Some people are better listeners than others.
Have we not all experienced, at some point in our lives, how our spirits were
lifted when we were able to speak the truth of our heart to someone who granted
us an attentive ear? Complete strangers sometimes inspire our confidence so
much that we entrust them with feelings, thoughts or worries that we decline to
share even with our closest friends. There is something uncanny about such
strangers. Yet most of us accept that they exist, and get on with our lives.
In the villages and small towns of Manthria, ordinary folk believe that some people are able to listen rather too well. Such people are said to possess the Evil Ear: out of a person’s voice, they can distil her soul, weave illness into it, and maliciously insert this spoiled essence back into the person’s heart, or even into the heart of a different person. It is said that those who use the Evil Ear bring confusion upon people’s minds, blacken their moods, or instigate distrust that estranges sister from brother, child from parent, friend from friend.
Folks may attribute all kinds of minor and major maladies to the Evil Ear: bad dreams, family quarrels, and inexplicable anxiety; warts, rashes, and unknown illnesses; stillborn children, or children born with too few or too many fingers. While we believe that these ideas are nothing but superstitions, we do not doubt that as such they have serious consequences. Those who are accused of possesssing the Evil Ear may be ostracized, beaten, or even clubbed to death by their supposed victims, or by people who act on the victims’ behalf.
A popular superstition asserts that there are people who possess the Evil Ear:
the ability to wreak malicious magic from the
words a guileless speaker addresses to them. Such people are called Evil
Listeners, or sometimes simply: Listeners. Folklore is vague about how exactly
the Listeners accomplish their magic, and beliefs may vary in detail from region
to region. An account from Malleus Malefiz, an ardent persecutor of those he
suspected of being Listeners, describes the workings of the Evil Ear as follows:
Extract from the pamphlet by Malleus Mallefiz: “Of the Listeners, and of the Tribulations They Perpetrate, to the Warning of all Innocent and Twelve-Fearing Folk” (Marcogg, 835 a.S.)
“Everything thou sayest, insofar as it cometh from the
heart, containeth a crumb of your true soul. The Listener, she listeneth
and therewith contriveth to collect the spiritual crumb from thy words.
This crumb, she storeth it in her own soul. She then repaireth to a
secluded location, where she wreaketh her mischief in secrecy. She breweth
a magical concoction. Into this, as the last ingredient, she spits thy
soul-crumb. Murmuring her spells, she infuseth the brew with the wicked
effects she wisheth to inflict upon her victim. Once she hath done so, her
Evil Ear receiveth the sludgy sounds of the boiling concoction’s bubbles,
while she inhaleth the malodorous fumes that arise therefrom. By these
channels, she re-absorbeth her victim’s soul, which is now infested with
harm, illness, discord, and all the evils wrought into it by her spells.
Despite the considerable influence of Mallefiz’ writings,
fanatical persecutors of Listeners like him are rather rare. More frequently, we
encounter the Evil Ear superstition among ordinary folk who generally get by
without the need to discover evil machinations, but may remember the Evil Ear
when some mishap befalls them or their loved ones.
A typical case may run as follows: One night, a young farmer’s daughter awakes from a nightmare so terrible that she is afraid to go asleep again. The usual remedies – soothing songs and yahrle tea – fail. An Eyashene is called, but his craft brings only temporary relief. Afraid of the return of her dream, the girl refuses to sleep for several nights, thus exacerbating her agitation. At this point, her old grandfather, who has seen many things and in his youth was much given to learning (he even tried to learn the skill of reading, although he has declined to use it for the last 50 years), may take the frightened girl to his side and inquire whether she has talked to any strangers recently. “Yes,” the girl may say. “There was this potion seller. He gave me a sweet I had never seen before. He called it Krath Chocolate. He was very kind. I told him about the time I was quarreling with my sister.” The grandfather inquires whether the girl met the potion seller only once – or had she seen him a second time? “Well,” the girl says: “I went back to him to bring him a flower I had picked for him, and he patted my head and told me what a nice girl I was.”
This tells the concerned grandfather all he needs to know. Obviously, he thinks, that travelling potion seller, that macanti, is a Listener and has bewitched the little girl. On occasion of their first conversation, he has gathered a soul crumb from her words, and during the second, has returned it to her in twisted, nightmare-inducing form. Thus an ordinary meeting between a travelling merchant and a farmer’s girl is transformed, in the superstitious mind, into an incidence of malicious magic, and established as the cause of the girl’s malady.
