An Anthropology of Evil Forces / Philippe Charlier


In the collective unconscious (in Jung’s expression) of the autochthonous peoples, there exists in the air that we breathe a part of harmful breath, a circulating unhealthy current, invisible and obscure: the evil eye.

Reversing or opposing the vital force (nyama), it instils evil, sickness, misfortunes, death. Bad thoughts too. It is everywhere, permanently. It responds to the good in equal parts, it is a permanent struggle between the forces of life and extinction. Everyone is in danger, especially vulnerable individuals: sick, pregnant women, the elderly, isolated subjects, travellers, children, night workers, etc. It is necessary to protect ourselves, without ceasing, without any fault, forgetfulness, delay, or inattention. The gri-gri around the neck serve as protection. The Legba placed at the crossroads of the paths (spiritual places also crossing the top and bottom, the microcosm and the macrocosm, the gods and the men) serve the same purpose: comparable to the ithyphalic Hermes of Greek Antiquity or the Priapes during erection (like that of the entrance to the House of Vetii in Pompeii, Italy), they serve to channel this negative energy to a very precise point: the phallus. Totally curious, this negative force is “fascinated”, in the literal sense of the term i.e. fixed to the fascinus (the male organ) and, stuck in this contemplation (a “categorical imperative” to Hegel), it cannot move anymore, is fixed, hooked, without possibility of detachment or the ability to exercise its deleterious or fatal power. This is the reason why men (especially) and women (rarely) wear around the neck, around the Mediterranean, sometimes a chilli (disguised phallus), sometimes a prophylactic or apotropaic eye, i.e. intended to “chase away the evil eye”. The chilli is a phallus that stings, and this bite of the tongue and the mouth acts, moreover, as a protection, a physical mark of effectiveness against a potential aggression. In the Bengali culture, the chilli even participates in the purification ceremonies when one is considered bewitched by a negative force: fumigations of incandescent peppers are made over the head of the alleged victim for example.

Talismans can therefore be carried on, turning the negative force away from its original purpose, or literally countering it: making equal arms with it, white magic against black magic. This is the avowed aim of the nkisi fetishes of the Congo: wooden statuettes containing in the belly (for human figures) or the back (for animal figures, often dogs with two opposing heads) in a secret cavity a magic charge (usually biological elements from the corpse of a powerful wizard or sorcerer); their right arm is erect and encloses a (sometimes transparent) spear directed against the aggressor of the evil spell; their bodies are constellated with metallic elements planted with each vow of protection, pledges of the efficiency of the fetish because the demand, granted, has been recidivated at a later threat; the magic cavity is covered with a mirror (when it has not been desacralized), as well as the eyes (or painted glass), which makes it possible to return the evil by a ricochet effect to the one that was the emissary. In this sense, the mirror plays the same role as in Confucianism, when ghosts mirrors are hung in front of the entrance door of Chinese houses. Circulating dead spectra, on this concave surface, would immediately be precipitated into the infernal world where everything is reversed.

Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.

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