ATHENS – Protection against the evil eye is something indispensable to the superstitious. The mati or eye is a common talisman in the form of bracelets, necklaces, and keychains worn to protect the wearer against the evil eye. The blue and white symbol can be seen almost everywhere, especially among the tourist shops and areas where the mati is available in all price points to keep the negative energy of jealous people from causing a long list of symptoms, some of them even physical in the affected person.
An article in USA Today highlighted the increasing ubiquity of the symbol, noting that a “stroll down Ifestou Street in the bustling Monastiraki market,” will bring you eye to eye with the mati “all-seeing eyeballs,” in a variety of forms.
As a decoration, the mati is appearing on packaging for products and even in “chic hotel lobbies,” USA Today reported. There is even an app for that, as the article pointed out, a “Greek-language iPhone app promises the secret prayer to remove the evil eye,” taking over one of Yiayia’s jobs, apparently.
“Vendors in the Monastiraki market say the merchandising trend has been growing during the past several years, but now it is sweeping up tourists and native Greeks alike,” USA Today reported,“The booming popularity appears to reflect a growing interest in New Age spirituality as well as the psychological toll of Greece’s ongoing debt crisis.”
“Though the cerulean blue charm is still the most traditional, today you’ll find variations in pink and even multicolored bracelets for kids. The charms are most popular among Egyptians, Spaniards, and American girls, sellers said,” as USA Today reported.
Duende souvenir shop on Ifestou Street, run by Myrto Dafne’s family since 1895, sells mati keychains and charms. She noted that most of the tourists are unaware of the meaning of the mati and tells them, “’It’s superstitious, it’s supposed to bring luck.’ So they get excited about it,” as reported in USA Today.
The financial crisis has wreaked havoc on the economy, and may account for the upsurge in popularity of the eye. Unemployment is high with as noted in USA Today, “more than a quarter of its citizens are now unemployed, and half of Greek youth lack jobs.”
The traditions of the past can bring comfort in uncertain times.
“It’s part of this New Age thing, but also, I think there is some value to these practices. It sort of gives you a sense that you can somehow control the reasons that create stress and anxiety,” said Nadina Christopoulou, a Greek anthropologist who runs a nonprofit organization for refugee women based in Athens, as USA Today reported.
Her mother lives alone in the countryside and the crisis has curtailed her ability to give to others in these difficult times, her daughter told USA Today, she “claims she gets [the eye] five times a day.” The purging ritual possibly acts as a placebo for her mother, Christopoulou said, but it also “connects her with others who care about her,” USA Today reported.
The evil eye is at least a 5,000 year-old belief and is referenced in the Bible and Sumerian texts according to the USA Today report. Based on the idea of limits to the amount of good on earth and that one’s envy can take away another person’s good fortune, the evil eye is a common belief throughout the Mediterranean, including in Greece, as well as in countries as diverse as India and Ireland. The Middle East and Eastern Europe also hold onto the ancient belief and immigrants from all those countries took the eye to the countries where they settled and passed it down through the generations.
“It’s become such a huge industry. I was in a Greek town and I wanted to get a gift. Part of their packaging is, when they wrap the gift, they also tie a mati,” said Filio Kontrafouri, a Greek-American journalist who considers the evil eye part of her heritage. “I love it. I feel like it’s so Greek,” as reported in USA Today.
The belief often begins early on in childhood like Voulina Stathopoulou who learned about it from her female relatives. A mati hangs over her son’s bed and Stathopoulou is considered an expert among her friends who call her whenever they need her to say the special prayer that removes the eye.
She explained the evil eye in the USA Today report, “You might see someone passing in the street and think ‘What a nice coat’ or ‘Her shoes are wonderful,’ a villager might note admiringly that his neighbor’s cow has birthed two calves. The compliment can be rooted in good intentions, or not. ‘I can say it for a bad reason, because I’m jealous.’”
The envy behind the compliment results in spilling coffee on the nice coat or tripping and a twisted ankle in the new shoes, or the neighbor’s cow stops giving milk. The victim might get a headache or feel sleepy, as USA Today reported.
“My husband laughs because he doesn’t believe it. I have good friends who don’t believe it either,” Stathopoulou said, as reported in USA Today. But she noted, “I think that most people believe it.”
The Greek Orthodox Church considers the mati at odds with Christian beliefs though many within the Church accept the idea of this evil energy circulating, which also explains the popularity in Greece, a highly religious country, as USA Today noted.
“The devil tries to hurt humans using their evil energy,” said Fr. Demetrios Nikou, high priest of the Cathedral of Athens, “but only the Christian cross can provide true protection. Religion-wise, the blue eye does not mean anything. This is a cultural symbol,” as USA Today reported.
The prayer to counteract the effects of the evil eye, is repeated in Greek three times, and ends with the afflicted person’s birth name. There are also rules as to how and when someone can learn the prayer including that a woman must learn it from a man and vice versa, and that it should be said only while the sun is up.
Those with blue or green eyes give and receive the evil eye more readily than those with dark eyes. Young children and babies are especially susceptible to the evil eye, leading some Greek families to use the charm for their babies.
In spite of the popularity of the evil eye belief, there are many who express at least some doubt, including Stathopoulou who told USA Today, “It may be some kind of myth. Maybe it’s something you need to believe in because it makes you feel better.”