Kako mati (Greece)

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Kako mati 🇬🇷
Greece map.png
Location: Greece
Definition: Belief that everyday visual and verbal communication can cause people to suffer symptoms of illness that can be removed by performing a ritual healing
Keywords: Greece Europe EU Balkans Mediterranean Occult Healthcare Religion Orthodox Christianity Gender Patriarchy Ritual
Clusters: Lock-in effect Community lock-in
Author: Eugenia Roussou
Affiliation: Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA/ ISCTE-IUL), Lisbon, Portugal

By Eugenia Roussou, Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA/ ISCTE-IUL), Lisbon, Portugal

Kako mati (κακό μάτι) is the Greek sociocultural version of the belief widely known around the world as the ‘evil eye,’ which is popular in Mediterranean countries as well as in the Middle East (Maloney 1976; Galt 1982; Dandes 1992 [1981]; Veikou 1998: 71-80). Its practice is directly connected with Orthodox Christianity, the ‘prevailing religion’ of Greece (Alivizatos 1999: 25; Molokotos-Liederman 2004: 404-5). Kako mati occupies a central cultural space in the context of Greek ‘vernacular religion’ (Primiano 1995; Bowman and Valk 2012), since it is practised informally, in the context of everyday social and religious life. At the same time, it may be considered as a tool for negotiating informal social interactions, social status, gender and power.

Kako mati is based on the belief that, when an individual feels jealous of another person, s/he can cast a negative gaze on, or gossip about, that person, and can subsequently transmit negative emotions that may cause the latter to fall ill. These exchanges are believed to occur through direct visual communication, when people informally interact in the street, or via indirect verbal communication, that is, gossip or, according to the Greek term, glossofagia, which literally means ‘being eaten by the tongue.’ For example, those who are beautiful, enjoy high social status, own many material goods, or generally stand out from the crowd in one way or another, are most likely to attract evil gazes and evil tongues. Babies are considered to be especially susceptible to kako mati, as are small children, animals and plants.

A lay healer performing ksematiasma in northern Greece. Photo by author. © Eugenia Roussou.

According to one of the most popular socio-scientific explanations, giving someone the evil eye functions as a form of social control: whoever has higher social status or exhibits elements of difference compared to the rest of their social surroundings is likely to be symbolically punished by the community (Veikou 1998). Such an explanation is usually based on the stereotype according to which kako mati is principally encountered in Greek villages, where the sense of ‘community’ is tight, as is the need to maintain informal social equality within it. In addition to its popularity in rural communities, kako mati also plays an active role in Greek discourse and everyday practice in urban social settings, being considered an everyday means of informal sensory interaction and energy-exchange that leads to symptoms of bodily illness.

When someone is affected by kako mati, s/he becomes physically ill, experiencing symptoms such as headache, upset stomach, dizziness and bodily weakness. These symptoms need to be treated through specific healing rituals, which draw on religious symbolism and are performed predominantly by female lay healers. According to the most popular Greek ritual performance against kako mati (ksematiasma), the lay healer uses a small coffee-cup filled with water, dips her fingertip into oil (usually taken from the oil lamp in the household’s icon stand) and, while reciting an Orthodox Christian prayer, drops oil into the water. If the person is evil-eyed, the oil drops directly to the bottom of the cup and dissolves; if not, it stays on the surface. She repeats the process until the oil begins to stay on the surface of the water, which is seen as a signal that kako mati has been removed. She then crosses the evil-eyed person’s forehead with the water-oil mix and gives him/her to drink from the water-oil solution three times, in the name of Holy Trinity. The rest is thrown inside a flowerpot or onto the ground since the water, having been sacralised, may not be treated as normal waste.

