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New York Folklore Vol. 4. Nos. 1-4, 1978
Utica Project Issue
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Vol. 4, Nos. 1-4, 1978

by Peter Hartman and Karyl McIntosh

For hundreds of years, people all over the world have generated folklore concerning the struggle between the forces of good and evil. One of the oldest aspects of this tradition is the lore about the evil eye, “overlook,” or malocchio. The belief goes back at least to Biblical times: references to it appear in both the Old and New Testaments. (1) Greek and Roman literature as well mention the evil eye. (2) The folklore has withstood much cultural change, however, and belief in the evil eye has enjoyed a vibrant role in the folk traditions of immigrant Americans.

For several weeks we collected evil eye beliefs from Italian-Americans living in Utica, New York. Here, in the Italian community, those believing in the evil eye say that one person can bring harm and misfortune to another by unfriendly looks and feelings. Most often the harm comes as a headache or stomachache. Victims all suspect that jealousy, anger, hatred, greed, and contempt are causes for the curse to be inflicted. Our twenty informants all spoke about the evil eye from the standpoint of the victim, but none indicated that they, too, might have caused someone else harm.

Previous research in the Utica area indicated that beliefs about the evil eye had all but disappeared. One folklorist, for example, had reported over twenty years ago that he could find very few, if any, cases where the belief was an active part of the folk tradition among European-Americans living in New York. (3) Other research around the country, however, indicated quite the opposite. Naff has found extensive beliefs among Syrian-Lebanese in America. (4) In 1972 the American Anthropological Association held a symposium devoted solely to evil eye beliefs. This research led us to believe that perhaps Utica’s vital Italian community might have a stronger tradition in the overlook than previously thought. As a part of a larger survey project of Utica’s Polish- and Italian- American neighborhoods, we wanted to know if such beliefs existed locally. We were curious about the role that they might play in the community’s active folk tradition......

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