If the potion seller is still in the vicinity, he is now in acute danger. The grandfather will inform the young men and women of the village of his discovery, and a hunting party will be formed. Pitchforks and axes will be brandished, men will curse to give themselves courage, and the villagers will surround the wagon of the alleged Listener. Only Seyella knows how many innocent men and women have lost their lives in the rage of superstition.
For all the violent effort spent on punishing the supposed source of the girl’s malaise, her condition rarely improves. Believing herself to be bewitched, she looses all confidence in the possibility of ever being healed from her nightmares again. In the course of our research on the Evil Ear belief, we have come to many a village where an old woman’s eccentric habits, or an old man’s crazy soliloquies were traced back several decades to the appearance of an alleaged Listener in the village, who was believed to have bewitched them when they were young, and whose magic was said never to have lost its power.
The Evil Ear may serve as the explanation for a wide variety of maladies. Often these are of a spiritual nature: such as anxiety, melancholy, or befuddled minds. Two friends who get into a quarrel with one another may find it helpful to blame their discord on the fortune teller whom one of them recently consulted. Beating up an old Butterfly Rover is a marvellously effective way of forgetting a tiff and restoring cherished friendship. Finally, a passing Sinkel (or “Basketeer”, a type of wandering merchant) may find himself accused of causing birth defects in the babies of women he has talked to, of bringing about strangling disease, or even of exacerbating an old woman’s gout.
Prevalence. The Evil Ear superstition is widely believed in the villages and small towns of Manthria. In bigger cities such as Marcogg or Ciosa it is commonly known, but tends to be met with scepticism. We have also encountered tales of Listeners in the neighbouring provinces of Brendolan and Sanguia, particularly in areas close to the Manthrian borders. However, violent Listener hunts are very rare outside of Manthria itself.
History/Origin/Purpose. The reputed witch and confirmed scholar Hildula Hauntwell has suggested that the origin of the Evil Ear superstition may be traced to the Glandorian conquest of the Darian lands, which covered parts of the region that is today the Santharian province of Manthria. Famously, the Glandorians were distinguished, in appearance, not only by their fair hair and pale skin, but also by their enormously long ear slits and their underdeveloped outer ears. Hauntwell claimed to be in the possession of evidence that the defeated Darians aired their resentment against the invaders by referring to them as “Evil-Ears”. Moreover, some Darians appear to have attributed the Glandorian superiority to magical means. Over the centuries, these beliefs have merged and, like rumours, have been twisted and exaggerated until they were transformed into the peculiar superstition that we here describe, whose true origins, meanwhile, have been forgotten.
Thus, in any case, runs Hauntwell’s theory. We remain agnostic as to its veracity, but may permit ourselves to point out that the slit ears, which can still occasionally be seen on Avennorians with Glandorian ancestry, are today not associated with the Evil Ear superstition. Darian resentment against the Avennorian upper classes may persist, but is not expressed in accusations of “Listening”. If anything, it seems that most of those who find themselves suspected of being Listeners are poor and have neither swords nor henchmen to protect themselves.
The Victims. The following groups of people are particularly likely to be accused of having the Evil Ear: travelling macanti, Butterfly Rovers, Sinkels, and those who are suspected of being witches. Elves rarely travel through Manthria on their own, yet since they are known to have magical talents, and because of their long, pointed ears, elves occasionally feature as malicious protagonists in spine-chilling folk tales about the Evil Ear.
Usually, the Evil Ear accusation falls on strangers. Yet it is not unheard that a local herbwife, or even an Eyashene, whose uncanny abilities have made her an outsider in her society, is persecuted as a Listener. Undoubtedly, many perpetrators sincerely believe in the existence of the Evil Ear, and think that their violence serves to prevent future magical crimes. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that some people may use the accusation of Evil Ear in bad faith: to rid themselves of an enemy, maybe, or to distract from their own failings. Thus, we have heard of a physician in the hamlet of Kenerun, who made a habit of identifying the Evil Ear as the source of whatever illness he was unable to cure. The longer he carried on, the less success he had as a healer, and the more success he had at manipulating the villagers into a bloodthirsty frenzy. Under his direction, countless innocent travellers were hunted and killed as suspected Listeners.