Kako mati and its ritual healing create a symbolic and actual conflict between informal religious belief and the official discourse of the Orthodox Christian Church and its priests. According to the Greek Orthodox Church, the only legitimate term to describe belief in the evil eye is vaskania: a word derived from the ancient Greek verb vaskaino, which means ‘to look at someone with envy.’ The Church, its priests and its religious devotees perceive the process of being evil-eyed as an act of the Devil that possesses individuals who in turn cast envious evil gazes on others and make them evil-eyed. It follows that the only way to get rid of vaskania is for a priest to perform an exorcism on the evil-eyed person, usually in the form of reading certain prayers against the evil power of the Devil. Through the negation of the existence of kako mati and the refusal of the efficacy of ksematiasma, the Greek Orthodox Church and its priests formally (re)claim their sociocultural and religious authority, which is challenged significantly by the informal religious and healing power of the lay healers. It is also a matter of gender power-struggle: the male authority of the Orthodox priest is defied by the female lay healer who, through her evil-eye ritual empowerment, renegotiates the ownership of religious power in the Greek sociocultural context; she thereby acquires a far more active role of spiritual empowerment in the male-oriented Greek Orthodoxy, where a woman’s spiritual role continues to be regarded as inferior to that of the male priest (Roussou 2013a).

A material and spiritual synthesis. Photo by author. © Eugenia Roussou.

In practice, kako mati and vaskania share ritualism, sacredness and performative engagement (Stewart 1991) and, above all, a common goal: the expulsion of the evil-eye effects. At the informal level of everyday performance, the distinction between an evil-eye healer (ksematiastra) and a priest, and between lay and doctrinal interpretations of religious practice, collapses. Most lay evil-eye healers are Orthodox believers and almost always recite Orthodox Christian prayers and use Orthodox symbolism in ksematiasma, interpreting the Orthodox doctrine in their own creative ways. Furthermore, there are many priests who recognise informally the power of female evil-eye healers and even ask to have a ksematiasma performed by them, thereby accepting, even if unofficially, their spiritual authority.

Along with the process of giving, receiving and healing, another important aspect of kako mati is the various material objects used as protective amulets against it. These are usually blue beads that represent an eye. They are believed to act as a prophylactic mirror that reflects back the negative energy of the evil-eye giver. (According to popular belief, it is blue-eyed individuals who are most likely to transmit the evil eye through their powerful gaze.) In recent years, and due to globalised spiritual trends such as the so-called ‘New Age’ spiritual movement (Heelas 1996), the usual evil-eye amulets are worn and/or placed together with Orthodox (crosses and religious icons) and ‘New Age’ ones (mainly Chinese feng shui good-luck charms, crystals, Eastern spiritual figures etc.), so as to offer protection against kako mati, the Devil, and all other types of evil energy. This creative and novel use of evil eye material objects represents a more general and crucial change that has happened recently in the field of Greek religiosity, where religious pluralism and an amalgamation of Orthodox and ‘New Age’ discourses, practices and concepts can be observed in the informal everyday exchange and practice of kako mati (Roussou 2013b).

References

Alivizatos, N. 1999. ‘A New Role for the Greek Church?’ Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 17: 23-40

Bowman, M. and Ü. Valk (eds). 2012. Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief. London and New York: Routledge

Dundes, A. (ed.) 1992 [1981]. The Evil Eye: A Casebook. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press

Galt, A. 1982. ‘The evil eye as a synthetic image and its meanings on the Island of Pantelleria, Italy’, American Ethnologist, 9: 664-681

Heelas, P. 1996. The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell

Maloney, C. (ed.). 1976. The Evil Eye. New York: Columbia University Press

Molokotos-Liederman, L. 2004. ‘Sacred Words, Profane Music? The Free Monks as a Musical Phenomenon in Contemporary Greek Orthodoxy’, Sociology of Religion, 65 (4): 403-416

Primiano, L. 1995. ‘Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife’, Western Folklore, 54 (1): 37-56

Roussou, E. 2013a. ‘Spirituality within Religion: Gendered Responses to a Greek “spiritual revolution”’, in A. Fedele and K. Knibbe (eds), Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. London: Routledge: 46-61

Roussou, E. 2013b. ‘The New Age of Greek Orthodoxy: pluralizing religiosity in everyday practice’, in J. Mapril and R. Blanes (eds), The Best of All Gods: Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe. Leiden: Brill: 73-92

Stewart, C. 1991. Demons and the devil: moral imagination in modern Greek culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Veikou, C. 1998. To Kako Mati: I kinoniki kataskevi tis Optikis Epikoinonias. Athens: Ellinika Grammata