Ancient ‘evil eye’ jewelry used to protect young girl unveiled in Jerusalem

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Jewelry designed to ward off the “evil eye” and protect a young girl in her passage to the afterlife more than 1,800 years ago has been unveiled in Jerusalem some 50 years after the items were discovered.

The treasure — which includes golden earrings, a hairpin, a pendant and glass and gold beads bearing the symbols of the Roman Moon goddess Luna — was discovered in a lead coffin in 1971, but has only now gone on display for the first time in a new exhibition, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Monday.

The jewelry would have been worn by the girl during her life and placed in her coffin to keep her safe, a common pagan practice that shows the diversity of late Roman Jerusalem, experts said.

Among the finds was a “lunula,” a gold pendant shaped like a crescent moon — but very little is known of the girl who wore it.

“The interring of the jewelry together with the young girl is touching. One can imagine that their parents or relatives parted from the girl, either adorned with the jewelry, or possibly lying by her side, and thinking of the protection that the jewelry provided in the world to come,” said Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“This is a very human situation, and all can identify with the need to protect one’s offspring, whatever the culture or the period,” he added.

A gold necklace with a crescent moon shape, which would have been positioned on or near the body to protect the spirit in the world to come.
A gold necklace with a crescent moon shape, which would have been positioned on or near the body to protect the spirit in the world to come.Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

The remarkably well-preserved items date to when Jerusalem had been re-established as a colony named Aelia Capitolina in A.D. 129 following the destruction of the city and its Jewish Temple during the Roman-Jewish War in A.D. 70.

A new diverse population of people from across the Roman Empire arrived and brought with them a mixture of beliefs.

“The pagan cult of the city’s new population was rich and varied, including gods and goddesses, among them the cult of the moon goddess Luna,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement.

The coffin was found on Mount Scopus, in the northeast of the city, by archaeologist Yael Adler, who has since died, but the items were never publicly displayed and no research was published about them.

The items’ survival is more remarkable given the burial site was only discovered by accident when a bulldozer unwittingly trundled over it.

The belief in a malevolent “evil eye” dates back more than 2,000 years: Cups bearing an eye and thought to be related to the folk belief have been found from the mid-sixth century B.C. The Greek philosopher Plutarch, who lived in the first century, wrote that the human eye could release energy powerful enough to kill small animals and children.

The superstition is still prevalent in some Mediterranean cultures. Some wear eye pendants to protect them against a curse given to them by someone’s malicious glare.

The same blue eye trinkets can be seen in countless tourist shops and street stalls.

Evil Eye Souvenir Shop in the Grand Bazzar, Istanbul, Turkey
A souvenir shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar sells pendants that some believe can protect against the “evil eye.”Allen Brown / Alamy Stock Photo

There have been some 9,000 excavations since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, officials said, with many still not fully studied or seen by the public. 

“The location of the original reports that gathered dust over the years in the Israel Antiquities Authority archives, and physically tracing the whereabouts of the items themselves, has shed light on long-forgotten treasures,” said Ayelet Dayan, who led the project. “The beautiful jewelry that we researched is an example of such treasures.”

In 1975 two similar gold earrings were discovered in another excavation on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.

The influence of the same pagan culture on modern-day Israel can also be seen in place names: Jericho and Beit Yerah are both derived from “yareakh,” the Hebrew word for moon.

The jewelry will be displayed starting Monday by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Exploration Society and the Israel Archaeological Association.

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