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The Power of the Evil Eye in the Blind: 'Oedipus Tyrannus' 1306 and 'Oedipus at Colonus' 149-156

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The University of Florida
Department of Classics
Comparative Drama Conference Papers
Volume VIII

Edited by Karelisa Hartigan

University Press of America
Lanham – New York- London

Copyright © 1988 by University Press of America, ® Inc.
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Printed in the United States of America British Cataloging in Publication Information Available
Co-published by arrangement with the
Comparative Drama Conference, University of Florida,
Department of Classics

"What! No Plot? Rhetorical Inventio in French Court Ballet: Les lncompatihles" © 1988 by Louis E. Auld
"Dramatic Time and the Production Process: Reading for Rhythm in Miss Julie and The Duchess of Malfi" © 1988 by Patrick Kagan-Moore
"Life Near Death: Art of Dying in Recent American Drama" © 1988 by Margot A. Kelley
"Pinter's Ruth, Duras' Vera" © 1988 by Judith Roof
"The Dead March in Lear: Folio Confusion, Stage Direction, or Multi-leveled Sign" © 1988 by Carolyn H. Smith
"The Lacerations of Apartheid: A Lesson from Aloes" © 1988 by Albert Wertheim
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama
Conference (1987)
Text and presentation / edited by Karelisa Hartigan.
p. cm.—(The University of Florida Department of Classics
Comparative Drama Conference papers ; v. 8)
Includes bibliographies.
1. Drama—History, and criticism—Congresses. I. Hartigan,
Karelisa. II. Title. III. Series: University of Florida Department
of Classics Comparative Drama Conference. University of Florida
Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conference papers ; v. 8.
PN1621.U55 1987 88-3536 CIP
ISBN 0-8191-6907-2 (alk. paper)
All University Press of America books are produced on acid-free
paper which exceeds the minimum standards set by the National
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Preface Text and Presentation

The University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conference, March, 1987

The University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conferences began in 1977 with the intent of emphasizing the humanities endeavors at the University. The aim of the conference has been to bring together persons from many areas of academia and theatre to share their mutual interests. The conference is unique both in its multi-disciplinary nature and its insistence that drama be both discussed and performed. Thus each program includes scholarly papers, addresses by leading figures in literature and theatre, and dramatic performances. The number of participants has been kept to a discreet size so that ample opportunity exists for individuals to meet and exchange ideas. During the years since its inception the conference has attracted scholars in the areas of Classics, Germanic and Romance Languages, English, Anthropology, Philosophy, and all areas of Theatre from more than eighty colleges and universities around the United States, Canada, and Europe.
The papers presented at the conference were of such consistently high quality that the publication of selected papers was undertaken. Each text is submitted to the examination of two to three referees before being accepted for inclusion in the volumes. This is the eighth volume in the series. It is expected that the wide range of topic offered here will be of interest to the many persons who study and enjoy comparative drama.

Karelisa V. Hartigan Conference Director

Karelisa Hartigan, Chairman University of Florida

S. Read Baker, University of Florida
Anne D. Cordero, George Mason University
William R. Elwood, University of Wisconsin
William J. Free ,University of Georgia
Glen W. Gadberry, University of Minnesota
William Hutchings, University of Alabama

Hal H. Rennert, University of Florida
William C. Scott, Dartmouth College
Carolyn H. Smith, University of Florida
James J. Stathis, Vanderbilt University
James T. Svendsen, University of Utah
Theodore A. Tarkow, University of Missouri

For Volume VIII the assistance of the following guest referees is acknowledged with gratitude:

Irving Deer Kenneth Johnson

William Mould

The Power of the Evil Eye in the Blind: 'Oedipus Tyrannus' 1306 and 'Oedipus at Colonus' 149-156 Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous Creighton University

Focusing on the reaction of Sophoclean choruses lefore the blind, I examine the Greek belief in the jvil eye: its definition and function. I also show how it relates to other beliefs such as transgression (hybris), envy (phthonos), pollution (miasma, agos) and that which maintains that suffering spoils the character. The blind are seen not only as having transgressed mortal boundaries and as a source of pollution, but also as capable of inflicting the evil eye.

