In many societies there is still a widely held belief that eye contact with a particular human, god, or malevolent force, such as an illness, can cause sudden harm people and their property. Or it can afflict them with evil emotions, like jealousy and hatred. Belief in the evil eye may have originated in Paleolithic times and can be seen in various manifestations throughout history
Evil eye ideology is complex. Different cultures interpret its effects in different ways, and remedies and preventive measures vary from one culture to another. The power of the eye is generally regarded as harmful, yet the gaze of some gods (for example, Horus in dynastic Egypt) is considered beneficial. Eyes are often represented on amulets or painted onto buildings or tombs to counteract the evil eye. In parts of India and Africa, the cowries shell is believed to represent the human eye and is therefore valued as protection against the evil eye. The protective eye can also take the form of beads. In many cultures, "eye beads" are worn to deflect the evil eye or to neutralize its effects.
Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that concepts linking eyes and protective magic to beads evolved in western Asia.
The earliest written references to the evil eye occur on Sumerian clay tablets dating to the third millennium B.C. Stone beads with incised eye designs and banded agates cut to produce an eye effect are known from Mesopotamian sites of the same period, as are etched carnelians with eye patterns. The latter also occur in mid- to late third-millennium B.C. sites in the Indus Valley and Afghanistan. Identical polyhedral beads with eyelike dots on each facet were recovered from Lethal and Kalibangan in the Indus Valley. Agate eye beads of superb quality were also found in the royal Sumerian graves at Ur. Bead amulets called udjat—the eyes of Horus—were widely used in ancient Egypt from the Fifth to the Twelfth dynasties (2494-1786 B.C.). The enormous quantities of udjat found in Egyptian burials indicate they must have been of great importance.
With the invention or introduction of glass into western Asia, Egypt, and Europe, one of the first objects created was the eye bead. This is not surprising, given the visual similarity between rounded, shining human eyes and most glass beads. Although there are some stylistic variations between glass eye beads, many similar forms were produced over long periods of time. To assign correct dates and places of manufacture to specific varieties of eye beads, it is necessary to identify the manufacturing techniques employed in each case.
In his 1916 study, still considered the most comprehensive work to date on the subject, Gustavo’s Essen divides glass eye beads into three basic categories based on the techniques used to produce the eye. The processes often succeed one another within a culture. Essen’s categories are simple eye spots, stratified eyes, and mosaic eyes.
It is within the Islamic faith that belief in the evil eye and the wearing of protective eye bead amulets has the strongest representation. In all periods of history Arabs have had a pro-found fear of the evil eye, even to the point of calling it "the beautiful eye" to avoid its dam-aging effects. Muslims say that "the evil eye empties the castles and fills the graves”. They believe that no one, rich or poor, is safe from its wrathful stare. To counter the evil eye, most Muslims wear some form of protective amulet from birth, including eye beads.
The magic of eye beads still exists. In North Africa, a Bedouin will work for several days to obtain a fine stone eye bead. Caravan leaders refuse to begin a journey unless each man and animal carries a blue bead or amulet as protection from the evil eye. In Mauritania, mirror like glass beads are considered excellent protection against the evil eye because they reflect images. In central Asia, favorite designs for dZi beads among Himalayan peoples are the eye patterns.
A preference for blue beads, particularly blue eye beads to avert evil spirits, appears to be of historical and cross-cultural significance. The majority of ancient glass eye beads have a blue matrix with white, yellow, or blue eyes. Today, in Greece, donkeys, mules, and cows often have protective blue beads and tassels on their bridles or across their foreheads. “Blue beads of turquoise, glass, faience, or plastic are also frequently pinned to children's clothing in Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece.
The history of eye beads reminds us once again that beads have always functioned in culture as more than adornment. Worn by people for over five thousand years, this particular class of beads, perhaps more than any other, reaches across a wide range of cultures and a great span of time. Interestingly enough, despite their pervasiveness, eye beads rarely appear to have been used to express wealth or status.