Motif of harmful sensation  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



The motif of harmful sensation refers to the physical or mental damage that a person suffers merely by experiencing what should normally be a benign sensation. The phenomenon appears in both traditional and modern stories.

The theme is similar to the notion of the evil eye: the sight that harms is the gaze that harms. The harm is thought to be caused by seeing something or being seen by it — a parallel idea is the contrast between metaphysical or vitalist conceptions that treat vision as an active function of the eye, and the scientific conception of the eye as passively receiving light that is present even when vision does not occur.

While this motif is largely imaginary, a real-life example is epileptic seizures triggered by flashing lights such as strobe lights.


Mythology, legend and tradition

Viewing a deity

A Judeo-Christian tradition claims that viewing God's face will result in death (see for example, when Lot's wife defies the orders of an angel and sees God destroy a city, she is turned into a "pillar of salt".)

Death caused by seeing the true form of a deity is a common belief in mythologies. For example, in Greek mythology when Zeus acceded to the demands of his paramour Semele that he reveal himself in his full glory, she was burned to death. She was pregnant with Dionysus at the time; he was rescued by Zeus and grew to term inside a pocket sewn into Zeus' thigh.

In many religious systems, a deity's nature cannot be understood by the inferior human senses nor by the human mind. To experience what God is, one must commune with God by leaving the ego and the body behind. This is one of the aims of yoga, tantra, and some Gnostic practices.

The eye that can kill

Another variation of the motif is the eye that brings death, a capability that some gods possess in a number of mythologies. In Hindu mythology, for example, Shiva can use his third eye to emit a beam of some kind of energy that instantly burns the target.

Another dramatic example of the killing eye is found in Celtic mythology. The Fomorian king Balor of the Burning Eye possessed an eyeball that not only had a destructive gaze but was itself dangerous to touch. Balor's eyelid was so heavy and swollen that he could not lift it himself and had to order his bodyguards to lift it using a bone ring. He was defeated by the hero Lugh of the Long Hand, who cast his spear at Balor's eye just as his bodyguards were about to open it. When Lugh's spear exited through the back of Balor's head, every creature struck by a fragment of the deadly eye perished in agony.

The mythical catoblepas also has a deadly gaze that it cannot easily use because its head is unusually heavy and is almost impossible for it to lift. Unlike the basilisk, the catoblepas is traditionally portrayed as a pathetic beast rather than as a malevolent one. Indeed, in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the catoblepas says that because its head is constantly forced downward, it has sometimes gnawed its own forelegs without realizing it.

Greek mythology

  • In Greek mythology, anyone who directly views the Gorgons is turned to stone. When Perseus confronted Medusa, the most famous of the Gorgons, he avoided this fate by viewing her in his reflective shield in order to guide his sword. Athena or Zeus mounted the head of Medusa on her shield to form the Aegis. Roman mosaics are often decorated with Medusa heads as a protective charm.
  • In both the Odyssey and the tale of the Argonauts, the sirens used their singing to draw heedless mariners to their doom. As countermeasures, the characters of the stories physically restrained crew members, plugged their ears, or listened to even more beautiful music.
  • Narcissus was so paralyzed by the mere sight of his beautiful reflection that he could not look away. As a result, he eventually starved.
  • The basilisk, dating to classical Greek myth, has a rich tradition. Its characteristics sometimes include a harmful breath and a fatal gaze. It passed into Medieval legend under the Latin-derived name of cockatrice.

The harp of Daghda

In Celtic mythology, the gods known as the Tuatha Dé Danann brought five magical items from the North to Ireland to use against the Fomorians. The fifth item is the harp of Daghda, which Lugh later used to battle the Fomorians.

The harp can play three songs: One of sorrow, one of joy, and one of peace. When heard, the song of sorrow inflicts pain, the song of joy causes laughter, and the song of peace brings calmness. The duration that the song is played changes the effect. If the song of peace is played too long, for example, the listener falls asleep, which can ultimately lead to eternal sleep, the equivalent of death.

Indigenous Australian traditions

  • Among Indigenous Australians (Aborigines), ceremonies that are part of men's business should not be seen by women, and vice versa. Harm is said to come upon those people who accidentally witness what they are not traditionally permitted to see.
  • There is a strong and continuing belief among urban Aboriginal people that a person can have the evil eye put upon them, particularly by pointing the bone and wishing them dead, or that they can be whispered to death.

