Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ptoo, ptoo, ptoo

Like in many parts of the world, one of the dangers lurking in Greece is the evil eye. Tourists are bombarded with sales pitches and trinkets to protect them from what is advertised as a quaint local custom. I never really quite figured out what the evil eye was - I assumed somebody just gave you a nasty look, the kind of nasty look that could do some serious damage. Working in the trenches in Corinth has given me a new appreciation of the sorts of dangers that lurk here, however, the evil eye being one of many.

Over the last few weeks, I spent a lot of time at the dry sieve with Vassilis, our barrow-man. He taught me a lot of Greek excavation words, as well as some Arvanetica (Albanian), since many Greek towns, his included, have populations that speak a mixture of Greek and Albanian. I also learned that yawning is a sign of the evil eye...Okay, so I yawn a lot on some days – it’s the teenager still hidden within me. For a while Vassilis and I had a back and forth infectious yawn-thing going, which he always laughed at but which he said meant I was spreading the evil eye. In Greece, it’s called the Mati. If I yawned, Vassilis would say in mock seriousness, “Katie, Mati! Mati, Katie!”

The Mati, I learned, can be caused if people are concentrating on you too much, even if it’s in a positive way. As Katerina Ragkou (our water-siever) just put it, if someone thinks about another excessively because, say, they like them too much, or are envious of them in an admiring way, or if they think many negative thoughts about them, an enormous amount of energy is focused on that particular person. Apparently no one can handle that much directed energy and a person’s body just plain gives out – they feel nauseous, exhausted, and inexplicably ill.

Even though Vassilis would joke about my Mati, he still made the ‘ptoo, ptoo, ptoo’ noise (the fake spit) when it came up. He did it so often that by the end of my two months at Corinth, all Vassilis had to say was ‘Katie, Mati!’ and I was ptoo, ptoo-ing over my own shoulder to keep him satisfied. Unfortunately, if you’ve really got the Mati, the ptoo-ptoo isn’t enough, nor are the tied-up knots that are supposed to protect you from it – the only way to cure it is to get help from a sufficiently qualified person in town, usually an older women. It’s a serious deal, and two of the diggers in our trench have had to get help from local women because of the evil eye – one of them was cursed by his own mother because she did not approve of his bride-to-be.

Katerina’s great-grandmother was, actually, one of the curse-removing women. Her family was from Farsala in Thessaly, and when Katerina was a little girl, all the 90 year-old people in town would fuss over her because she looked just like her great-grandmother, who was remembered to have helped a whole bunch of people. Great-grandmother was so effective, in fact, that people came from the neighboring towns to get help; she never charged money and was always successful. Katerina was told how the process worked – the woman said a prayer, the Our Father, over the afflicted person. It was repeated three times and then the woman said a certain phrase in which the name of the sick person was given and Mary was asked to get rid of the evil eye. Katerina thinks there must have been something else involved, too, but she was never told what that might be.

Not all the older women in Greece are nice and beneficient, though. Even here in Corinth some serious trouble has been caused by the malefactions of yia-yias (grandmothers). Corinth got a new priest some time ago, a younger man who was fairly progressive. During Easter week, when everyone fasts, the priest advised the yia-yias that it was okay if they did NOT fast, since they’re very elderly and frail, and it was damaging to their health. This advice was viewed as sacrilege and ended up pissing off a lot of ladies in black. I’ve heard from two different sources that the yia-yias in town put a curse on the priest – it seems you can tell a person is cursed when lots of terrible things befall them. The priest ended up having two sons: one was born with a mental disability and the other had some problem with his hand. The priest himself was in a car wreck and had various other misfortunes.

Tasos , our shovel man, told me about some more general stories about witches in our area. He said that, when they really want to curse someone, witches in Corinth go naked into cemeteries. Dancing in the night, they curse people by dropping bars of soap, pierced by nails, into wells.

It’s one thing to read about that sort of thing in antiquity, when you’re separated by the centuries. It’s another thing to hear about it down the street…that’s some spooky shit.


J. Harker said...

Best post ever.

This is ridiculously fascinating.

Jeremy LaBuff said...

Superstition 1 Science 3,459,275

Katie said...

I've got more to come, too. I just couldn't fit it all in one post :)

Anonymous said...

This is so funny and sadly it's all true. I have one cousin who believes on the 'evil eye' so strongly that every time she gets a bad headache she calls her mom and she has her read the super secret blessing over the phone!

I've been accused of being bad luck myself and causing all sorts of bad things to happen. It's all lies I tell you!

Evil Eye said...

Just be sure to stay away from the Evil Eye!

Anonymous said...

I love it when Maria's cousin complains of the evil eye. I had to suffer though her after being stricken one night visiting relatives.


Great reporting, Katie. And there's all kinds of good anthropological fieldwork on this. I had hoped to visit Corinth, but my trip to Greece had to be cut short. I"m sorry I didn't get to see this season's trenches. Will probably meet you in person at some other occasion. KOSTIS