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Haunted by the Evil Eye? Grab the nearest phallus!

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Number Seven in the monthly Uppity Women Wednesday Series, started in April, 2014.

Fightin' the fascinatin' evil eye

Two thousand years ago, Greek and Roman folks shared an obsessive fear of the demonic power of the human eye. They called it "fascination." And what tool did they think was potent enough to ward off the evil eye? The fascinus, which was their everyday word for the human penis.

Ancient phallic evil-eye averter/good luck symbol, translation: “Here lives happiness,” collection of the Bible open air museum in Nijmegen.
(Image by Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 , via wiki)
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Why was the male sex organ the ancient "solution"? And why did they agonize so much over a surly glance cast their way? I'll tell you - we don't know. We do know they had plenty of genuine worries already: rabid dogs, wars, famine, infection, plagues, pirates, the scary risks of childbirth. Still, they stressed out even more about supernatural matters like oculus fascinus, "the unlucky glance that poisons."

Your average Greek in the street (and his leaders as well) believed that the unaided human eye could inflict injuries or death on animals, humans, vegetation, and even inanimate objects. To cope, they carried out evil-eye fumigation ceremonies, arcane rituals, and "protective" measures year-round, especially in October and November.

Bas-relief of a legged phallus ejaculating into an evil eye on which a scorpion sits, from Leptis Magna
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Babies were given "protective" teething rings made of coral that had been carved into anatomically correct penile shapes. Since children of all ages were thought to be more susceptible to evil-eye fatalities, they wore these little fascinums of bronze or gold around their necks 24/7. Some of these phalluses had eyes and/or wings to make them even more vigilant! Adults also wore evil-eye charms on their clothing as well as their vehicles, from carts to chariots. Folks of old also added phallic protection to doorways, workplaces, and the family hearth.

Other high-risk targets for "fascination" included baby animals, new brides, generals celebrating military triumphs, and field crops. One of the earliest Roman laws ever passed sought to protect crops from "the enchantment of the fields."

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Evil-eye-defeating phalluses still fill museums and ancient sites from Pompeii to Delphi, and continue to shock and awe tourists today. As a result, these visitors tend to read more into the sex lives of the ancients than was probably the case.

Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. The eye is pierced by a trident and sword, pecked by a raven, barked at by a dog and attacked by a centipede, scorpion, cat and a snake. A horned dwarf with a gigantic phallus crosses two sticks. Greek a
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Other ancient amulets aimed at thwarting the evil eye also exist today in vast quantities, and are often shaped like animal horns, frogs, or crickets. As any traveler knows, today's favorite is the blue-eye glass bead, still found (and worn) everywhere in Greece, Turkey, and other countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

Nazars, charms used to ward off the Evil Eye.
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Vampire chicks and equal opportunity bogeywomen

Since they were so fascinated with fascination, did the Greeks and Romans also believe in ghosts? What about our own fascination with monsters, ogres, and the undead? Are there any parallels in their era?

Collage using detail of Medusa by Caravaggio (1595–1596)
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Uppity women will be pleased to hear that the Greeks pioneered a supernatural first: bogey women. Garnering top fears among adults was the snaky-haired Medusa, one of the ancient Gorgones trio. Her fangs and face were so hideous that the Greeks put her leering mug on their shields, hoping to turn enemy soldiers into stone, or at least unman them. Medusa's image was also popular on amulets to ward off the evil eye, another high-polling fear among the Greeks.

Collage using Creative commons photo by Sailko of Medusa carving
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Everyone also paid reverence to Hecate, the night terrors queen of the phantom world who hung out at crossroads and intersections. This ancient crone goddess was present whenever souls entered or left their bodies, so Greeks young and old were phobic about new births and deathbeds and they even swore legal oaths in her name.

Collaged image using Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse
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Hecate had three henchwomen: Lamia, Mormo, and Empusa, who were responsible for most of the everyday, everynight skullduggery in terms of haunting, flesh-eating, blood-sucking, and so forth.

Lamia claimed title to being the quintessential bogeywoman, a giant shark-like ogre who stole children and ate them. Greek parents often threatened naughty kids with a visit from Lamia.

Her sister Mormo, a bloodsucking monster, also served as a deterrent for Roman parents, who dropped Mormo's name to terrify their misbehaving children.

Empusa, a voracious vampire who sported one leg of brass and the other of a donkey, often took on the shape of a woman in order to quench her thirst.

Collage using public domain clip art
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One tale about her involved Menippus, a 25-year-old male student of the famed philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. As Menippus headed for school on a lonely Greek road outside Corinth, a dainty woman with exotic looks intercepted him, professed her love, and invited him to her home nearby. "I'll sing, there'll be wine--you'll be the only guy there," she enticed. Ditching his studies, Menippus kept the date; after a rapturous evening, the two became an item.

At length Menippus' philosophical guru, noticing the pale, baggy-eyed state of his pupil, warned him about the girl, throwing broad hints about the high failure rate among vampire marriages. Being in the throes of young lust, however, Menippus went ahead with plans to tie the knot.

Philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, teacher of Menippus
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At the breakfast before the wedding, a worried Apollonius showed up, determined to carry out an Empusa intervention. Once he started challenging the reality of the golden goblets on the table and the servants serving the meal, sure enough, they began fluttering away, like bats in a bad Bela Lugosi movie. Empusa finally admitted she had the love-sick Menippus on a high-carb regimen in order to devour his body--and not in an X-rated way. As she put it, "My delicate constitution requires a strict diet of pure-blooded young hunks."

Harpies from Hell

Evidently, the ancient Greeks could not get enough of scary female spirits of one sort or another. Way back in the poet Homer's day, he wrote about harpies, mythological winged maidens who would swoop down and snatch away mortals. Thanks to his gifted imagination, all unknowingly Homer had created a dandy way to account for the mysterious disappearance of husbands.

(Image by Sergei Panasenko-Mikhalkin, Creative Commons)
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Later writers, such as the Greek playwright Aeschylus, amped up the horror factor of harpies. He and others described them as bird monsters with sharp talons, bare breasts, and human faces who tormented evildoers and stole their food, leaving a disgusting smell in its place. Harpy mythology has had real staying power. A favorite subject for writers and artists during the Middle Ages, they continue to be popular in modern times, especially as a term of derision.

Phineus and the Harpies by Willy Pogany, illustration for The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, by Padraic Colum
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Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters B.C.

One question has haunted humankind for millennia: what does a restless ghost need to achieve peace? The Greeks thought they had the answer: the art of necromancy. By it, they meant learning secrets from the dead, although nowadays the term is more loosely tossed around as black magic involving ghosts or demons.

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A few incantations and some magic rites were all it took for necromancers to provide answers to worried clients, such as Roman Emperor Nero. In AD 59, after he had murdered his mom Agrippina, then discarded the evidence with an appalling lack of religious ceremony, he found himself suddenly guilt-ridden. Just couldn't get a decent night's sleep. Finally, to put a stop to the spectral maternal harassment, he hired a ghostbuster to summon her shade and appease her. The necromancy was successful; Nero went on to years of further abominations and slaughters without a single pang.

Remorse of a murderous son (detail of painting by Bouguereau, The Remorse of Orestes (1862)
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Home cookin' to die for

Beyond Necromancy 101 were supernatural feats that required a lot more legwork. The ancient Greco-Roman recipe for reanimation, for example. Long to bring a favorite corpse back to life for a chat? First assemble your ingredients, including the foam of a rabid dog, the hump of a hyena, and some fresh blood. Stir well and pump the mixture into the corpse while gently reinserting the soul. You'll make Betty Crocker proud.

Both the Greeks and the Romans had regularly scheduled appeasement festivals to keep ghosts at bay. In May they held the Lemuria, more of an exorcism than a joyous time to remember dear old granny. During Lemuria, each household appeased the really hostile and spiteful ghosts called lemures and larvae. At midnight on the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May, the male head of each house conducted a ghost-busting ritual. Barefoot, he moved through the house, spitting out a series of nine black beans as he went, without looking behind himself. These solemn duties required good hand-eye coordination. The guy had to simultaneously spit and gesture and call out, "With these I redeem me and mine!" Once the master of the house had made the circuit, he did a quick handwash, some loud banging on brass pots, and a final "Spirits of my ancestors, get lost!" and he was through for that night.

The Greeks celebrated parallel rites, the main one called Anthestheria, when ghosts from the underworld entered the city of Athens. During the festival, the ghosts got a meal of mixed grains and then had to be chased out. To protect themselves against excessive haunting, Athenians put pitch over their doors and chewed hawthorn leaves.

But these festivals were merely the special occasions for ghost appeasement. On a more routine basis, survivors took great care to attend to their family shades, beloved or not. Apparitions back then were considered divine, and thus were more demanding than modern spirits.

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Whether cremated or buried, the newly dead required immediate transfusions of food and drink. For that reason, the Romans in particular made sure that graves and sepulchres had built-in pipes or slots into which wine, milk, and even edible solids could be poured. Or stuffed. (Pizza delivery cost extra, of course.) During October and November, the divine ghosts required special treats: graveside lanterns, garlands, flowers, wine and other beverages. Believe it or not, the Romans even served up Bubba-style BBQ to their deceased.

After two millennia of evolution--has anything changed?

How far have we come from those Greek and Roman beliefs and superstitions, a couple of millennia later? Instead of myths and appeasement ceremonies, we've elevated ghosts, vampires, and bloodsuckers of every gender to celebrity and Hollywood box office success on screens of every size. Furthermore, if San Francisco parades are any indication, we have yet to shake off our phasination with phalluses.

Penis costume at a 2005 parade in San Francisco
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These stories were originally published in Vicki Leon's nonfiction book, How to Mellify a Corpse. This book and her other recent titles are available for free sampling and purchase at Author Leon also originated the Uppity Women in History series, her latest being 4000 Years of Uppity Women.

Managing Editor Meryl Ann Butler contributed to this article.

Two "Uppity Women" articles by Butler:

Uppity Women in History/Herstory: Interview with Author Vicki Leon

Announcing Uppity Women Wednesdays at OEN - with Two Revolutionary Matriots


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Vicki Leon, author of over 35 nonfiction books on women's history, ancient history, and travel, along with pictorial books for younger readers on wildlife and earth's fragile habitats, lives on the California coast but often returns to her favorite (more...)

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