Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Curse of the Eye

"Mal de Ojo" -  "The Curse of the Eye" or "The Evil Eye"

I guess to start, I should explain that the title of this post is a translation - an exaggerated translation - of a phrase in Spanish is very difficult into English, primarily because the idea is so foreign to English-speaking cultures.

Let me start with a story.  One day, a month or two after my first son was born, we went to visit her cousin. My wife went upstairs immediately to use the washroom, and her cousin noticed that the baby was fussing.

"I think he got hot in the street.  Do you clean him?" she asked as I tried to calm the baby down.

"Well, yes," I explained, thinking that I understood the question. "At least once a day, and sometimes more often when it's really hot."

"Do you clean him?"

"Usually my wife does," I continued.  "Sometimes I just take him into the shower."

"No - that's not what I mean.  Do you clean him - I mean, with an egg?"

I obviously looked confused, so she explained.  "Do you clean him from 'mal del ojo,' using an egg?  Sometimes when a baby is in the street, they get 'mal de ojo,' and it heats their blood up.  You have to clean them with an egg to take it away and calm them down."

Now I remembered: "I don't because I don't know how.  I have to get someone else to do it."  I had vaguely heard of the idea before

So, she proceeded to take an egg out of her cupboard, rub the baby's body and head with it.  She then cracked it into cup of water, examined the water, and discarded it.  He had calmed down by that point, so, the antidote had worked.

Later, my wife explained in more detail.  From what I understand, "mal del ojo," occurs when somebody sees another person - especially a child - has the desire to touch that child, and refrains from doing so, thus leaving themselves with a sort of anxiety. (In Mexico it is common enough just to touch a child which they think is cute, adorable, etc.  It is also common to touch the belly of a pregnant woman; in both cases, it doesn't matter if you know the other person or not.)  This "anxiety" causes the child that they saw to get "mal de ojo." ("Anxiety" is not the best translation, but the concept as a whole kind of lacks words that work well in English, since we don't have anything like this idea.)

"Mal de ojo" manifests itself - again, from my limited understanding - as kind of a feverish sickness that leaves the child hot, uncomfortable and whiny.  So, when children enter a home off the street, and are hot and cranky, it is almost 100% certain that someone had a desire to touch them, and didn't.  (Personally, I suspect the heat of the Mexican sun, combined with the mountain of blankets that people put on their infants at any time of year has much more to do with it, but what do I know.)  You can usually identify who/when it was, because you remember someone looking at the child.  If the person who "cleanses" the child with an egg is the same person who had the desire to touch them, it works better.  The child can also be cleaned by other methods, including sweaty clothes - I've never actually seen anyone do this, but I've heard and read about it.

When you crack the egg into water, the white leaves a "tail" streaming upwards; this tail contains the "mal" or "evil" from the mishap, indicating that it has been drawn out of the child.  This is what my wife's cousin was looking for.

A bracelet with a "deer's eye" to ward off "mal de ojo"
Apparently, "mal del ojo" can occur with people of other ages as well, but children are far more susceptible, (since it's more common to see a child you think is adorable, I guess.)  This is part of the reason why, in public many people will come and touch your child after they see them and make some comment about how cute they are; sometimes (but not always) they are trying to prevent "mal de ojo."  The other reason is that Mexican people are just a lot more touchy-feely.

You can also protect a child against "mal de ojo" by means of a red bracelet with a seed called a "deer's eye" on it.

I'm not a superstitious person, so I don't believe this really happens.  My wife, who is also not superstitious, generally, was actually convinced by her relatives to buy a bracelet and keep it on our child for a few months.

Many Mexicans, however, don't even see this as a superstition; it's simply a fact of what happens, and how you have to deal with it.  I once brought it up in an English class I was teaching, in which the theme was "superstitions," and several students were surprised that I lumped this together with four-leafed clovers and broken mirrors in credibility; everybody knew about it, much better than me, but no one had named it when we were listing superstitions.  Needless to say, by no means do all Mexicans believe in it.  There are plenty of non-superstitious and skeptical Mexicans.  There is a definite link to social class, but I have come across some surprising exceptions.

On the other hand, who am I say that it's not true?  Maybe in some sense beyond my understanding it actually does happen. Who knows.

