to renew their research. In due course they found that a synthetic deer’s eye, properly ornamented, would work just as well. Consequently, the ojo de venado commonly worn today always contains a tree seed about the size of a large acorn, painted to simulate a deer’s eye. The more elaborate amulets may also contain a small piece of prickly-ash twig, perhaps a few bits of bright-colored yarn, an amber bead, a small onyx hand, or a piece of shell from the armadillo, all strung together on a red string. The red string signifies blood, which helps to confuse the evil eye. Positive immunity accompanies the wearing of this charm.

However, in cases when positive immunity lapses, or when a child comes down with the symptoms of affliction through failure to wear the protective amulet, there are various do-it-yourself remedies. One begins with roasting a dry chili pasilla (hot pepper) on the comal, the little Mexican earthenware grill. The smoke from the burning pepper must penetrate the child’s eyes and nose. The child now receives a massage with a fresh, unfractured egg, wet with the tongue before it is rolled over the body of the stricken child. The egg must come from a black hen, for only the gallina negra is endowed with the power to drive out the evil spirits of mal ojo once they have lodged in the victim. If the eggbreaks during these ministrations, the jeopardy is almost indescribable.

Following this egg massage the unfortunate child must be smartly spanked all over and then wrapped well with blankets to induce sweating. The child must not be bathed until the second day after the massage, and his recovery will be hastened if two herbs, Santa Maria and ruda, are worn tucked behind his ears at all times. But most important of all, it is necessary to place next to the child’s body a small piece of clothing from the evil-eyed person who inflicted the illness. In the absence of this vital step all other treatment will be in vain.

If this home remedy fails to extract the affliction, the skilled cur andero will be called in to administer a similar but more professional cure, with the addition of a live hen or fowl, black of course, which he will waft over the patient while chanting and entreating the evil spirits to leave the body. Whether he is treating a child or an adult, a cleansing rubdown is almost always part of the cur andero’s therapy. The rubdown may be given with a combination of herbs, oil, flower blossoms, and rum. Usually the curandero finds it helpful if he drinks a little of this mixture while he brushes the patient with a green laurel branch. The treatment for mal ojo victims, both children and adults, is essentially the same throughout the provinces of Mexico, although it may vary in detail according to regional or local tradition. As in modern clinical practice, ability to pay often influences the scale of treatment. In some cases the afflicted may be forced to recover without the egg massage or certain other remedies.

The amulet, ojo de venado, is worn by nearly all children throughout Mexico, but many adults seek its protection too. This charm, of ancient Mayan origin, is sold in markets everywhere as well as by street vendors. It may seem strange that with all this protection the danger of mal ojo remains so prevalent, but we must bear in mind that small children, who are most often its victims, frequently forget to wear their protective charms.

Mal ojo’s serious consequences are by no means restricted to human beings. Pet animals, birds, and even prized plants often come under its spell. One recent case involved a pet parrot that belonged to an elderly lady neighbor right here in Mexico City. The catastrophe occurred one afternoon when a very good friend came for tea. The friend, upon seeing her hostess’s cherished pet, approached its cage to admire the beautiful bird, eye to eye. Instantly, upon this confrontation, the parrot dropped dead. Both the elderly hostess and her visiting friend were overwhelmed. The friend, not knowing that she possessed the powers of mal ojo, had been perfectly innocent in her intentions. But this illustrates how insidious mal ojo can be.

Sometimes tourists from the north are inclined to be cynical about mal ojo and its remedies, but my husband reminds me that he survived the Great Flu Epidemic of 1917 only by the grace of asafetida, the malodorous Persian gum resin he wore pinned to his union suit throughout his grammar school days. This germ annihilator was virtually mandatory in the Midwestern German community where he grew up. He says that to this day he can hardly think of elementary arithmetic or geography outside the olefactory context of asafetida.

A whiff of asafetida suggests that this may have been the agent that really rendered mal ojo benign in North America.