Other examples

  • One version of the legend of the Rhine siren Lorelei says that the man who sees her loses sight of reason, while the man who listens to her is condemned to wander with her forever.
  • According to legend, reading the whole of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights brings madness.
  • Those who see the Galician procession of the dead, the Santa Compaña, must join it.
  • It was a widespread belief in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, Middle East that some people had an "evil eye" (mau-olhado, mal ojo, olho gordo) that could cause a lot of trouble regardless of the subject's intentions (the effect was unintentional and the possessor of the evil eye could be unaware of it):
    • Livestock would die off or cease producing milk,
    • Beautiful children would die or suffer disfiguring diseases,
    • Porcelain china would fall down and break,
    • Pregnant women would suffer miscarriage,
    • Handsome men would die or become impotent,
    • Pets would get rabies, be killed by wild animals or attack their owners,
    • Houses would catch fire,
    • Paintings would peel off or fade away,
    • Milk would turn sour,
    • Employees would leave or become lazy,
    • Betrothals would be broken,
    • Furniture would be involved in domestic accidents hurting people,
    • Clothes would wear off or be attacked by moths.

Because no one could be sure whether his eyeing of someone else's properties or family was safe from evil eye it was commonplace to add the phrase Benza-o/a Deus ("God bless it/him/her") after any remark about anything in someone else's possession or anyone from another family. People who refused or neglected to say this were often shunned as potential bearers of the evil eye. As of 2007, in Brazil, one can still find newspaper ads of psychics claiming to identify and divert the effects of evil eye.

  • In various Balkanic mythologies, seeing a faerie without performing preventive rituals, or even worse being spotted by one, breaks a faerie taboo, and consequently the person may receive illnesses ranging from foot or leg-related problems to epilepsy or madness. These conditions can be cured by going back to the same place at the same time of day with a person who is on good terms with faeries (for example, a shaman initiated by faeries) or with someone who is able to cure such illnesses.
  • In the Lady Godiva legend, Peeping Tom is the character who defied a proclamation and watched the naked Godiva riding through the streets of Coventry. As punishment, he was blinded; though in other versions of the story, he was struck by lightning.

Urban legends

The Nigerian phone call

In a modern twist of the motif, a widespread urban legend from mid-2004 in Lagos, Nigeria claimed that answering phone calls made from a certain number would result in instant death.

The Hungarian Suicide Song

According to urban legend the song Gloomy Sunday written by Rezső Seress in 1933 inspired hundreds of suicides. Publicity accompanying its North American release described it as the "Hungarian Suicide Song", probably as a marketing ploy. The German/Hungarian movie Gloomy Sunday - Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (1999), based on the novel by Nick Barkow, suggests that the song contains a hidden message which, once heard clearly, will resolve the listener to suicide. In the film the song does not initially have words, and a large number of suicides are inspired by the tune alone.


There are superstitions around the play Macbeth, which is often referred to as The Scottish Play to avoid speaking the name for fear of a possible curse. The chants of "Double, double toil and trouble...", along with other lines from the play itself, are similarly avoided for the same reason. This legend features prominently in an episode of Blackadder.

Modern fiction

The heavy use of the motif in modern fiction is often traced back to a handful of writers. In Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817), Stendhal discussed the sensation of being physically overwhelmed by a surfeit of beauty, a phenomenon which is now called Stendhal syndrome. However, a more direct ancestor was Mark Twain's short story "A Literary Nightmare" (1876) concerning a jingle which, once encountered, obsesses the victim, who cannot forget about it until he or she repeats it to someone else (see Earworm).

In 1895, a collection of stories by Robert W. Chambers about a fictional play (the book and the play within it are both entitled The King in Yellow) described the play as cursing each of its readers and driving many of them mad. This idea was reused in the 1920s by H. P. Lovecraft in reference to the fictional book Necronomicon, who was heavily copied by short story writers in the 1950s. A large number of Lovecraft's creatures are similarly supposed to induce mental disorder and insanity by simply being looked at.

In Jorge Luis Borges´ short story "El Zahir", (from his book "El Aleph") there is a coin that causes obsession and madness to those who look at it. Madness is spread through the city as the cursed coin passes from hand to hand.

In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, showing a maliciously-crafted black-and-white bitmap to a person familiar with binary numbers can cause their brain to be reprogrammed. These images tap into the brain's lower-level functioning which, the book suggests, all humans share. Thus, showing someone familiar with binary results in the reprogramming, regardless of what language they speak, because, the book suggests, each individual's understanding of spoken language is built on top of the brain's lower-level functioning. If the image is crafted properly, the binary message bypasses the spoken-language level of understanding and reaches the framework on which higher thought is built.

One of the most famous examples of recent years would be the film Ring (1998) where it is stated that if you watch a certain videotape, you will die exactly 7 days later (though death is due to the actions of a ghost, not the images on the videotape).

In real life

  • Some recently developed nonlethal weapons use sounds to induce paralysis or extreme discomfort.
  • The Mosquito alarm is a commercially available device which emits high-frequency sounds designed to cause discomfort to teenagers in order to discourage loitering.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Motif of harmful sensation" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools