Between superstition and adornment: amulet against the evil eye (Spain)
While infant death was universally high, all cultures used amulets against the so called “evil eye” and children’s illnesses.
The higa (amulet) in the shape of a closed fist with the big toe protruding between index finger and thumb represents the female sex and was considered to be the best protection against the evil eye, a hex which was presumably put on children by looking at them and which left them blind.
It has been suggested that the higa (or figa, which is the entrance to the vagina) is a symbolic remedy to a real situation, the high rate of blindness among newborns in the past, which was a result of sexually transmitted diseases (chlamydia and others). Affected women infected their newborns during delivery by transmitting the infection from their sexual organs to the baby’s eyes thus causing blindness (hence the name the evil eye).
In the 21st century, despite all the hygienic and preventive measures, neonatal conjunctivitis is still an important health risk which can cause blindness, so clinical guidelines on neonatal health recommend the preventive use of protective ointments. The only debate in the 21st century is whether to apply them immediately after delivery or a few hours later.
Using an higa lies between superstition and adornment, depending on age and the symbolic significance attached to it. Sales of jet higas remain high in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), because from times past they have been the amulets for the safe return home of pilgrims. Curiously, the jet used came from Asturias, where one of Europe’s most important jet mines can be found.
Photo, Francisco Rodríguez Pérez