"Even if a belief in the evil eye is not universal, it is very widespread and very ancient. Allusions to the power of fascination are found in Sumerian sources from the third millennium BCE, and there are many references to it in Assyrian documents, and in ancient Greece and Rome. The evil eye is referred to repeatedly in the Bible, and even more so in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature of the Jews. It features in Nordic epics, Irish and Scottish myths, and in many other European literatures. Belief in the evil eye is also very common in the Islamic world. The prophet Muhammad sanctioned the use of talismans against it, and several verses from the Qur'an are believed to have a protective effect, particularly the prayer for protection in Surah 113: 'I seek refuge in the Lord of Daybreak . . . from the evil of malignant witchcraft, and from the evil of the envier when he envieth.' In the Greek Orthodox church there are several officially sanctioned prayers for defense against the evil eye and for the protection of the angels against it. A belief in the evil eye and in the destructive power of envy is still very common in southern Europe, throughout the Islamic world, in India, and in many other countries.

"Those who believe in the evil eye generally accept that some people have the evil eye more than others, and also that some of those who have the evil eye may be unconscious of the power they exert. Even though there are individual differences in the power of the look, envy makes all looks more dangerous. Because envy is closely linked to praise and admiration, these are also feared.

"I discovered something of the power of these beliefs for myself when I lived in India, working in the international agricultural research institute near Hyderabad. A few weeks after I arrived, I was invited to dinner at the house of a senior government officer, a Muslim. While we were drinking whiskey and soda, I made some complimentary comments about one of the pictures hanging on the wall. To my astonishment, my host immediately plucked it from its hook and presented it to me. Only with great difficulty did I manage to give it back.

"A week or two later, at another social gathering, I made a favorable comment about the tie an Indian acquaintance was wearing. He took it off and gave it to me, saying graciously but implausibly, 'I bought it for you.' It was difficult to avoid accepting it. Through these and other experiences, I realized that praising or admiring something could lead to socially embarrassing consequences. At first I assumed that this must be because of an exaggerated sense of hospitality, or exaggerated modesty; but I soon learned that there was more to it than that. The English word 'admire' comes from the Latin roots ad, 'to,' and miriari, 'to wonder,' meaning 'to wonder at.' To praise or admire something is to imply that you want it, or envy it; hence you can bring ill fortune through fascination or the evil eye.

"One of the best antidotes to admiration is generosity. Giving people the object of their admiration defuses their envy, but this only works in limited circumstances. Children cannot be given away to those who praise them."