The evil eye can be defined as that syndrome of interaction of psychic energies, according to which, some magic power exists in the eye, which, when motivated by envy, may be directed against the person of enviable good fortune. Blindness, as deprivation of the supreme good (eyesight), is a source of phthonos in the deprived person. Consequently, the blind are capable of inflicting harm through the power of the evil eye. If we accept the belief in the evil eye as real in ancient (as it is in modern) Greece [1], we will appreciate more fully the complexity of the scenes where the Choruses confront Oedipus. We will understand the consternation of the Theban citizens or of the Colonean elders, as they encounter, for the first time, the newly blinded king or the blind old beggar. We will gain insight to the ambivalent reaction of the choruses, which are torn between their awareness of mortality and the need for compassion, on the one hand, and their fear of pollution and the evil eye, on the other. I understand the attitudes of the Chorus to be representative of the average citizen and to reflect conventional wisdom, superstitions and practices. Such popular attitudes are very much part of the concerns of the intellectuals, but also distinct from them in many respects. Together, they constitute the Greek culture. There are, for example, significant distinctions between the "hero," the "sophron" and the "Chorus"[2]. The Chorus, the people (laos, according to Aristotle), will be my focus.

The Greeks viewed blindness as a fate which, potentially at least, cold befall anyone. They were always aware of the possibilities their mortality might hold in store for them. The Choruses in Sophocles, like the majority of Greek people, under¬stood everything in terms of a "generic," "modal" or "archetypal" reality. What was true of Oedipus might be true of any man. It must be significant that in the fourth stasimon of the O.T., after Oedipus discovers the truth and rushes into the palace to blind himself, the Chorus sing of the "generations of mortals," not merely of Oedipus. It must be significant that they pity, not blame Oedipus, as he is found out to be an incestuous parricide and as they watch him falling from the peak of achievement and glory. Oedipus is the subject of their song, only as an intimate paradigm of human fate. They lament: "Oh, generations of mortals, ...keeping your own example in mind, your own fate, oh miserable Oedipus... (1186-1194)." The Chorus are aware of their own mortality, ass they confront the blinded king with pity and fear. Their fear is of the freshly discovered sinner and the fresh blinding.[3]
The decisive factor distinguishing the chorus from the sophron and the sophron from the hero is the degree and level of awareness. The same Chorus, who a few moments earlier had pitied Oedipus as a paradigm of the human condition, are now inspired to frenzy before the blind king: "what horror do you cause in me!" (1306). The Chorus of Colonean elders echo the same terror when they first confront the blind beggar (who has trespassed into the grove of the Eumenides). They exclaim: "Alas for your blind eyes!...You are indeed transgressing, you have overstepped the boundaries: (149-156). The Chorus (as common citizens) are not always able to change places with the sufferer. They are well-meaning and naturally sympathetic, but also frightened and judgmental. Their attitudes toward the sufferer are not always positive, not firmly established, and they are influenced according to the direction which protects against risky endeavors, established guidelines of behavior, but cannot always distinguish between form and substance, appearance and reality, falsehood and truth.

One such convention, which the Chorus are anxious to observe and which influences decisively religious and social law, is the belief in pollution.[4] It is fair to assume that blindness was viewed as pollution because it was felt to be a punishment for some transgression (intentional or unintentional). The blinded Oedipus, as a polluted object, arouses horror. Whatever blindness may be as a metaphor and a symbol, as a real experience it is overwhelming and capable of eliciting negative and contradictory reactions. Anyone marked with divine affliction (like Philoctetes, who literally entered the forbidden grove of Chryse and inflicted with a incurable wound by a sacred snake, or like Teiresias, who saw deity (Athena) at a time and a place which were tabooed, or like Oedipus, who found himself to have been where he should not with whom he should not) becomes a sacred curse (hieron agos) : polluted. I suspect that blindness arouses the same fear of pollution as that associated with the dead. The blind share in the characteristic most typical of the world of the dead (Hades), namely, Darkness.[5]

However blindness is associated with pollution, Sophoclean Choruses fear the blind because they view them as a source of pollution. Hence the mixed responses of the Choruses in the O.T. and the O.C. Pity, compassion, willingness to help, on the one hand, and on the other, awe, fear, abhorrence. Their responses are predictable and informing: "What terror you cause in me!" (1306), and, "Alas for your blind eyes!...You are indeed transgressing" (149-156). Peras refers on one level to Oedipus' entry into the grove of the Eumenides. On another deeper level, these words recall Oedipus' ancient transgression (parricide, incest and his self-blinding). True, the Chorus do not yet know who the stranger is, but the association of Oedipus with transgression in the mind of the audience and of Oedipus is inevitable; the association of blindness and transgression must be in the mind of the Chorus as well. The Colonean Chorus make an indisputable case for the claim that blindness (regardless of the identity of the blind person and its cause) is feared as a source of pollution. What is more, the Chorus assigned to Oedipus the power "to attach curses" on them (153-154). At the outset, before the Chorus have any idea of the identity of the transgressor, it is because of his blindness that Oedipus is perceived as horrible and endowed with the power to curse. To avert the curses of the blind man, and because they are aware of their own mortality, they express their willingness to help him and they advise him how to leave the forbidden grove. Lest they be polluted, they keep their distance from the source of pollution, the blind beggar.

Pollution is one of many factors which contribute to the horror of the Choruses and is closely linked to the belief in the evil eye. The polluted are unfortunate, have reason to be envious and, as such, capable of inflicting the evil eye. Consequently, the blind have every reason to translate their misery and envy to harm for others through the evil eye. The question may be asked, "how can the blind put the evil eye on someone when they cannot see?" At first sight, this might seem one more paradoxical aspect of the Greek beliefs about blindness. However, the paradox is easily explained, if we accept that the evil eye was possible not only by means of an admiring stare (which expressed desire for the missing thing), but also by means of words of thoughts. Belief in the evil eye, as it is found among modern Greek peasants, sheds light on similar beliefs in ancient Greece. The evil eye, a power of the eye activated by an admiring glance, a voiced compliment or thought, (motivated by envy caused by some deprivation of the admired thing), is bound to bring misfortune upon the person admired because of his good luck. The evil eye in modern Greece (vascania or matiasma) resembles ancient Greek beliefs. Such beliefs held that intentional or unintentional transgressions (hybris), or too much success (olbos), or the over-confidence resulting from such happiness (koros)--all are bond to cause envy (phthonos) and to result in punishment and misfortune (dysdaimonia). A human may not overstep mortal limits with impunity. A man who enjoys good fortune and happiness must take steps to ward off envy and the evil eye by refraining from boasting and bragging. Thus, the evil eye may be seen as a form of "institu¬tionalized envy" whose purpose is to function as a method of social control, in ancient (as it is in modern) Greek society. In addition, some ritualistic gestures and procedures must have been in place, as antidotes to the magic power of the evil eye. I suspect that the Choruses accompanied their horrified exclamations with appropriate movements and gestures, which the audience must have recognized as meaning to ward off the evil eye.[6] In modern Greece, a compli¬ment is accompanied by a balancing insulting gesture, such as spitting on the ground or opening the palm to give "five fingers." These gestures may be undertaken by the object of admiration (secretly, behind the back of the admirer) for protection, or by the admirer (openly) as an indication of good will an explicit denunciation of any intention to harm, through the evil eye. The Colonean Chorus (a.) do not brag about their good fortune to be sighted, and (b. ) try to avert the evil eye (the curses) of the blind. Their deep awareness of the change of fortune (their mortality) results in compassion. However, their very real fear of pollution and the harm which may result from the evil eye causes their panic.

The evil eye was only one of many ways in which an unfortunate person could harm others. Such a belief was related to the notion that it was natural, under great suffering for people to become evil. Extreme suffering--the kind that exceeded the threshold of human endurance--was expected to dehumanize the sufferer.[7] The belief that suffering spoils the character was moderated by the awareness that mortals, without exception, were meant to suffer. A state of absolute bliss was reserved only for the immortals. The question gain is one of degree: How much suffering is enough to spoil the character and to render one harmful? The words of Achilles to Priam, at the moment of the hero's greatest humanity, are indispensable:
To whomsoever he gives sufferings only, Him Zeus makes hateful, him evil madness Drives all over the surface of sacred earth, And he wanders honored neither by gods nor by mortals.[8]
(II. 24. 525-533).