Translation notes: The exaggerated translation for the title (together with the Eye of Sauron image from The Lord of the Rings) was meant to catch your attention, but the only other translation I've seen "Evil Eye," normally means something else in English, so I can't really think of a better way to translate it anyway.  The more correct translation for "limpiar" in this case would be "cleanse" and not "clean;" but since it is the same word in Spanish, which caused part of my confusion, I translated it with "clean."

(By the way, the first time I heard about "mal de ojo" I couldn't help but to imagine the Eye of Sauron.  No real connection, just my imagination.)

I don't really have any other posts about superstitions, but I have a few about religion, which is not really related, but something else to read.

(Update Feb 24, 2011: I just put up a post about Saint Death, a similarly wide-spread superstition with an almost cult-like following.  See Saint Death - A Uniquely Mexican (and Strange) Phenomenon)


  1. Several people had told me not to believe in Mal de ojo because you will attract it.

    I'm Mexican and HOW I HATE strangers to come and touch my kids!. Maybe is because although I was raised in Mexico I had my kids in US where is pretty uncommon even for friends to touch some one else kids.

    I was so mad once when I visited my In Laws in Mexico when a friend of one of my sister's in law came to push my little girl cheeks and pat her head and touch her belly. My little girl was 1.5 years back then and she was scare like hell. Because she wasn't used to that either. the woman keep touching her and her hands and her had and..agh.. until I told her clearly " STOP TOUCHING MY BABY!". she looked at me in disbelief.. like if I was crazy. I didn't care I'm just not used and hate the people to do that. AS I just o to Mexico for a 15 days every year I do not care. I haven't seen her again in my life, the lady, btw.

  2. A friend of mine, who is Mexican, also hates it. She was really upset once when some parents wanted HER to cleanse their baby with an egg; they said it her who gave their baby the "eye" because she was the only person who hadn't touched the baby and they didn't know her.

  3. that is the exact bracelet i had as a child and am now looking for one for my son. where did you purchase that bracelet?

  4. niki, I live in Mexico, and in the places I've lived (Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Playa del Carmen) there are lots of shops that sell this sort of thing. That bracelet's not mine, but I actually can't remember in which shop or neighborhood or city my wife bought the one that she used for our son.

  5. Hi Jacob! I didn't know this about "Mal de ojo" usually we know that is something a person throws to somebody they envy or they are mad to. A kind of course, and because this feeling of envy for somebody else happiness grows by seeing it, the envious person send very bad vibes and wishes the happy person not to be any more, to have bad luck, sometimes the envy person wants that thing the happy person has. All because of an eye!

    Anyway, so if "Mal de ojo" means also that a person wants to carry a cutie baby, and it is not allowed to, then I am very glad you guys allowed me once to carry your little baby boy, so I didn't leave any "mal" on him! =o)

  6. That makes sense; after only 4 years of contact with Mexican culture, I'm sure my understanding of "mal de ojo" is far from complete, and not right on the mark.

  7. I had just had the egg trick done on me and i was wondering the white outer part of the yolk was pointing toward the surface of the water. Also the yolk was not a glob but a nice circular shape. What does this all mean?

  8. Supposedly, if the white is going up to the surface of the water, like you said, than you had "mal de ojo" and the egg absorbed it out of you. The "mal de ojo" is in that part of the white pointing toward the surface, from what I understand. Best ask the person who "cleansed" you. I'm far from an expert on these things, and I've never participated in them (only observed.)

  9. Hi im 12 my little brotgers birthday is today he is 1 year old we have tried to clean him with the egg already but is there another way to stop "el mal de ojo" if tgere is please tell me he is on his way to the hospital right now please just let me know a.s.a.p

    1. Brayan - sorry for taking so long to reply. I'm no expert on "mal de ojo" or any other sickness. However, if you are a Catholic family, and your little brother is seriously sick, you can take him to a priest for the sacrament of the sick. Some priests will offer the sacrament for even if the sickness is less serious. (I would suggest this over the "egg cleansing" any day, but as I said, I'm not an expert on either!)

  10. I am Mexican American and I also HATE when strangers come and touch my baby! Just the other day a person was kissing my 1.5 year old's hand and I noticed that the lady had what appeared to be a cold sore that was scabbing. Soooo disgusting and infuriating! Do not touch my baby!

  11. In my family, we put the egg in water and leave it by the person who is ill until they are no longer sick. You then examine the egg. If they had ojo, it's shaped like an eye with the white tail floating upwards.

    I still can't decide if I believe this, but admittedly, I always feel better when my mom cleanses me.