Apotropaic

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The adjective apotropaic (pronounced with the stress on the fourth syllable, 'ap-oh-troh-PAY-ic', IPA: /,æ pəʊ trɒ 'peɪ ɪk/) means 'able to turn away the evil eye', "having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck" (OED). It comes from the Greek adjective ἀποτρόπαιος (apotropaios), 'averting evil', formed from the verb ἀποτρέπειν (apotrepein), 'to turn away', 'to avert'.

The adjective apotropaic is used to characterize

  • verbal expressions, such as

Fingers crossed‘ said, with one finger crossed over another, when one wishes to protect an expressed hope or plan for the future against frustration by unforeseen circumstances; and ‘Break a leg‘, the conventional formula for wishing an actor good luck before he or she goes on stage. (For more about these and other formulae see Apotropaic expressions.)

  • gestures, such as

the ‘devil’s horns‘, formed by using the thumb to hold the middle and ring fingers against the palm of the hand while extending the index and little fingers to create the horns, a gesture common among Italians for averting the evil eye; and anasyrma, the practice of women raising their skirts and exposing their genitals as a means of warding off (supernatural) enemies. (The word ‘anasyrma’ comes from the Greek ana (up) and surma (a train or skirt).)

  • symbols, such as

the large eye (or pair of eyes) sometimes painted on ancient Greek drinking cups with the intention of preventing evil spirits from entering the drinker’s mouth.

  • physical objects, such as

the ivory wands used in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom (c2040-c1670 BCE) to protect expectant mothers and children against maleficent spirits. (See also Charms, amulets, and talismans.)

  • rituals, such as

the lectisternium, a ceremony in which the ancient Romans offered a propitiatory meal to the gods in order to end, or to avert, some grave misfortune - according to the historian Livy, the ceremony was instituted in 399 BCE during a time of plague. Many religions have rituals whose purpose is to protect against misfortune by placating a supernatural being through worship or sacrifice.

See further Apotropaic expressions and Charms, amulets, and talismans.