Two points must be emphasized here: First, the distinction between mortality and immortality is firmly established in terms of the allotment of happiness. Second, human beings can deal with their mortality (can cope with misfortune and still maintain their humanity) only so long as their suffering has some relief. A resting place for the wanderer (epaula) is necessary. Take away all hope, and humanity is destroyed.[9] The concluding line of Achilles' speech to Prima epitomizes the condition of utter misfortune for the Greeks: to be dishonored totally by god and man alike. In a shame culture (where honor is the highest goods), utter dishonor is the supreme misfortune. Blindness (associated with death because of its darkness), at all times, vies with dishonor to win the title of "the worst of suffering." When the Chorus told Oedipus that he would have been better off dead than blind, they probably believed that he could not be blind and happy at the same time. If so utterly unhappy, he must have lost hope (which allowed for humanity). He must be envious of their eyesight and capable of harming them through the evil eye. The Colonean Chorus had also good reason to react as they did, when they first saw Oedipus. He was dishonored (apolis) and blind to boot. It would take a wise man, the sophron Theseus, to realize that suffering does not always create the same dehumanized creatures, that some sufferers (exceptional indeed) have very special ways of bearing their misfortune[10]. Man in sophocles (as in Euripides and Homer) is tragic. Unbearable suffering brings the individual (the hero) to a state of utter despair and confusion which can best be described as madness. For this, I believe that the meaning of the word boubrostis (II. 24. 533) is "madness." Boubrostis must be understood to mean something like that state of pain and madness to which a cow is driven when stung by a gadfly. The term not only brings to mind the component words (bous and oistros), but also the concrete situation on which the metaphor is based. The cow, stung by the gadfly, is forced to flee without stop for rest (like Oedipus and Io), and a danger to whomever might be in its path. If the sting of fate were too sharp, if the gadfly of misfortune allowed no respite, the afflicted character--mad with pain-- would remain in an animal-like condition (like Hecuba whose relentless misery turned her into a bitch). Such a person would be viewed not only as miserable, but terribly dangerous as well. The Chorus' reaction before the freshly wounded Oedipus is not surprising. The sting of fate was too sharp (the golden brooches of his wife-mother), the wound of blindness too deep and too visible. His fate, that of a self-blinded king and incestuous parricide, inspires the Chorus to frenzy. The man could very well be dangerous, as well as pitiable.

The Chorus could not anticipate that Sophocles would present them with an Oedipus who would become a hero and a deity, not a beast.[11] The essence of Greek attitudes is found in the existence of both options. The views on the affect of suffering on the character do not vary widely from Homer to Euripides (although differences in attitudes through time unquestionably exist). Attitudes vary from social group to social group to social group and from Individual to individual, at all time. As a rule, attitudes differ from common people (Chorus) to intellectuals and nobility (Sophocles, Plato, Theseus). By the end of the fifth century, when the O.C. was performed, the Chorus express as much horror at the sight of the blind old beggar as a contemporary of Homer or Simonides might have, confronting a wretched man, who, because of his suffering, was expected to be evil, envious and harmful. The informing differences in attitudes are found, not so much between the various centuries of Greek literature,[12] but between, for example, Theseus and Creon and the Chorus of the O.C. Simonides of Ceos echoes the words of Achilles to Prima, Hecuba (in Euripides) enacts them, and the Chorus of Sophocles believe them.

The Colonean Chorus need Theseus' instruction and further contact with Oedipus, in order to realize that humanity may extend beyond this mechanism of brutality. Sophocles presents the belief in the evil eye as very real. But he also makes it very clear that the best antidote against the magic of the evil eye is compassion and humanity. Theseus (informing contrast with the Chorus) is not afraid of Oedipus because he is very much aware of his mortality: that fortune changes and an uncertain future is common to all. His words to Oedipus epitomize Sophoclean and greek humanity. King Theseus comforts the blind beggar, saying: "I know well, being a man (mortal) that my share in the day to come is no more than yours." (576-568). Theseus is protected from the evil eye because he is not afraid of it.

[1] For a thorough account of the almost universal belief in the evil eye, see C. Maloney, ed. The Evil Eye (New York, 1976). What is there recounted of many contemporary cultures — modern Greek, Latin American and Navaho Indian--reasonably applies, I think, to ancient Greek society. The evil eye is a form of "institutionalized envy: whose purpose it is to function as a "method of social control" (p. 43). See pp. 42-61, on Greece and the evil eye. See pp. 223, 226, 240, for theories that link the evil eye with envy.
I have first hand knowledge of several practices still used in Greece to ward off the evil eye. The tradition of protecting oneself and one's family and animals from the evil eye continues, long after the belief in the power of the evil eye has subsided.

[2] See E. Berndaki-Aldous, Blindness in a Culture of Light: Especially the Case of Oedipus of Colonus of Sophocles (Ph.D dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University), (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1985), 106-148. There, Sophoclean drama is viewed as a microcosm of Greek society. The three basic characters present in every Sophoclean drama--the hero, the sophron and the Chorus--include, although hero is the exceptional man, the transgressor; the sophron is the man aware of the rules imposed on him by his mortality, and the Chorus represent the citizens, influenced and directed by sophrones and heroes alike. These three categories illustrate the various responses to be expected from Greek society towards the blind.
See R. G. A. Buxton, "Blindness and limits: Sophocles and the logic of myth," JHS vol. c (1980), 22-37 (especially 22 and 26). Buxton recognizes "blindness as "one of the most important motifs in Sophocles," as characteristic of his "mood" in all the extant plays. Sophocles' treatment of the "blindness motif," i.e., the way in which the dramatist "explored the implications of blindness," is examined against the background of the mythical tradition and is compared with fifth century Greek thought. Buxton observes that "in using the blindness motif, Sophocles was drawing on a theme fundamental to a large number of mythical narratives from the time of Homer to that of Pausanias, and beyond" (p. 22). See p. 26 for a good presentation of the difficulties of placing "Sophocles' treatment of blindness within the wider context of Greek myth."

