This question came completely out of the blue, with an extended hand reaching over our back fence and an eager face peering into our garden on a Sunday afternoon. How would you respond? We felt a mixture of embarrassment and well, let’s face it, suspicion. Not that we were doing anything particularly remarkable, just the usual weekend gardening!
But it got me thinking about how often we compare our lot with others. Some of us do it all the time, some of us do it some of the time, and some of us try very hard not to do it. The modern world doesn’t really help: a great deal of advertising is designed to provoke us to feel desire and envy. We are forever being encouraged to want more, expect more and buy more. Then there are all those hideous reality TV programs about wife swapping, home swapping, children swapping…
All of this is in stark contrast to widespread beliefs about the danger of looking at others (and being looked at) with envious eyes. The Ancient Greeks held a number of beliefs and superstitions about envy and the ‘evil eye’ and it was common to decorate drinking vessels and shields with the eye-motif (see the image of the eye-cup above). These beliefs are still held by modern Greeks who use μάτι (mati) to ward off the evil eye. My Greek mother-in-law assures me that there are a number of methods to remove the evil eye, called xematiasma (ξεμάτιασμα), involving special prayers and mysterious rituals involving clove buds.
Can we ever really know what someone else’s lot really entails? Would we really dare to swap lives without being sure of every detail?
As I raked up the last of the autumn leaves, these questions brought to mind the final words of Sophocles’ tragic play about King Oedipus. There was a time when Oedipus had it all: power, fame, glory, honour, wealth, love. And then he fell, far and fast, and it was the blinding light of self-knowledge that brought him down.
The last lines of the play are written more for us than for Oedipus:
Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx’s riddle and was mightiest in our state.
Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes?
Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!
Therefore wait to see life’s ending ere thou count one mortal blest;
Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.(1)
Perhaps our neighbour had had a few Sunday afternoon beers and was just being friendly. But I might just hand a copy of this text over the back fence anyway.
(1) Sophocles, Oedipus the King (translated by F. Storr); full text available at:
(2) Header image:
Stemless Kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup): copy of an ancient Kylix made by Aristotelis Zissimos, Polytropon Art.