Wednesday 5 March 2014

E is for Exorcism and the Evil Eye

Exorcism and the Evil Eye

Orthodox exorcism and the much older phenomenon of the evil eye may seem like an odd pairing, but they share the same conceptual universe albeit on different levels of intensity. Both envision evil as a palpable, invasive force whose harmful effects must be countered by every means possible.
The ‘Eye’
The evil eye is first and foremost an envious look that, whether intentional or inadvertent, is powerful enough to cause physical harm or bad luck. By believing this to be true, the receiver is accepting the idea that the person giving him the ‘eye’ really does have such power.

 In Greece as in many countries, the most popular way to counteract the ‘eye’ is with a talisman of the eye itself, one which can unblinkingly stare back at the ‘look’, mirror  its evil, and return it straight back to its owner.

Every visitor to Greece had admired these beautiful ‘eyes’ which have themselves come to be called ‘evil eyes’. They are everywhere, in shops, decorating homes, and worn as jewelry.  

Wikimedia commons

The ‘eye’ can protect property too. Boats from ancient times on up have placed the eye on their prows.

 That an airline saw fit to place the ‘eye’ on its tail as a public relations effort is either reassuring,

Wikimedia Commons

 or not…

Colour Matters

I was intrigued to read an explanation of the blue and white colour of the ’eye’. The story goes that the blue eyes of early raiders from the north seemed unnaturally penetrating to the dark eyed Mediterranean people.  It was therefore assumed that a blue eye looking back would offer the most powerful protection. 
When well wishers placed several ‘eyes’ like the one below in my newborn’s  crib I thought of them as the Greek equivalent of a rabbit’s foot or a dream catcher; I had no idea just how out of step I was.

wikimedia commons

 FTou Sou!

There is another protection as well. Ritually spitting (which sounds like Ftou sou) three times often does the trick. The Ftou sous can be directed at someone else in the effort to counterbalance evil or directed downward towards the spitter’s chest (after opening the neck of the blouse to take the dry ‘spit’) to either ward off evil or to indicate that no  evil is intended.   So spitting has the double effect of warding off the eye and/or assuring others present that there is no harm meant.

Anthropologists have written volumes about expulsion rituals involving spitting. In ancient Greece the prime example would be the head of the Medusa.  This was a double whammy: staring eyes guaranteed to turn a watcher to stone and a protruding tongue to represent the spitting. 

Medusa on a coin of 300 BC

No wonder Medusa heads were often hung outside houses to protect the inhabitants and  represented on coins. They say a huge gold foil Medusa’s head once hung on the south wall of the Acropolis, to deter any evil coming to Athens by sea.

There is More

With evidence of belief in the ‘eye’ so manifest, it is not surprising that solutions to its ill effects have gone well beyond the possession of a talisman.  Remember, it is possible to be eyed inadvertently or ‘eyed’ while unaware, so any inexplicable malaise can be attributed to the phenomenon.

 The person thus affected is matiasmeni (f) or matiasmenos (m),  - ‘someone eyed’. It comes from ‘mati’, the Greek word for eye  and  is used only in the context of the evil eye.
If you are matiasmeni or matisamenos, you need special help.
Exorcising the ‘Eye’

Help is not hard to find. In Greece everyone knows someone who knows someone who can perform xematiasma (ξεμάτιασμα) The adept has learned the process of exorcising the ‘eye’ from an older relative of the opposite sex who then is expected to pass down the skill to someone of the opposite sex in the next generation. (Rules are rules!) Small rituals involving examining drops of oil water, yawning,  and chanting sotto voice, are used and, of course, spitting three times. The special details of the verbal part of the ritual will not be revealed in their entirety until the time comes to pass on the gift. (1)

My own close encounter with xematiasma came after enduring a week of my daughter’s constant crying.  I invited my neighbor, a mother of four, to give me some advice about colic and I was astounded when she took my daughter in her arms, placed drops of oil in a glass of water, muttered prayers and made signs of the cross on her body. She stopped crying immediately and that made me both uncomfortable and annoyed. Was I living in the Dark Ages? Meanwhile my neighbor sailed on home with a superior smile on her face – no doubt thinking: “foreigners!”

Xematiasma in the Age of Electronics

Xematiasma works over the telephone. An acquaintance once called her mother long distance to remove a spell because she was feeling poorly. She was a physics teacher! Education is no barrier to belief in the ‘eye’. Lawyers, doctors, atheists, and worldly cynics all respect its power!

And just to keep up with the times, xematiasma can now be accomplished on the Internet.

The following short youtube video is a case in point. It is in Greek but it is not hard to get the gist of it!

In the end, she verbally sends the evil to the mountains and the hills   (three times, of course). For some reason this banishment reminds me of Christ banishing the demons into the bodies of the Gadarene swine  (Mark 5, 1-20) –a bit hard on the swine - and a reminder that evil can be exorcised and banished with the right kind of magic, but not eradicated – in this life anyway. 

Dry spitting   as seen in the video is also appropriate if the subject of death, illness, or bad luck, comes up; it is simply good manners to ‘spit’ on something valuable or new such as a new car, shoes, and so on.  This publicly externalizes the envy and removes the evil that suppressing it might cause. Every tactful foreigner quickly learns to politely spit three times after praising the beauty of a child. If this small ritual is omitted, expect to find someone in the family ready and willing to counteract the “eye” with rituals of oil, water, and crosses.

 The Evil Eye and Orthodoxy


The Orthodox Church has long accepted the power of the ‘eye’ or vaskania  (βασκανία) as it is called in a religious context. Possibly the early Church fathers realized that popular belief in the eye was too entrenched to eradicate in any case; much better to incorporate it. There is an early prayer against vaskania from the Megan Hieron Synekdemon (Μέγαν Ιερόν Συνέκδημον), a book of prayers (2)

The argument was over who was best able to exorcise it.   The Church believed that it was a job for clerics. Given Christianity’s expanded view of the nature of evil into which the power of the ‘eye’ dovetailed so nicely, it is not hard to see why.

