August 11th, 2009
Ethiopian evil eye belief and the magical symbolism of iron working
by Niall Finneran
Whilst undertaking an archaeological survey in the area around the northern Ethiopian town of Aksum in late 1995 I spotted what appeared to be an obvious short cut on our map. Suggesting to my Ethiopian colleague that we could take this route, he dismissed me with the statement: “we cannot go through that village. They are all Buda there.” What, I asked, was the Buda? The answer came back that these people were variously mad, dangerous, strange, outcast and had the power of the evil eye; they would be liable to curse us. This was not the first time that I had come across such a belief; it was well known in the town itself that many of the artisans engaged in metalworking possessed the power of the evil eye, and walking past green pea fields, what I had mistaken to be simple scarecrows (pieces of rag and plastic tied to poles) actually turned out to be amulets protecting the crop from those with the power to blast it.
The more you look beneath the veneer of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the more apparent it becomes that Ethiopia is rich in folk belief and superstition. This contribution is the result of a number of years’ research and first-hand experience within Ethiopia of notions surrounding the evil eye–especially in relation to the power of the blacksmith or artisan. We will consider the dynamics of Ethiopian evil eye belief set against the widely recognised and rich magical symbolism associated with iron working in Africa; this symbolism and the magical powers that iron working artisans possess, it seems, may have a common and much more universal foundation. It is clear that there are globally a number of interlinked themes associated with the evil eye belief. The ability to cast the spell by the eye is usually associated with certain distinct groups of people, often based on gender or kinship links. In some cases the possessors of the evil eye may not actually know that they have the power to cause harm. In Ethiopia, for instance, it is low caste peoples who may transmit this power, in Iran it is kin-based, whereas in ancient Israel it was traditionally a spell associated solely with the priesthood. There is no doubt that the symbolism of the “look” carries connotations of envy (Gravel 1995, 7), or perhaps harks back to the Ten Commandments and the idea of “coveting” (Roberts 1976).
From an anthropological perspective, recent research has emphasised the roots of this belief in the breakdown of patron and client relationships; the downtrodden-frequently artisans–being envious of the wealth and possessions of their social superiors whom they serve. It is the social superiors who may create and perpetuate this myth of the evil eye, often, it is argued, as a means of social control (for example, Galt 1987), turning groups of artisans into untouchable pariahs. The actual spell itself, which may be no more than a covetous glance or a statement praising somebody or something, may have a number of unpleasant side effects. The following have been variously reported by my Ethiopian informants of being symptoms of being struck by an evil eye spell: wasting sickness, domestic accidents, infertility, plain bad luck, sick livestock and blighted crops. In common with elsewhere in the world, these spells may in many cases be combated by the use of counter-magic, such as invocations, exorcism, charms and amulets (Gravel 1995, 11).
Within Africa, even in highly urbanised and Christianised areas, there exists a wide variety of traditional belief systems that focus on casting and combating spells, essentially forms of black and white magic. Traditionally, these areas would be the domain of the “witch doctor” or seer, wizard, shaman, wise man/woman, whatever they may be called. As a rule, the evil eye belief described here comes broadly under the notion of witchcraft, itself–according to one of the greatest scholars of the subject–an organic and hereditary phenomenon, and one often based on envy of material or social standing (Evans-Pritchard 1937, 100). In many cases the ability to cast a malevolent spell is associated directly with artisans, especially those involved in metal working–this is a universal African theme. There are a number of reasons that may explain this implicit linkage between craft and magic and social attitudes towards craftspeople:
1. Such artisans are usually landless, a separate caste apart from the mainstream, and being peripatetic craftsmen are often seen as strangers and are regarded with distrust and often downright disdain. Because they possess little materially (cf. Gait 1987), they are regarded as being crippled by sheer envy of those that do, a key mechanism behind the evil eye and the idea of coveting.
2. This distrust is also linked to the fact that they make things. Artisans with special skills are in demand for goods of beauty. For the non-artisan cliques, these skills, it is often suggested, are the result of the artists selling their souls to devils, their gifts are diabolically inspired.
3. Following on from the above is the notion that the creation of a piece of artwork is part of an arcane and poorly understood manufacturing process that in some sense is redolent of magic. In many areas of the world–and this links in with the notion of specialist craft groups–we have this idea of an inside secret knowledge for the few and used by the few for financial gain.
