Malta Diary; Speak, see and hear no evil – but how superstitious are we really – is it inculcated in the Mediterranean character?ta Diary;
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My younger brother Edward was aged about four at the time. Unlike me, with my dark hair and dark eyes, he had a head of silvery-golden hair and his eyes were a dreamy light blue.
We were out on a stroll with my dear late mother Pauline when she stopped to talk to a lady acquaintance. The lady looked at my brother and said “What beautiful eyes he has”.
A few days later Edward started complaining of vision problems and it was noticeable his eyes were crossing each other. A visit to the optician confirmed he had what is medically termed as “a lazy eye”. Spectacles were ordered and he has had to wear them ever since.
Nothing but nothing would convince my mother otherwise than that her acquaintance had put a curse on Edward by remarking on his “beautiful eyes” – a belief she carried to her grave scores of years later. That is, a curse out of envy and jealousy.
Some years back a Maltese historian – Yanika Schembri Fava – carried out research on the extent to which the Maltese believe in curses and the banishment of evil spirits. She not only went through literary works and came across whole volumes of poetry about curses and the evil eye, but also studied this phenomenon throughout Maltese towns and villages.
She concluded that when we speak about a curse it is when a person, for some reason or another, either out of anger or envy, wishes to put a curse on someone else.
The power of the curse and the exercise of evil is common throughout the Mediterranean region and was widespread in the Maltese Islands throughout the centuries and as far back as pre-Roman times. Indeed, there was a time when everybody believed in the power of a curse, perhaps less so nowadays with a high proportion of sceptics – that is, until some misfortune befalls them!
It was a common belief that there are those who are born with the ability to put curses on others, and indeed there are those who actually still believe this. Others even believe that they are born cursed, living continuously under a black cloud and that everything they touch, instead of turning to gold, turns to dust. But do the Maltese believe in the power of the curse? Yanika Schembri Fava, who has researched this subject, says yes.
“From my research it emerges that there is full belief in the curse, although perhaps in poetry one doesn’t find it anymore, but in general people still believe that there are those who can put a curse on others, and many still believe in the evil eye and making the sign of the horn to ward off evil is still very popular”
In the past, many used to come out with a litany of advice on how to ward off the evil eye with many superstitions that this used to bring about a curse.
“Cleansing” one’s home against the evil eye was more popular in the past, with people using rock salt, garlic cloves as well as olive oil and olive leaves – which are mixed in a pan and set on fire together with a piece of clothing belonging to the person who is thought to have put the curse on them. At the Inquisitors’ Palace there are ancient verses even in Arabic about the power of the curse and the evil eye.
It is still an annual practice that a priest from the parish visits all the homes of residents to accord an annual blessing which also acts as protection against the penetration of evil spirits.
Such superstitions were already being felt from the time of the Roman Inquisition. Protecting oneself from being cursed was a daily necessity among the common people.
As weird as it may seem the evil eye (L-Ghajn) is commonly accepted as ‘a fact’ – even by the Church (according to some). The common belief is that a person can place a curse on you just by looking your way. In Malta (and in Italy) it is believed that making the sign of the Qrun (direct translation is a bull’s horn) will deflect such evil. The Qrun is done when you point your index finger and your little finger, and it is considered permissible to do such a sign behind your back to ward off any evil.
Putting a line of salt on the floor behind your front door will prevent the evil eye from entering your house. If you feel your house does have negative energies, you can cleanse it by burning olive tree leaves at midnight on Easter while reciting prayers.
To prevent others from cursing you there are other precautionary measures such as spitting on your hair before throwing it away.
All fishermen invariably have an eye painted on both sides of the prow of their boats, looking down into the sea to ward off the evils below the water.
When someone died, it was common for relatives to cover all the mirrors in their house with a black cloth as a sign of respect: looking in the mirror was considered to be a sign of vanity and disrespectful of the deceased. Another tradition was that of removing handles from the front door when someone passes away. These aso used to be removed on Good Friday and the front door adorned with black cloth.
On a happier note, whenever there is a marriage in the family or a new baby is born, it is custom to hang a coloured ribbon on the front door’s handle. White is for marriage, pink is for a baby girl and blue for a baby boy. This is a very sweet tradition but unfortunately it’s slowly disappearing from custom too – although still used.
It is highly noticeable too that football players from Mediterranean countries and others of the Roman Catholic religion make the Sign of the Cross several times when entering or leaving the pitch while Muslim players extend their palms skyward at hip level while looking up to thank Allah. This is all to show their gratitude and thanksgiving for having played well and having avoided injury.
“How better off we were when we thought at the time we couldn’t be worse off”
Self-explanatory – remembering the “good old days”.