In general, victims of Listener hunts, if they are caught, are in severe danger of loosing their lives. If they survive, this may be due to yet another abominable practice associated with the Evil Ear: in some parts of Manthria, it has become the custom to cut off the alleged Listeners’ ears, and to pierce their eardrums. Superstition has it that thus the Evil Ear’s power is destroyed. The mutilated victims face a sad existence, deprived of hearing and condemned to live as stigmatized outcasts. Wherever they go, the absence of ears marks them out as Listeners to superstitios folk, and they will not be welcomed in any Manthrian village or town.
Use of Charms. In western Manthria, especially in the Duchies of Tolonia, Margulf, and the Auturian Sty’cal, peasants will sometimes try to shield their souls from the Evil Ear by the use of a protective charm. When they are about to speak, for the first time, to a suspicious stranger, they will put a small leaf of browniefiddle under their tongue. The browniefiddle, an unpretentious little weed, has its name from the the fiddle-like shape of its leaves, and from children’s stories that tell of brownies fiddling on those leaves as on a string instrument. The use of the browniefiddle as a charm derives from the belief that, if placed under the tongue while speaking, the tongue’s motions will cause the weed’s leaf to create a subtle music, inaudible for human ears, yet sufficiently strong to disguise the speaker’s voice from the Evil Ear. Confused by the browniefiddle’s “music”, the Listener is prevented from extracting the “soul-crumb” he needs for his sorcery. This, at any rate, is what users of the browniefiddle believe.
Unfortunately for the superstitious peasants, browniefiddle leaves have a bitter taste. Also, if left in the mouth for too long, they tend to stick to the gum and to partially disintegrate, leaving behind a foul, greenish coating. Thus it comes that travellers in Manthria’s West often find the consonants in a peasant’s greeting to be curiously slurred, and the peasant’s face to be distorted by disgust at the taste in his mouth. Sinkels have had frequent occasion to witness the effects of the browniefiddle leaves, and jokingly refer to the credulous peasants as “greentongues”. Given that the Evil Ear exists solely in the imagination of the superstitious, the inconveniences that some individuals accept to protect themselves from it are curious indeed.
Researchers. The most extensive study of the Evil Ear superstition was produced by Hildula Hauntwell. Her work “Concise Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Rumours, and Slanders against Witches and other Honest Folk” (Lorehaven, 840 a.S.), which we recommend for perusal to every ardent scholar of human folly and cruelty, contains a detailed description of beliefs about Listeners, and many examples of such beliefs’ murderous consequences. We are sad to say that, as far as our own experiences in Manthria suggest, the course of time has not reduced the relevance of Hauntwell’s account.
While Hauntwell criticized the superstitious peasants of Manthria for their violence against supposed Listeners, her most passionate wrath was reserved for her fellow scholar and contemporary, Malleus Mallefiz. Mallefiz had made what he called the “eradication of the Evil of Listening” his life’s work, and went so far as to call for the execution of all Listeners. His tractate “Of the Listeners, and of the Tribulations They Perpetrate, to the Warning of all Innocent and Twelve-Fearing Folk” (Marcogg, 835 a.S.) was written in an effort to convince provincial rulers and city authorities of the need to persecute Listeners systematically. Fortunately, Mallefiz’ tirades were largely ignored by the powerful – not so much because dukes and mayors were any less credulous than ordinary folk, but because the superstition itself had no base in the cities, or among nobles, and therefore there were few reported cases of “Evil Ear” afflicting persons of high standing. If a few peasants went mad due to the whims of some malicious witch, what did a mayor or a duke care? As a consequence, official trials against supposed Listeners have remained rare.
However, while journeying through Manthria in search for the figments of his persecutory imagination, Mallefiz preached his beliefs in towns and villages, and has thus undoubtedly contributed to the persistence and even the spread of the Evil Ear superstition. Because of this, Hauntwell openly accused him of incitement to murder of innocents.
It is hardly surprising that the two scholars held each other in mutual contempt. Mallefiz even suspected Hauntwell of being a Listener herself. He believed that she had extracted a crumb of his soul from the letters of his book, and refused to meet her in person, lest she, by talking to him, inject the spoiled soul crumb back into his mind. One rumour suggests that Mallefiz hired an assassin to rid himself of his adversary. At the present stage of research, we cannot confirm that he did indeed go this far – yet the time and manner of Hauntwell’s death are unknown, and there is a strong possibility that her end was not a peaceful one.
 Malleus Mallefiz claimed that all Listeners were female, and that all their victims were male. In this, his writings are at odds with folk beliefs, which allow for the possibility of male Listeners as well as female victims. [Back]