Main piece: A red ribbon to ward off the evil eye. It can be a little ribbon pinned on the outside, or on the undergarments, and especially if there are people in the room that you’re going into that may not like you or be jealous of you, and you have to have a red ribbon. Not all the time.
I don’t know all of it, but the evil eye is against negativity. There are people who don’t wish you well, not you specifically. Just like there are people who want everything wonderful to happen for you and with you. But there are people who don’t. They say they have the evil eye. And people wear a red ribbon to ward off the evil eye. You pin the red ribbon on your heart, underneath. Not showing. It makes you live. The evil eye can’t hit me where I live, my heart. The idea is that if you’re going to be around people that you know are not on your side, and will try and wish bad things for you, you ward off those spirits by wearing a red ribbon, bounces right off.
Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meises” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fables”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions.
Context: Her husband (who does not believe in the red ribbon superstition, nor most other ones) immediately brought up the red ribbon when I asked my informant about the superstitions she follows. My informant believes the red ribbon to be an incredibly held belief, and does not remember where she heard it from, but doesn’t believe it to be an exclusively Jewish superstition.
Analysis: The evil eye is an interesting variation of the Jungian collective unconsciousness; the idea that there are people out there who simply wish you badly, and this subconscious/unspoken malediction could potentially cause real harm. This superstition revolves around the folk object of the red ribbon, and its placement. While my informant was not sure why the ribbon had to be red, or the significance of it, red as a color representing good luck/good fortune has been true in many different cultures/religions, such as China and Hinduism. The red ribbon working as a talisman represents a barrier between any potential harm and the soul of its wearer, which is emphasized by my informant’s placement of the ribbon (she has worn it both over and under her clothes) next to her heart, which serves as an example of James Frazer’s sympathetic magic. The ribbon serves as a piece of contact/contagious magic, which relies on “an action or an element that was once touched by or connected to the designated target of a
magical act” (115).
When asked about this placement, she tapped her heart and said “that’s where I live”, which indicates that it is less physical/bodily harm to be wary of, and that the soul is what is spiritually affected by the evil eye. My informant also emphasized that she does not wear the ribbon all the time (like she never wears it at home or when she visits family), but only when she believes she is going to be entering a situation where people could potentially cause harm unto her. The talisman then acts as a way to safeguard her from the “other”, people outside her social group or identity that could potentially not wish her well, either because of her personally, or the identity group she represents (she does wear the evil eye when she is with new people for the first time, or in crowds). As this is a Jewish custom, and Jews are a minority that have often been persecuted against, it makes sense that people would want a way to feel safe and protected against “evil eyes” in a discreet, non-showy way that establishes their religious or ethnic identity to potential ne’er-do-wells. This practice has also been associated with Kabbalah, and also exists in the variant of a red wool string tied around one’s wrist.
Dundes, Alan, and James George Frazer. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” Essay. In International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, 109–18. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.