Within highland Ethiopia–a predominantly Christian environment although with sizeable Muslim populations–guilds or castes of artisans (be they weavers, hide workers or metal workers) are often held to possess magical powers and are known in Amharic as Buda. The notion of the Buda is actually hard to define; it has been suggested that they are not simply bearers of the evil eye, but in terms of magical complexity and social standing are rather nearer to witches (Gravel 1995, 19). On the fringes of the mainly Christian highland plateau, there is plenty of evidence of similar types of belief. Amongst the Galla pastoralist (cattle-keeping) peoples of the highland flanks, the evil eye is known to afflict herds of cattle. As cattle (as with any pastoralist society) are key guarantors of wealth and social status, such evil spells should be countered swiftly. Galla Arussi peoples make counter-charms from large frames of wood and the stretched pudenda of ritually slaughtered cattle and place them at crossroads. The symbolism of the crossroads is important; throughout Africa (and indeed globally) the crossroads are seen as a liminal point, the marking of the zones of life and death (Cavendish 1984, 304; Finneran 2002, 178). Amongst the Sidamo peoples (Hamer 1966) and those of the eastern Bench (Petros 1994), the evil eye spell is marked by demonic possession of people rather than the harming of livestock; amongst the Dorze of the Gamo highlands any minor misfortune is attributed to the Ayfe Celo or the look of an eye. It is clear that among the large ethnically and linguistically diverse population of the Ethiopian highlands and their environs, there exists a number of subtle variations of a central belief in the evil eye.
It is among the highland Christian communities that much research has been conducted on the nature of evil eye belief. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity embraces a number of idiosyncratic beliefs, not least in the adoption of customs that appear to have Judaic roots (such as dietary prohibitions). Traditional dualistic notions of good and evil are also a vital component of the daily Christian belief; the Zar, for instance, are spiteful malevolent spirits allied to the harmful and evil Saytan (ghouls), whilst the Abdar are generally benign protective nature spirits. It is in this realm of superstition, beneath a Christian veneer, that the belief of the evil eye still flourishes.
The mechanisms of this belief may be structured thus. The Buda–or possessor of the evil eye–may also be known as a Tayb, which means craftsman (Reminick 1976). Artisans generally own no land and as such are generally despised by the farming and peasant groups even though they are physically, culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from their neighbours; the sole tension is based on the economic group identity rather than any other factor (Haberland 1978). This is not a rural phenomenon brought about by ideas of economic envy and distrust; even in such a thriving and rapidly modernising metropolis as the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa certain specialist weaver groups are despised by urbanites solely because they engage in manual work (Burley 1978). So economic criteria rather than any other factors inform this snobbery, hate and distrust, and ultimately lead on in a more extreme form to the belief that such groups or castes possess the ability to cast malevolent spells via the evil eye.
Both trade/craft specialisation and the ability to cast a spell through the evil eye is inherited from the father, although ultimately from the devil himself (Reminick 1974). The motivation behind casting the evil eye is seen as pure envy on the part of the Buda. The most important times for evil eye attack include: meal times, illness, pregnancy, cattle-growing and crop raising (Vecchiato 1994). It is interesting that periods associated with fecundity and multiplication should be so dangerous; it may be possible that the body is somehow weakened because most of the energy is being diverted into the promotion of growth both in the fields and in the womb, and is thus especially vulnerable to attack.
When attacked–this may be accomplished by a sly gaze, or in certain cases under the guise of a despised hyena (known as dirty, evil scavengers)–bodily weakness usually follows, often allied to misfortune. In some cases the mere threat of death is sufficient (Aspen 1994); this notion accords with the idea of the Maori curse, hex or Tapu, or other cases where people have been literally scared to death almost by suggestion. In medical parlance such a condition is known as vagal inhibition and is characterised by the sudden stopping of the heart mediated by the nervous system, often leading to death. The subject believes that death is inevitable and moreover believes implicitly in the efficacy of the sorcerer. In this case the subject of the spell literally worries himself or herself to death. Conversely the Buda often possess a perverse power to instil life In the dead–rather like creating zombies–for necromancy is also a key part of the Buda’s magical arsenal.
