USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘eye’
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Eye on the back of the head

Information about the Informant

My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination. This one of three stories that his mother told him when he was a child.

Transcript

“And I guess another one was, um, a kind of derived eye-in-the-back-of-your-head type thing. Where she’d [informant's mother] say that, you know, ‘If you do something behind my back you’re not supposed to, I can see it.’ And, um, I’d be like, you know, whatever. You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. But occasionally, she’d turn her head. And she was doing something. And she would turn her head back, and she says, ‘I see you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. How do you…How do you know that?’ And, um, she’d say, ‘I have an eye back here that’s magic, so you can’t see it.” You know. Typical…you know, that’s what little kids say, like, ‘Oh, it’s magic, so you can’t see it.’ But I–we bought it. So, um, any time she was in the room, or even might have been in the area, we behaved because she had an eye on the back of her–a magic eye on the back of her head, so.”

Analysis

Most of the stories that this informant told me were ones that his mother used to keep him well-behaved as a child. This one she seems to have used to keep her children from misbehaving when they thought her back was turned and she couldn’t see them. Although I doubt that this was hardly the intention of my informant’s mother or of the people who first came up with this story however many decades or centuries ago, the theory behind how this story would work as a way to keep children from misbehaving is one that has been discussed amongst Western philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the Panopticon, which operates by allowing the guards of a prison to have full view of all the prisoners, but the prisoners are unable at any time to see the guards, or even know if there are guards currently at their posts. The theory is that the prisoners, unable to tell when they are being watched, would always behave as if their actions were being monitored and self-govern in this way. This is the essential theory behind the story that my informant told me. The mother having a magical eye on the back of her head that, by virtue of being magic, my informant could not see and so would never know where it was looking or when it was open and watching, forced my informant to govern himself whenever his mother was in the room as he would never know when she could see something bad that he had done. My analysis may sound critical of the mother for using this tactic, but it is a very useful one and one that I would not be surprised to hear is employed in many households of various cultural backgrounds. A parent cannot be constantly watching her child at all times, and this allows her to have the relief of being able to be in the same room, thus available if something important does crop up, but also be able to perform other tasks rather than be required to watch her children at all times to make sure that they do not misbehave.

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