Do you have any traditions or rituals that your family does?
Okay yeah, superstitions and stuff, it’s similar to the salt thing, my mom will burn sage on a stove, I think it’s sage, I’m pretty sure it’s sage. And like it’ll still be in the little pot, and they’ll put it over your head just like to keep bad eyes away from you. Like if you were at a party, and all these people are like, ‘Oh my god your daughter’s so beautiful, or like, they’ll say all these things and…It’s not always a compliment, but they’ll think like, if all these people are complimenting you, they’ll take it weirdly, like people are gonna have an evil eye on you. They’re just superstitious, so they think if a million people are complimenting you, one of them is gonna have like, one of them is gonna be fake, they’re not all gonna be true and real.
So your mom has done this to you?
Yeah so after like a big party, if all these people went up to her and were like ‘oh my god, your daughter is so beautiful,’ they’ll just give me compliments. And she’ll come home and it’ll be like two in the morning, she’s done that before! Once we get home from the party she’ll just burn sage, oh it’s called Esfand! In Farsi. She’ll burn it and kinda like, circle it over your head for like 5 seconds. And from what I know it’s not a prayer, but she’ll just say like, “keeping bad eyes away from you” or something like that, in Farsi.
So she burns the leaves in a pot?
Yeah, like a special little pot.
Oh so there’s a special pot for doing this?
Yeah there’s like a specific kind of pot for it. It’s just tiny, it’s not like a huge pot, it’s small, it’s not metal, maybe it’s ceramic.
This is a superstitious belief and accompanying ritual intended to keep bad intentions or bad spirits away. There is also a clear emphasis that parents or older family members do this to younger family members to keep them out of harm’s way. There is a sense that this ritual, also involving a gesture, incantation or prayer of some sort, and a physical, material tool, can undo or ward off evil, even if it’s already intended for the young person, but there is a sense of urgency, that it must be done as soon as possible for the most protective power.
Esfand and sage burning practices in Persian culture cleanse houses, bodies, and objects that may be occupied by evil spirits, spirits of the dead, or may be afflicted by the evil eye.
Described verbatim by informant:
“Esfand is basically these dried herbs that, every Persian household has them. And say um a lot of bad things have been happening like your car broke down, you got a bad grade, your boyfriend broke up with you, someone died, you know, so people feel like it’s obviously like it’s evil spirits literally are around your house and around your car and they’re around you so when you burn the esfand you walk around and its smells horrible and you walk around and you just you do it over everyone’s head you do it over even like around your pets head you do it around your car um everything you um walk through the room cuz you’re killing things by burning the esfand cuz it smells so bad and that like gives it’s like a cleansing to get rid of the bad spirits that are causing the bad things. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be evil spirits it can just be like people evil eyeing you and wanting bad things to happen to you. Negative Vibes.
Sage is kind of a similar process it’s just to clean whatever was in the house previously to be gone, it’s a fresh start, cuz you don’t know what happened someone could’ve died in that house, you know? Crazy things. So if you want a fresh start in a new home you can do that.”
Esfand to my knowledge is unique to Persian culture and this cleansing ritual. Ritual burning of herbs is common to many cultures, especially burning with sage. The idea of smoking out spaces and people for purification is something I know to be relevant to a lot of Native American tribes, Mesoamerican cultures, Aboriginal tribes, and countless others around the world. Though smoke is considered polluting and dangerous to many people, burning and beginning anew is a process found in nature, ie wildfires. This has since been observed by humans and emulated in swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture across the globe. Perhaps there is some root to the notion of burning and cleansing there, though that connection seems unlikely in the context of the Middle East, unless the practice of burning herbs was learned or brought in by some other influence (perhaps by trade ie along the Silk Road). This theory is purely speculative, though, as ritual burning could have begun in the Middle East or spontaneously come about for all I know.
I later got an email from my informant saying she wasn’t sure if she explained esfand and it’s relation to the evil eye well enough so she sent me a link to a website that she felt explained it well:
The practice as described by Tara: If you feel like the evil eye is near you, you burn this weed called esfand (laughs). Its different in other parts of Iran but my moms Turkish so she has to say this prayer thing in Turkish. And you let the smell of the weed take over the house, and it kills the evil eye.”
Tara said she learned this tradition from her mother, who burns esfand often. She said that most people she knows do this in Iran on important occasions like on the date that their children are being circumcised or if their children are sick. However, her mother does it for more common occasions. For instance, if someone gives Tara or her mother a lot of compliments, they burn the weed because it seems like someone is really interested in them and they might be getting jinxed. Taras family moved from Iran to the United States almost ten years ago, but they still perform this ritual in their house in Los Angeles.
Tara said that she doesnt understand the practice exactly but she likes to burn the weed because it smells really good. She also said that people probably do this because it’s a tradition and gives you a true sense of comfort. She said that she does believe in the evil eye even though she knows its illogical. She says it might sound stupid to other people (this is why she laughed in embarrassment while explaining the tradition, which she did in a room filled with Americans uninformed about the evil eye), but she still likes burning esfand because it makes her feel good.
Tara’s analysis seems accurate. Even though many people believe that the evil eye couldn’t logically exist, they still fear its power because they grew up learning about it. The evil eye is a common fear among many nations and groups of people, so this seems like yet another way to prevent it from causing harm. Superstitions like this one have been a part of Tara’s life since she was growing up, so the practice of burning esfand provides a consistent sense of comfort.