To counter the spell there are many avenues of approach. In Africa as a whole, for Instance, tradition dictates that the evil eye may be warded off by making certain hand signs, avoiding eye contact and the wearing of amulets. To some extent, this also holds true with the Ethiopian customs of counter magic, but here we find a greater reliance upon the power of the church and this power is mediated by a very strange and special figure. Within the hierarchy of the Ethiopian Church, a special role is played by the deacon, or Dabtara. These young men are not merely neophytes of the church with special responsibility for leading chants at services, but are viewed as quasi-magicians in their own right. Dabtaras are itinerant figures, often misconceived as being strange or mad, who make a living–apart from ecclesiastical activities–by providing charms and white magic (Young 1975). When a case of the Buda is reported the Dabtara will offer prayers and amulets, often fashioned from silver, a metal frequently used to counteract evil (Reminick 1975). A quite intricate and complex set of anti-magic invocations and exorcisms (Abinet) are used to cure the afflicted (Vecchiato 1993) and a variety of charms and amulets all play their part. It is commonly stressed, however, that prevention is better than cure: apart from carrying amulets and using invocations, fields are protected using scarecrows and the young will have their head shaved (headlice are thought to be the doing of the Buda).
The Ethiopian conception of the evil eye embodies a number of different layers of meaning, many similar to the evil eye traditions globally, but to understand and contextualise the Ethiopian meanings, we need to consider more deeply the African framework of craft specialisation and its linked symbolism. It has been stressed that the idea of magical creation underpins the perception of artisans in Ethiopia and in the wider African context. In many cases these skills have been acquired originally from an elemental source of evil via the paternal lineage, rather like a Faustian pact. It is with the process of metal working that we find the heaviest symbolic meanings; traditionally iron itself is regarded as being a material derived from the heavens; early iron workers often used iron ore derived from meteorites, hence this analogy (Cavendish 1984, 24), and mastery over this process of transformation–almost alchemical–from ore to finished product, is akin to a magical operation.
In Togo, west Africa, amongst the Bassar, the furnace is prepared with great ceremony including the giving of libations. The actual wall of the furnace incorporates plants and animal matter and these living elements are gathered by the smith whilst naked (Collett 1993). There are a number of obvious symbolic overtones here; offerings to confirm a successful outcome, the fixing of organic elements within the furnace to breathe life into it and transform it into a living structure, and nakedness as part of the preparation–akin to the Graeco-Roman magical operation–where removing clothes unimpedes and maximises the flow of energy from the body and concentrates its magical power (for example, Cavendish 1984, 235). The sexual reproductive element is highly important too. The Fipa of Tanzania decorate the actual furnace in the manner of a human bride in order to become “marriageable,” and the smelter dons red clay in the role of a Fipa bridegroom (Barndon 1996). In this sense the smelter is engaging in a magical union or marriage with the furnace to symbolically produce offspring; around Lake Victoria iron workers have embroidered the process with a rich wealth of sexual taboos and abstain from all sexual contact until the smelt is completed (Schmidt 1996).
The possession of the evil eye amongst specialised craft groups can be seen as an outgrowth of the layering of symbol upon the process of creation of an artefact. In order to guarantee an aura of exclusivity, and emphasise the magical and reproductive process of smelting, the artisans invest the process with strange rites, taboos and spells in an effort to exclude the outsider and maintain a mystical air to the proceedings. Through this ritual and symbolism the artisans happily emphasise their difference from the rest of society, building up this corpus of forbidden knowledge into the rules and codifications of a loose caste group or guild. These are the social have-nots creating a new identity for themselves and a new socio-economic worth, and mainstream society, seeing this wall of exclusivity and secrecy maintained, invests these groups with an identification of distrust and isolation. These artisan groups alienate themselves, and allied to the idea that they possess a magical control over the process of making an artefact, this produces within mainstream society a sense of both fear and loathing. In Ethiopia these artisans are true outsiders, and because they are not understood and accepted into the norms of society, they are despised and feared. So there we have the core paradox; these artisans are creators and destroyers in equal measure.
In the pilgrim-driven markets of the town of Aksum gold and silver crosses sell well. The craftsmen who make them earn a good enough living and it would now be rare indeed to hear them spoken of with disdain, yet there still is a remarkable underlying tension and it is hard to define. To return to my young Ethiopian colleague at the beginning of this piece, an aficionado of American R&B music, wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt, au fait with the comings and goings of the world through television and books, easily speaking three languages and desiring to emigrate, tries to tear himself away from his deep-seated folk belief; yet, for all his pragmatism and recent first-hand experience in a bloody civil war, he cannot find it in himself to walk through that small village and confront demons that his forefathers confronted before Aksum became Christian almost two thousand years ago.
This paper is based on research carried out in Ethiopia between 1995 and 1997, and in 2001. I am grateful to the Society of Antiquaries of London, British Institute in Eastern Africa and SOAS for funding. I also wish to record my gratitude to my Ethiopian friends who helped out: Solomon Berhane, Yemane Fitsumberhan and Said Mustafa. The author additionally wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance of the British Academy’s Post-Doctoral Fellowship scheme.