The Evil Eye and Mountain Karma

In the new-country experience, visual culture is the easiest to consume - and also the easiest to misunderstand. The deep underlying motivations for displays, and the historical dependence of art and otherwise are unknown to the traveler. The foreign gaze has no bearings, no context, and limited emotional weight to add to what they see. One of these obvious artifacts that pops out to the Baku tourist is the Göz Muncuğu or Nazar Boncuğu ("eye bead" or "evil eye amulet"). It is a beautiful deep blue circle or oval with a black, light blue or yellow "eye" that adorns amulets, bracelets, shopping bags and the rear-view mirrors of taxis and marshrutkas - and likely of Mediterranean origin. It is one of many charms, talismans and rituals said to detract or remove the misfortunes caused by the "evil eye." Seems straightforward. Swing through İçəri Şəhər(lit: Inner City, but commonly called Old City) and most of the vendors will have Göz Muncuğu on a variety of items; heck, you can even grab your very own Evil Eye Charm from! But, of course, the thrill of exploration is peering into the inner-workings of new places and attempting to grasp the "whys" to all the "whats" we encounter.

The "evil eye" is a widespread and variable feature of a great many cultures in the world. Despite my own fascination with cultural comparison, there is only so much I can cram into a thousand words. To put it short and cliche: this will be the "tippy-tip" of the iceberg. I'll do my best. It's also important to say that, in Azerbaijan, the evil eye is ubiquitous in the sense that nearly everyone I talked with had something to say. However, the level of devotion to the idea varied from: absolutely not, to I don't know, to maybe, to absolutely yes - and a lot of sentences were started with "they say that..."

I found the nature of the "evil eye," difficult to fully grasp - not quite demon-spirit or witchcraft, not deriving from a centralized evil, not wholly intentional or predictable. In my discussions, most disagreed over whether a person was born with the evil eye, or whether it was an acquired trait. Some considered it more superstitious, and others more religious, but God (Allah) was definitely somehow involved.  Interestingly, not all envy causes the evil eye, and once a person "has" the power to cause bad luck it would not leave them - most won't even know they "have" it  (unless they notice misfortune following in their wake). Contrary to my first assumption, the evil eye is not always fueled by the malicious intention of the carrier. One of my friends recanted a news story of an old lady who avoided "beautiful things" all together as she believe so strongly that she was "cursed."

In short, purchasing new things or having a happy event brings a threat: a carrier of the evil eye might look on the happy person or family with jealousy, causing bad luck.

The belief in the evil eye potentially creates the opposite of "conspicuous consumption," which is when someone buys items to make people envious. Those who fear the repercussions of envy - vis a vie the evil eye - will tend to present themselves as more modest and eschew flashy attire, cars or homes. Thus, some economists would argue, belief in the evil eye has the potential to "harm" economic growth by discouraging investment. In a working paper, Boris Gershman at Brown University, argues that the evil eye belief is higher in societies with persistent high inequality and low tolerance for inequality - making the envious more like to act out against the wealthy. The paper goes on to posit "this superstition emerged as a rule of thumb approximating rational envy-avoidance behavior."

However, this assumes (like most economics articles) a very narrow view of the "rational" human: people will always, and only want more. Stopping at this conclusion overlooks the possibility that one reason the evil eye is propagated is because it causes modesty. That is, it assumes people are jealous, and sets aside the possibility that people might want modesty. Granted, there are many people who do purchase luxury sedans, and have large, elaborate entrance gates leading to equally extravagant houses, and, on the other hand, there are many critics of the wealthy classes, and inequality in Azerbaijan, in general. Despite relegating concepts like the evil eye to "superstition," these traditions are very much connected both to how the (modern) world works, and also how people feel the world ought to work.

A lighthearted personal example: Mountain Karma. Now, I'm almost certain I invented this idea (and a quick consultation of the oracle Google shows few contenders). Basically, if those who would venture into the mountains are arrogant, they will pay the price of their arrogance. The mountain will humble them. I began my tiny devotion to Mountain Karma when, for my 21st birthday, I decided to climb the tallest mountain in Montana, while still a very green mountaineer. My arrogance: I decided to continue on without my climbing partner on the final push to the summit (something I have vowed to never do again). My just retribution: we forgot some of my gear at the saddle, I returned a few days later (alone), only to be hit by a cold, wet early fall snowstorm fourteen or fifteen miles into the backcountry - almost causing my early demise.

However, part of the reason the idea of mountain karma is appealing is because it makes "earning the summit" necessary. Those who cut corners, who are arrogant, who buy their way to the top, who disrespect or try to "conquer" peaks are "punished" by the indifferent mountain. The idea is connected both to how the world works (bad things might happen on mountains) and also how I think the world ought to work (people should respect the mountain and the people surrounding it, and the culture of climbing).

In Azerbaijan, there are a range of activities and talismans used so that "Göz dəyməsin!" (lit: the (evil) eye will not touch). You can burn some "Uzərlik" seeds (known as "Harmal" and considered an invasive species in my home state of Montana), or you can hang some "Dəvə Tikanı" (Camel's Needle) at the entryway, or in the rear-view mirror. Occasionally, builders will hang a bundle from the frame of a new home. Most people will tie red ribbon to their doorways, windshield wipers or elsewhere when happy events occur in the family - especially weddings and new births. Many of the talismans are brightly colored and elaborate so as to draw the gaze of the evil eye away from the family, and to the object. If, for instance, the Eye Bead were to break, it means that it deflected the evil eye. After receiving many compliments a person (often a new child) is particular vulnerable, those giving compliments will add "Maşallah" - an Arabic phrase meaning "God has willed it." It is also possible for the person receiving flattery to even things out by doing something disgusting, such as scratching one's buttocks! These examples, and the explanations that people provide, hint at a sense of balance that is ultimately woven into the notion of time and the future.

Outside of the specifics, the evil eye also offers one explanation for a truth of life: that rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Explanations for why good people experience hardship is called "theodicy" for those who believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God, and "sociodicy" for those who believe science can solve man's problems. They often take the shape of quips, and shorthands which account for the contradiction of human suffering. The largely imperceptible nature of the evil eye, and its unpredictability offers such an explanation.

A small evil eye bead, read for use. Baku, Azerbaijan.

While I was leaving a friends house, still in my socks, I stepped in something cold and instinctively reached down to check what it was. To my surprise and the amusement of my hosts, it was chicken poop. While washing, my friend's mother said I would be rich now. This is a common reply when something unfortunate happens. I chuckled, but this saying gets at something profound - about how some people in Azerbaijan feel the world works, or ought to work. Bad things happen, but all in all, the universe is just and will balance things out - one way or another. Since stepping in poop sucks, the spirit in the sky must have something nice in store for me.


Dustin Stoltz is a wanderer, researcher, and mountain and craftbeer lover. He is trying to improve his writing. To learn more about Dustin, visit the appropriately titled About Dustin section.