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  • The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  • Joanne Findon

Joanne Findon, Jacqueline Borsje, medieval magic, medieval Ireland, curses, evil eye, Irish mythology

Jacqueline Borsje. The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland. Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion 2. Leuven: Peeters, 2012. Pp. 387.

This collection brings together Borsje’s previously published essays on the evil eye and related motifs in medieval Irish literature. These articles have been revised and updated for this volume, which also includes an edition by Fergus Kelly of a legal text on the evil eye. In order to appeal to a wider audience, English translations of two central medieval Irish texts that feature one-eyed beings, Cath Maige Tuired and Togail Bruidne Da Derga, are included in the appendices.

In Chapter 1, Borsje situates her study within the larger mythological landscape of early Europe. Beliefs in the power of the eye to cause harm are found in a variety of cultures and their texts, including Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. So too are notions about how the noxious effects of the evil eye can be counteracted through performing certain gestures, wearing protective amulets, or pronouncing a blessing. Notably, Borsje’s work on the evil eye evolved out of her study of the concept of fate in medieval Irish texts and its frequent connections with “ominous characters with only one eye or otherwise remarkable or abnormal eyes” (2). “Asymmetry” (for instance, being one-eyed) seems often to have been associated with supernatural powers (119). In early Irish literature, characters with sinister eyes can be male or female. In Cath Maige Tuired, Balor’s eye, infected by druidic poison, is a weapon of destruction on the battlefield. Women can also cast an evil eye, often in situations other than battle; for instance, Cailb in Togail Bruidne Da Derga is said to bewitch or cast an evil eye on the king (34), an action that appears to confirm his doom. The evil eye can also be used by those motivated by envy to harm cattle or their produce. This connection between the evil eye and envy is perhaps rooted in the Latin verb invideo, “ ‘to look maliciously or spitefully at, to cast an evil eye upon’ “ which can also mean “ ‘to envy or grudge’ “ (55). How these beliefs and motifs intersect in early Irish literature is the focus of Borsje’s discussion.

Chapter 2 explores the legal context of the evil eye in Ireland, focusing on [End Page 244] an Old Irish legal fragment and its Middle Irish commentary (an edition by Fergus Kelly appears in Appendix I). This evidence is difficult to assess and interpret because the taboo subject was deliberately couched in ambiguous language. The law concerns a type of theft that seems to involve bewitching cattle through casting the evil eye, for the purpose of stealing dairy produce (such as “stealing the milk” from the cow, either in the failure of the milk to churn into butter, or in the cow’s milk drying up altogether). The assumption here is that a cow’s ability to produce has been interfered with by some supernatural force (a belief widely attested in later folklore). Since in medieval Ireland dairy products formed an important part of the diet, spoiled or lost milk would seriously affect the well-being of a household (77). The legal penalties for such “theft” vary depending on the level of intentionality; if the person gazing also pronounces a blessing on the object of the gaze, there is no penalty, but if the person gazing is known to bewitch people or animals or doesn’t pronounce a blessing, then he or she must pay a fine (which varies with the circumstances). The connections between the evil eye and envy are clear here, whether the object of harm is a neighbor or an ex-spouse (Kelly suggests that this fragment may have been part of a treatise on marriage and divorce).

Chapter 3 looks more broadly at the connections between the evil eye and the motif of being one-eyed. Although Irish supernatural beings are usually depicted as beautiful and...


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