Necklaces and the evil eye

Decorating one's horse is something of all cultures. We all do it. But one particular thing caught my eye when I first moved to Egypt and got involved in the horse scene there. Horses and donkeys wear necklaces. Not all of them, but a lot of them do. In all kinds of shapes, from braided cotton or wool to a string with just one bead (mostly blue) or colorful beaded necklaces. When I asked local horse and donkey owners why they would make their animals wear such things they all answered that it was to protect their precious animal from "the evil eye" (al- ᵓain).

Many westerners have probably never heard of this eye, I definitely hadn't until that moment. In Egypt the notion of the evil eye is largely based on Islamic beliefs, however I think the idea of an evil eye is more common than we realise. Who doesn't remember the burning eye that represents evil forces in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?  But let's stay in the real world.  Explanations of the evil eye frequently quote the Qur'ān:  Say, "I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak.." (113:1) “..And from the evil of the envier when he envieth.”(113:5).

Envy and jealousy are not unfamiliar to us, only in this case those emotions can cause harm to the victim of the evil eye. You could view it as transferable and perhaps even a disease as general belief is that there are symptoms when a person is 'struck' by an evil eye of another. Physical and emotional fatigue, cramps, headaches, hair loss, diarrhea and many other ailments and disorders are ascribed to the evil eye. But it cannot only affect humans, but animals too. Symptoms include drying up of the milk in females, impotency in males, horrific accidents and even outbreaks of for example ringworm or strangles is frequently attributed to the evil eye.

Some people will no doubt question the idea of the evil eye but for Muslims confirmation came from Prophet Muhammad himself: "The evil eye is a fact." (Bukhari 5944: Book 77, Hadith 159) So what can one do when struck by the eye? Sadly not a lot, some say taking a bath may help but the general way to try to get rid of it is by prayer and recitation of the Qur'ān.

Since it is hard to get rid of the evil eye, people logically came up with ways to try to prevent it. And this brings us back to the horses. During the research for my MA thesis I interviewed various breeders and horseowners in Egypt in to figure out how much of their practices are ascribed to Islamic guidelines.  The necklaces that are said to protect the horses from attracting an evil eye were one of the topics that I discussed with them as I found contradicting aḥadith on this matter.

"No necklace of bowstring or anything else must be left on a Camels‟ neck, must be cut off. The narrator Malik said “I think this was due to evil eye.” (Abū Dāwūd Sunān, book 15, no. 76) In the book where we find this ḥadith elaboration whether this might apply to other animals is absent. However in the 'Book on horses' by Abū  Ubaida this very same ḥadith is mentioned to also apply to horses and explaned as a warning from the Prophet against Bedouin tradition. The Prophet is said to have prohibited the habit of decorating horses' necks with colorful beads to dismiss evil spirits based on the Islamic view that beads cannot repel divine power and fear that horses would endure injury from tight necklaces.

So perhaps the idea of the necklace isn't as based on Islamic views as we thought it was. But then why does this decorating prevail, and is especially widespread in Egypt?  The answer may be in a necklace from the 18th dynasty (1351–1334 BC) found in 1911.  It is 95 centimeters long and features 35 blue beads, of which 24 are decorated with the so called 'fish-eye' and 11 with the 'Udjat' eye. One of the beads has an extra drawing on the back of the 'ankh' symbol that stands for life and power. At first the necklace may look like it belonged to a princess or other important person but it was found in the stables. Correspondence from the 14th century BC contains notice of "horse-necklaces". It is assumed that the necklace found in 1911 was decoration of the harness, but any person who has worked with horses would consider the suggested placement odd if not dangerous. Also the necklace doesn't look very flexible and horseowners will recognise it's shape as somewhat reflecting a typical harness collar.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the Udjat eyes represent the eyes of the god Horus. He and Seth were fighting over the throne of Osiris when Seth poked out Horus his left eye. Legend has Thoth restore the eye and Horus then offered the eye to Osiris in the hope to restore his life.  Since that moment the eye of Horus has come to symbolise healing and protection.  In modern Egypt the blue fish-eye is still very popular and sold almost everywhere, even in supermarkets, as pendants for the home, car, as jewelry and even as car stickers. Frequently horses and donkeys are wearing some form of necklace, many times in the typical blue of the eye, but other colors are also seen.

Although the tradition of decorating ones horse with a necklace to repel evil is probably older than the Islamic notion of the evil eye, the habit did somehow grow connected to horsebreeds of the Middle East. Especially the Arabian horse can be seen in modern shows around the world and photoshoots wearing large breastcollars featuring bright colours, but also in Iran, North Africa and among Turkish horsebreeds, horses are generally presented with some form of decoration around their necks.

Taking a closer look at Assyrian depictions of horses (7th BC), we also clearly see tassles, once again confirmation that the idea of decorating horses in this specific way  is very old and was already widespread in ancient times. The Assyrian horse also seems to be wearing a necklace made out of beads...

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