Evil Eye Interview with Milagros Torrado, Researcher at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.
13th of January 2011
Dear Mr. McGann,
Thank you very much for your answer and help.
Your book is a very easy and good way of providing young people with knowledge about mythology. I am both interested in Balor and in the Evil Eye tradition, as both are closely linked.
Why did you decide to write about Balor?
The Evil Eye was the second Irish legend I had done as part of Barrington Stoke’s Reloaded series – the first being The Goblin of Tara. The series was aimed at retelling legends from different countries for reluctant teenage readers, most of whom would be boys. So I wanted a story that would offer some creepy characters, a moody atmosphere and a good dose of violence. The Balor legend certainly does that. It was also a tale that had captured my imagination when I was a kid, and had stuck with me as I heard different versions of it, so when it came to choosing a legend to tell, it immediately came to mind.
Is Balor of the Evil Eye a well-known character nowadays?
Not as well as some in Irish mythology. There would definitely still be an awareness of him in Ireland – though much less in the UK. Children learn a little about mythology in primary school in Ireland; there is a strong tradition of storytelling in our culture. But modern storytelling methods have taken over from oral traditions, and the Irish legends have suffered as a result. Many of the storybooks of Irish legends are badly written for a modern audience, or poorly produced. What is interesting is the number of characters the legend has inspired. From Gort in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ to Superman’s heat vision and Cyclops’s eye beams in ‘X-Men’, the idea of eyes emitting destructive beams arises again and again in modern culture.
Do you think that nowadays Irish society needs to know more about Irish mythology?
I think every society needs to keep in touch with its roots, and mythology is a vital part of that. Perhaps because the Irish had to fight so hard for independence, we have always placed a high value on our culture, even though it has transformed as we developed. But with so much entertainment available to our kids, and with storytelling developed to such a high level in so many ways, our legends are beginning to get lost in the noise. These stories have always been adapted and told in new ways, as each storyteller passed them on, so to save them, and make sure they stay as thrilling to modern audiences as they were to our ancestors, we have to apply modern storytelling techniques – exploring the motives of the characters, introducing more moments of suspense, adding twists and reinforcing the plot with decent research. That’s what I hoped to achieve with The Goblin of Tara and The Evil Eye. We need these stories to help us remember where we came from, but we have to keep refreshing them, so that they keep on entertaining, and don’t just become the subject of research for a few passionate scholars.
Much of the information you provide in your book can be found in "Lebor Gabala", did you take it as a reference or does your knowledge about Balor come from stories you were told by the elder or other people around you?
I wouldn’t have referenced any one version of ‘Lebor Gabala’ (or Leabhar Gabhála Éireann) directly, the bare bones of the story came from various versions of the story that I had heard as a kid. When I decided to take a look at it with a view to doing a book, I went looking for as many references as I could. I must have read at least a dozen versions of the story, as well as sourcing information on the individual characters, from reference books such as ‘Celtic Mythology’ by Proinsias MacCana, and ‘A Guide to Irish Mythology’ by Daragh Smyth, and storybooks such as Jim Fitzpatrick’s beautifully illustrated version of ‘The Book of Conquests’ (which might be at least partly drawn from Leabhar Gabhála Éireann). I found any number of versions on the web too; www.shee-eire.com was very useful, and seems to be well-sourced. I also sought out reference material on the original Irish races, to give the stories a bit of grounding.
More specifically about the evil eye belief:
Do you considered that the belief in the evil eye is still present in nowadays Ireland?
The idea that someone can curse or damage you with a look has passed on, except perhaps for someone who is both very old and very superstitious. But the phrase ‘to give someone the evil eye’ is still very common, though many people might not know where it came from. I think the term to give someone a ‘baleful’ look might come from the Balor legend.
How would you describe the evil eye tradition?
I think the idea of destroying someone with a look is something that has been around ever since humans began believing in magic. The Balor legend is the epic version of that, but it would have evolved into a more ‘grounded’ belief that a witch, faerie or sorceror could curse you with a look. Now it is embedded in our language as a term for glaring at someone with a look of hatred or malice. Like so many references to magical powers, I think it’s an expression that attempts to assign a tangible quality to a powerful emotion.
Who is believed to have its power?
In Irish legend, the ability to destroy with a look is ascribed mainly to Balor – and there seem to be a lot of parallels in other mythology; Medusa, for instance. I often wonder how much early culture’s legends had on seeding each other’s legends. But in Irish culture, there is also a strong thread of belief in a faerie race, a magical, musical folk who come from a land where time does not pass, so you don’t grow old. The people of this world had a range of unearthly powers, including the ability to cast curses. Even when my parents were young, there would have been people – particularly women, and particularly in the countryside – whom the superstitious claimed to have the evil eye, and much prayer was needed to stave off bad luck if you incurred their wrath, or even drew their attention. As with most negative things in a Catholic country, this kind of evil eye was often associated with the devil.
Do you know any charm or amulet which is still in use to counteract the effects of an evil eye?
In Irish mythology, just about anything could be imbued with magical powers. I can’t think of any protective charms in Irish culture that haven’t been usurped by the Christian religion, or haven’t come from Christian symbols. The cross – including the mock-gesture of making it with your index fingers against someone giving you a nasty look – is the most common protective symbol now.
Are there in Ireland other names to refer to this superstition?
In Donegal, particularly on Tory Island, home of Balor, it is known as ‘Súil Balor’ which, in Irish, literally means ‘Balor’s Eye’.
Thank you again for your help.
My pleasure, hope it’s been useful. Oisín.