The topic of my research paper is on the phenomenon of the Evil Eye. The most useful source that I have come across in my research is from Plutarch’s Moralia, written in the late first century CE. More specifically, the passage that I am using comes from book eight, Table Talk. Table Talk is an account portraying several dinner conversations among a group of wise men. The seventh question that is presented to the group is devoted to the topic “concerning those who are said to cast an Evil Eye”. This passage is the fullest discussion from antiquity on the Evil Eye that I have found so far. It covers a broad range of the Evil Eye’s features, how it works and measures that are taken to avert it.
Plutarch’s discussion brings up several key aspects that are associated with the Evil Eye. This includes that children are the most vulnerable to its power, casters can be either intentional or unintentional; that envy is the source of its power, and amulets can be used to avert its gaze. These are fairly standard features that I have come across in other sources I have found. Aspects that were new to my research is that people could cast Evil Eye on themselves, fathers were at a huge risk of casting it upon their babies, and that someone in an envious state can cast the Evil Eye upon anyone. These are just some of the Evil Eye features that come from Plutarch.
Though I found the Evil Eye features presented beneficial to my research, the real reason I found this passage so useful is because of the rationale that the discussants use to understand how the superstition works. The discussion opens with most of the educated elites expressing their doubts about the Evil Eye by calling it a silly matter that did not merit further inquiry. These doubts are quickly refuted by Mestrius Florus, one of the discussants, who wants to launch a serious conversation on the phenomenon based on actual physical data, or what was perceived as facts for the time. Florus opens up a discussion that explores several reported cases of the Evil Eye and how they can be explained using reason. This is where the real importance of this passage stems from, that it gives a clear view of the perspectives that people used to justify the phenomenon.
The first part of the dialogue discusses the physical properties of the eye that make it capable of casting evil. The reason for its significance stems from the extramission theory. The belief that vision involves the flow of particles or tiny images, through the air. Plutarch’s interpretation expands from this by claiming that every human body emanates particles through odor, voice, and breathing. In Plutarch’s point of view, the eye is the most active streams of particles because it is through eyesight that people are influenced and experience emotions. An example to support this reasoning is when lovers feel pleasure when they look at each other. Therefore, if people can be passively influenced and suffer through their eyes, they should be able to influence others through them as well. Plutarch gives a fairly clear understanding of why the eye is seen to be of great significance in antiquity.
The discussion then moves away from the physiological aspects of the Evil Eye and focuses on the psychical aspect of casting it. Plutarch psychical reason is that the body is directly affected when emotions are aroused, as when pain, greed, or jealousy can cause someone to change color and lose health. This is where envy plays a large role in the casting of the Evil Eye. If a person is feeling very envious, then their body is believed to fill up with evil. Plutarch views envy as being concealed in the mind of the individual. Because of the proximity of the mind and eyes, the evil can be cast with just a glance. This part of the discussion illustrates the perception of the eye as a channel of the disposition of envy.
When first approaching my topic, I wanted to explore more into why the eye is seen to be such an important part of the human body that it has the innate power to cause harm. Plutarch’s Table Talk clarifies some of the physical and psychical understandings of the eye. These perspectives are also not just unique to Plutarch’s writings. The extramission theory receives a positive reception from other ancient sources, like Pliny the Elder and Aelian. The effect that emotions have on the physical body are also widely seen in other sources. Plutarch just provides a more extensive explanation of how these principles play into casting the Evil Eye.