Evil’s  Quantum Leap into the Cosmic Arena

In the Christian mindset, evil broke the barriers of Time and Space while at the same time was so up close and personal that it struck terror into the soul of every new convert.
Compare this to the idea of evil which existed in the Greco-Roman world. A pagan accepted that the gods might be angry although they were more likely to be indifferent and that they could be appeased by gifts appropriate ritual sacrifices.  Evil was an accepted force, but it was ‘out there’.  Curses written on lead tablets found buried with the dead in the ancient cemetery of Keramikos indicate that however vaguely, there was some idea that such buried curses might persuade the shades of Hades to assist against a living enemy. Was there an idea of soul? Certainly intellectuals in the Greco-Roman world believed in Daimones which they saw as some form of benevolent genius or conscience able to guide their thinking. But these ideas were relatively unformed and never dogma. Paganism had no dogma.  

With the advent of Christianity, evil got a name: Satan,  human suffering a cause: the original sin of Adam and Eve, and pagan daimones were both demonized and internalized –able to enter the body and  possess it in the form of illness, madness, or malignancy. To early Christians the fear of Satanic possession was a real and constant danger. 

The stakes were high – eternal damnation on the one hand and eternal salvation on the other.  After having identified Evil, Christianity offered the solution – Belief and Baptism.  Because of original sin no human now entered the world with a clean slate. Baptism is a rite of exorcism in which a second birth is re-enacted: the naked body totally immersed in blessed water, the priest acting as a midwife, and the recipient literally born again into the protection of the Church and the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, those who were candidates for baptism (catachumens) underwent several exorcisms  during their apprenticeship before being baptized and even after for some because Satan and his hordes were ever ready with temptation and ever ready to possess the spiritually vulnerable whether they were baptized or not.

In Rome in 250 AD there were 150 clergy administering to the needs of Christians in the city; fifty of them were exorcists. At that time exorcists were a separate branch of the clergy , the need for them built into the belief. (3)

A key point here is the fact that Satanic possession was only terrifying if you were a Christian. Robin Lane Fox in his interesting study, Pagans and Christians, points out that during the years when pagans and Christians lived side by side, the pagans thought the idea of possession on this cosmic Christian playing field quite absurd– a position that a secular humanist might be likely to take today.  To fear it, you have to believe it. 

As time passed the specialized role of the exorcist merged with the other duties of the priest. A priest, like Christ’s disciples to whom they are connected by an unbroken line of consecration, has the same powers to exorcise demons as they were granted at Pentecost.

 Today, any Orthodox priest can perform an exorcism in the name of the Trinity. It is stressed that his power to do so comes from God whom he invokes to perform the task. Many are reluctant to do so. 

Like everyone else, priests have a greater knowledge of medicine and mental conditions and they are less and less likely to buy enthusiastically into the idea of demonic possession or the need to exorcise it.(4)  Even so, the concept is so fundamental to Christian belief  that it can only be side-lined, never denied as a possibility. 

In Orthodoxy, as in other Christian sects, demonic possession has come to have the greatest appeal among its more fundamentalist members.

 In Phyle  just north of Athens there is a monastery, the Monastery of Cyprian and Justina (, which performs exorcisms, either in private or en masse on a weekly basis. Their user friendly website offers directions on to reach the monastery by public transport and the times of exorcisms.  This ceremony is not for the fainthearted.  

See – to view an Orthodox Exorcism.(5)


Orthodoxy’s great strength is that it tolerates a broad spectrum of opinion on many matters and tends to be inclusive whenever possible. Ironically, whereas exorcism of the devil, the Church’s early specialty, has lost much of its luster in modern times, vaskania  has not. And since it is highly unlikely that popular belief in the ‘eye’ will fade anytime soon, the Church continues to tolerate the public acceptance of lay exorcists many of whom have, by the way, incorporated a great deal of Christian ritual into their exorcisms.

Look  again  at that photo near the beginning of the many ‘eyes’ in the  shop window and  you will notice that hanging along with them are crosses and a icon of Christ, proof that today the ‘eye’ and Christian talismans have become quite comfortable in the same company.

 The same combination of crosses and ‘eyes’ share space in the many stores selling religious items but the ratio of crosses to ‘eyes’ will be reversed. 

Some priests take exception to the incorporation of the ‘eye’ with the cross and refuse communion to anyone wearing the dynamic duo in church.  For them equating the powers of the eye with the powers of the cross to expel evil is blasphemous – the cross can defeat Satan, the ‘eye’ mere human spite. 

And any priest will tell you that the best way to counter evil on any level is with a prayer or small liturgy.

 Most Greeks wouldn’t argue with that.

 They would simply add a talisman and a meeting with someone well versed in the art of xematiasma – just to be sure... 

 A fishing boat in the small port beside our house: hedging his bets!


(1) See  for more details about the ritual.

(2) For an English version of the Orthodox prayer mentioned in the text  see

(3)   See Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox, Viking, copyright 1986. pp328-9.

(4)  Exorcisms are alive and well in North America, especially among Protestant sects. See for a surprising article on Exorcism n North America.





  1. Be sure xematiasma can help paracetamol work faster. I've witness that many times in my family :)

  2. Another term used for ''xematiasma'' is ''xemetrima''. I am guessing some of the 'exorcisms' related to the evil eye, probably related to specific Greek regions, may have to do with some kind of counting (?). My grandmother used to call it 'xemetrima', but unfortunately I never wondered why and didn't ask.

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