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El Mal de Ojo

by Susana Raymundo

In the upcoming months we will be looking at some of the beliefs and folklore particular to Guatemala. This month, the mal de ojo (evil eye).

Up to the age of four years, children are very vulnerable to different diseases, particularly growth-related problems. In Guatemala it’s thought that the energy of other people can affect the welfare of a child, particularly if those people are under the effects of alcohol or drugs or wish the child harm.

Whether the damage is intentional or not, a child affected negatively by such persons is said to be suffering from mal de ojo. Children affected this way can suffer diarrhea, spasms, vomiting, fever, foul breath and intestinal troubles. Obviously, the child cries often.

While many families now go to hospitals and clinics, many others are more conservative and resist “modern” medicine, turning instead to folk remedies.

Traditionally, these were administered by healers, sobadores (a kind of therapeutic masseuse), midwives and Mayan priests. To guard against mal de ojo in the womb, midwives recommend that the future mother wear a “shield” on their belly – this could be a red sash or a cross, which serves to repel negative energies from invading the body and soul of the unborn. When the baby is born, the shield is placed within their swaddling clothes to provide further protection.

If the baby succumbs to mal de ojo, it is taken to the healer where a ceremony is performed to call forth the spirit of the child and eliminate the negative energies affecting it. An egg or capsicum is passed over the entire body. At the end of the ceremony this object is thrown into the fire. If it explodes, that is taken as proof that the child was suffering from mal de ojo.

Doctors have examined children said to be suffering from mal de ojo, and have been surprised to find that no mainstream medicine – pills, injections, diets, etc – works to alleviate symptoms.

Many people dismiss mal de ojo as simple folklore, and on the face of it, it’s hard to believe. Some parents, in their desire to be modern, spend months trying mainstream remedies and watching their children waste away suffering from chronic malnutrition. The most fortunate ones have children who never experience the symptoms associated with mal de ojo to begin with.

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