Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

If Looks Could Kill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 5, 2014

Every once in a while you hear someone talk about a run-in they’ve had with a third party, and they state if looks could kill … oftentimes leaving the rest of the sentence unfinished. What they mean is that the third party was so angered by what the person had said or done, that they cast a nasty look in that person’s direction.

In the “Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board: Volume 351” the firing of David W. Lindgren on April 1, 1999 is addressed. Among other issues in this hearing was the fact that during voir-dire evidence, it was revealed that the witness had overheard other voir-dire testimony as he stood by the closed witness room door. Among the many twists and turns, the following was recorded:

Asked whether he stared at Lindgreen, George testified that he simply gazed at each driver, including Lindgren, in the room at various times, making eye contact per his training on how to address a group. George does not expressly deny staring at Lindgren, or giving him a “if looks could kill” stare at the beginning of the meeting, nor does he assert that he never saw the “Big O” on Lindgren’s shirt.

Author Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) wrote a number of plays including “The League Of Youth: A Comedy In Five Act” which was published in English in 1965 by Penguin Books (it was originally published in 1869). Madame Rundesholme — referred to as Madam in the play — is the widow of a local tradesman, Daniel Hejre is Daniel Hejre, Lundedstad is the farmer Anders Lundedstad, Mr. Stensgard is a lawyer, and Thora is Chamberlain Brattesberg’s daughter. The action takes place near a market town in the southern part of Norway. The expression is found in this passage.

MADAM:
Yes, of course I accept him. A girl’s got to be careful of philanderers, but when you’ve got it in black and white that a certain person’s intentions are honourable, why then … Oh look, here’s Mr. Stensgard, too! Well, Mr. Stensgard, aren’t you going to congratulate me?

HEJRE [to LUNDESTAD]:
If looks could kill …!

BRATTSBERG:
I’m sure he is, Madam Rundesholme, but won’t you congratulate your future sister-in-law?

MADAM:
Who’s that?

THORA:
Ragna — she’s engaged, too.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition of May 7, 1921, the story “Fifty Candles” by American novelist and playwright, Earl Derr Biggers (August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933) was shared with the readership. The story was said to be from the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898, stretching twenty years, and landing squarely in San Francisco, and the life of one Chang See. Interestingly enough, for those who don’t recognize the author’s name, he is primarily remembered for his detective stories featuring Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan (first introduced to readers in 1925 in the novel “The House Without A Key.”). But flirting with the idea of incorporating Asian culture into his stories was something that struck the author’s fancy after a trip to Honolulu where he wrote he did some “harmless loitering on the beach at Waikiki.”  In the Saturday Evening Post story, the following was written:

Harry Childs had never been in high favor in that court, and if looks could kill he would then and there have preceded his client into eternity. Outwardly, however, the judicial calm was unruffled.

Rolling back to January 1853 and “The New Monthly Magazine: Volume 97” in a story entitled, “Lisette’s Castles In The Air.”  It is attributed as being from the Danish author and poet, H.P. Holst (22 October 1811 – 4 June 1893) and transcribed by a Mrs. Bushby.

Her embarrassment adds fuel to the flames; the demon of jealousy is again at work in Ludvig’s mind, he utters not a syllable, but darting at her a glance that, if looks could kill, would have annihilated her on the spot, he seizes his hat, and is about to leave her. Lisette is in the greatest consternation. She tries to detain him. “Ludvig — dear Ludvig! I have — can you forgive …?”

“What have you done? What am I called on to forgive? You false, deceitful one!” he cries, passionately interrupting her, while he endeavours to break away from her.

“Oh, do not be so violent, Ludvig! I have been amusing myself with my dreams again. I have again been building castles in the air. Forgive me this once more! There is what I have been writing.”

Going back to April 1804 and the book “Oriental Customs, Or An Illustration Of The Sacred Scriptures By An Explanatory Application Of The Customs And Manners Of The Eastern Nations, And Especially The Jews, Therein Alluded To Together With Observations On Many Difficult And Obscure Texts, Collected From The Most Celebrated Travellers, And The Most Eminent Critics” written by Church of England clergyman, Samuel Burder (1773 – 1836). This book is introduced in the Preface as one that purports to provide mature examination of authenticated revelations, and determines the credibility of the Bible as connected with customs found in cultures of the East (meaning the Middle East and Asia). The following is written in the section entitled, “No. 532: Galatians ii.1.”

They believed that great mischief might ensue from an evil-eye, or from being regarded with envious and malicious looks. Pliny relates from Isigonus, that “among the Triballians and Illyrians there were certain enchanters, who with their looks could bewitch and kill those whom they beheld for a considerable time, especially if they did so with angry eyes.” (Nat. Hist. lib. vii.cap.2.)

And so the concept of looks being able to kill is traced back to the Triballians and the Illyrians by way of this passage. Triballians were an ancient tribe that inhabited what is now known as southern Serbia and western Bulgaria, and were influenced by the Celts, the Scythians, and the Illyrians. Illyrians were an ancient tribe that inhabited the western Balkans and the southeastern costs of the Italian peninsula. The tribe appears to have died out, according to historical records, in the 7th century. Both tribes are mentioned in Greek texts from as early on as the 4th century BC.

Pliny, is Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), who was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher. At the age of 23, he was a junior officer in the Roman army, and from there he moved up the ladder to become a commander of a cohort, and then secured the position of commander of an ala. During this time, his knowledge and ability grew, and became more and more respected. What this means is that he had opportunity and occasion to interact with the tribes to which he referred in his writings. It is here that Pliny referred to some Triballian and Illyrian “[women] who had double eye balls, [who] had power to hurt others on whom they fixed their eyes.”

Greek mythology dates back to between 900 and 800 BC, and while it’s possible that the abilities attributed to some Triballian and Illyrian women may be as a result of the myth of Perseus and Medusa.  Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters (the three sisters being Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale). It was said that Medusa had the ability to turn to stone those who gazed upon her countenance.

That being said, Greek mythology seems to pre-date the Triballians and Illyrians, and so it is reasonable to identify this idiom as being one that comes straight from the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa.

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2 Responses to “If Looks Could Kill”

  1. mutanatia said

    When you brought up Medusa, I thought of something: when you get glared at, you shrink away and “shield your eyes” from it, much like Perseus needing to hide his eyes from Medusa.

  2. And isn’t that an interesting observation since this is true of nearly all people. Thanks for mentioning this, Mutanatia.

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