[3] The question whether Oedipus' blindness is one more reason for his pollution and shame cannot be fully answered at this point. It is my belief that blindness, together with patricide and incest, was understood by the Greeks as a cause of shame and pollution. This claim will be substantiated when we consider more closely the case of Oedipus. For Oedipus' desire not to be seen by others in his condition of shame and pollution see O.T., 1410-12.

[4] Blindness is one of the many and most undesirable sources of pollution in Greek culture. See especially O.T. 1424-1431, where Creon gives orders that Oedipus the polluted (agos hieron) be hidden away from the sacred light of the sun. Oedipus is both ashamed and polluted, not only for his sins of patricide and incest, but also and more acutely because of his newly acquired blindness. See Sophocles: Oedipus the King, trans. S. Berg and D. Clay (New York, 1978). Especially p. 18: "at the end of his discoveries, Oedipus is the object of horrible curiosity. Creon calls him 'this cursed, naked, holy thing' ... He is an agos--both cursed and sacred...."
See also L.W. Lyde, Contexts in Pindar: with reference to the meaning of pheggos (Manchester, 1935), 12-14, especially p. 14, for an interesting translation of 1428. He says neither a "clouded sky," nor a "bright one" will accept Oedipus. He will be an offense in either case. Lyde also observes that in Greek tradition the sun, a source of light, can become a source of blinding as well. He claims, correctly I think, that Oedipus is aware of this binding effect of the sun when he bids farewell to the "phos" when he decides to enter the palace and blind himself.

[5] See H. Musurillo, The Light and the Darkness: Studies in the Dramatic Poetry of Sophocles (New York: Fordham University Press, 1967). "Sunken Imagery in Sophocles' Oedipus," American Journal of Philology 78 (1957), 36-51.

6) See D. Seale, Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), who takes into account the blindness of Oedipus for the staging of the Sophoclean plays.

[7] See especially: Iliad 24. 525-533; Euripides, Medea, and Hecuba (W. Arrowsmith, translator, pp. 3-4, Introduction, in Euripides III, ed. Grene and Lattimore, Chicago, 1958).
See Simonides of Ceos, fragment 19. (Loeb Classical Library, 1924).

[8] I translate boubrostis as "madness," since it brings to mind the gadfly. Translation of the same as "famine" undermines the vivid imagery which bourbros-tis brings to mind. See Murray's note on this line (Iliad, vol. 2 p. 602, Loeb, 1967).

[9] The belief that extreme suffering may destroy humanity finds its best spokesman in Euripides. He draws the implications of what it feels like to overstep human limits, to walk outside the boundaries of humanity. This happens when one resembles the gods in bliss (like Admetus), or the beasts in the loss of humanity due to extreme suffering (like Hecuba). A human cannot partake in either state (divine or beastly) and still maintain the nature proper to a mortal, i.e., humanity. Admetus has to learn suffering and human subjection to ananke (death). Hecuba turns into a bitch (soon after her dehumanized condition, for which her unbearable suffering was responsible).

[10] The way (tropos) in which suffering is endured is very crucial for the Greeks, from Homer and Simoni-des, through the tragedians and Lysias, to Plato and Aristotle. It makes the difference between pity and compassion, or, contempt and blame towards the sufferer. It also accounts for the difference between a sufferer who is a terror and a curse (agos) and one who can become a hero and a deity (like Oedipus).

[11] What determines the outcome, i.e., whether suffering would dehumanize one or make him a hero or a deity, is too vast a topic to be discussed here. We should note, however, that Oedipus (unlike Hecuba) had many reasons why he did not lose his humanity in suffering. E.g.: the love of his daughters, the humanity and friendship of Theseus and of the Colonean citizens, and a purpose (to die in Colonus and to avenge his enemies by blessing his friends and harming those who hurt him).

[12] For a different view regarding the difference of attitudes through time (especially from Simonides to Plato), see C. Whitman, Sophocles, p. 202.


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