An Eye for an Eye: An Historical Perspective

Most people believe that the the phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is a Christian edict, or perhaps more accurately Hebrew. Still others will point to the fact that this rule is contained in the Code of Hammurabi, which predates Hebrew writings. Interestingly enough the phrase is actually older even than that. It originates in Madagascar and is somewhat altered from the original phrase, “An Aye-Aye for an eye”.

The tradition comes about as a result of the believed sinister nature of the animal by the natives of Madagascar. The Aye-Aye is a medium sized Lemur that resides only on that island off the east coast of Africa.

The aye-aye has coarse, shaggy black fur with a mantle of white guard hairs. It is a medium-sized nocturnal lemur weighing about 3 kg (6.6 lb). The aye-aye is found in a variety of forest types in Madagascar. Its varied diet includes insect grubs, fruits, nuts, nectar, seeds and fungi. It is also known to raid coconut plantations. The aye-aye is a nocturnal forager. Most of the night is spent traveling and foraging in the upper canopy. The day is spent sleeping in a nest constructed in a tree from interwoven twigs and dead leaves. Large trees may contain as many as six nests. Although the aye-aye is generally solitary, males and females occasionally come together outside of breeding periods and interact briefly, often when foraging. Both males and females may mate with several partners.”

“In some parts of Madagascar, the aye-aye is regarded as a harbinger of evil and killed on sight (The Sakalava believe that the aye-aye enters houses during the night through thatched roofs and murders the sleeping human occupants. It supposedly uses its elongated finger to cut the aortic vein of its victims.

(Goodman & Schütz 2000))”

The natives believed that two good eyes were necessary to protect oneself from the dreaded Aye-Aye. This allowed one to sleep with one eye open to keep an eye out for the Aye-Aye. If a person struck out the eye of another, especially the right eye which was considered the best eye to keep open, and thus know as the Aye-Aye eye, that person must make amends by taking the eye of a live Aye-Aye and giving it to the victim, who otherwise could not sleep with one Aye-Aye eye open.

To take the eye of a live Aye-Aye was no mean feat. The nocturnal and tree-dwelling Aye-Aye was almost impossible to catch in the canopy which it calls home. Thus the hunt was made into a village affair wherein the guilty party was assisted by the entire village. The hunt was conducted under the supervision of a seasoned chief who was almost always one-eyed himself, and known as the Aye-Aye Captain. It is thought that the participation of the whole village to ameliorate the crime helped repair relationships damaged by the incident.

As the tradition spread to other lands it became increasingly difficult to honour the tradition as increasing distance caused more and more of a burden on the entire village. By the time Hammurabi considered adding the tradition to his code of laws it was practically impossible to fulfill this geas for the average Babylonian. Thus Hammurabi was quoted as saying “What a crock! And what the Apsu is an Aye-Aye anyway?”. Being a practical, albeit unimaginative man, he had the phrase changed to its present form and codified into law.


Another well known tradition comes from the natural behaviour of the Aye-Aye.

“The aye-aye is different from the other lemurs because it is highly specialized in many ways; …and its long skeleton-like middle finger used to extract larvae from holes.” (Mittermeier et al. 1994)

Naturalists have also observed the Aye-Aye hunting the young of certain predatory birds. The Aye-Aye hides beneath the nest where the mother bird cannot see, to avoid being attacked by said mother bird, and probing the nest with it’s long and slender middle finger protruding from a clenched fist. If the Aye-Aye encounters a fledgling it flips the unfortunate creature out of the nest and consumes it.

The natives of Madagascar emulated this behaviour with a similar gesture involving a clenched fist and extended middle finger probing the air in a signal meant to say “I wish the Aye-Aye had got you when you were hatched”. The gesture has come to us with a similar meaning of ill-will and is known as “flipping the bird”.


The second half of the phrase in question, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” also has its origins outside the middle east. It was originally a prescription for a herbal remedy for toothache. Vermouth, an herbal infused wine from European countries, often contained wormwood, a powerful analgesic.

“The firm Martini & Rossi is the world’s largest producer of Vermouth. “Martini and Rossi” was founded only in 1863, but vermouth – or something very much like it – dates back nearly to the threshold of history itself. Early Mediterranean cultures are known to have improved the flavor of their date and grape wines with honey, resins, and a host of herbs and spices included pepper, cinnamon and ginger.

Besides tasting dandy and raising the spirits of people who drunk them, many of these wines were thought to promote good health when combined with specific leaves and blossoms.

On of the most popular classic botanical additives was wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium), a herb related to tarragon and sagebrush and prized in many cultures for its curative powers as well as its ability to stimulate appetite and aid digestion. Because wormwood was an important ingredient, the beverage became known as wermut- from the German word for the herb. Soon it was gallicized to vermout; and eventually, somewhere along the line, the h was tacked on to the end.”

Thus the entire saying, etymologically traced to its origins, should read something along the lines of…

“An Aye-Aye for an eye, and some vermouth for that tooth.”

{with apologies to James Fraser}

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