Egypt Feature Story
The Eyes Have It
by Jimmy Dunn
Eyes, eyes and more eyes. They were prominent in ancient Egypt, and they even survive today in superstitions surrounding the evil eye. Eyes in ancient Egypt could symbolize protection or destruction, offerings, various goddesses, and sometimes allowed the dead to see the living world. However, this all makes for some very complex mythology.
From very early times in Egypt the sun and the moon were regarded as the eyes of the great falcon god Horus, though the two eyes eventually became differentiated, with the left eye (the "Eye of Horus") often being regarded as the symbol of the moon and the right eye (the "Eye of Re") being that of the sun.
The Left Eye (the Eye of Horus, The Eye of Thoth, the lunar eye)
One of the most prominent myths concerning the moon relates its cycle to the battle between Horus and Seth. During this famous battle over the inheritance of Osiris, Seth steals the (left) eye of Horus, damages it, and divides it into six parts. Thoth (with the help of other gods) later restores it "with his fingers," or by spitting on it. In the temple at Kom Ombo, a series of medical instruments is depicted being used in the healing of the eye by the god Haroeris (actually, Haroeris is one of the oldest forms of Horus, known as Horus the Elder). The restored eye is called Wadjet, from the New Kingdom onward, but the myth in question is much older and was found in the Coffin Texts as Spell 335.Thoth may also be said to catch the lunar eye in a net, acting together with the god Shu.
Restoring the damaged eye is said to have happened on the sixth lunar day. The eye is said to be filled with specific minerals and plants. Thoth, together with a specific group of fourteen gods, principally performed this act. In Greco-Roman temple reliefs from the region between Dendera and Esna, this group is the Ennead of Hermopolis. Together with Thoth, these gods represented the fifteen days leading up to the full moon, and again the days of the waning moon. As representing the latter, they are said to exit from the eye.
An iconographic variant of this theme occurs in the temples at Edfu and Dendera in the form of a staircase with fourteen steps that support the fourteen gods of the waxing moon. Reliefs in Edfu, Dendera and Ismant el-Kharab (Dakhla Oasis) list a different group of thirty, mostly male, deities associated with the days of the lunar month. In the legends inscribed with these gods at Ismant el-Kharab, the first fifteen are said to fill the Wadjet eye with a fraction each day, after which the moon's reduction is recorded up to the twenty-fourth day, when the intensity of the moonlight has all but disappeared.
The healed eye, known as the Wedjat eye, or the sound eye, became the symbol for the reestablishment of ordered conditions after disturbances. In a somewhat different myth, Horus is said to have brought his eye to his dead father Osiris who devoured it as an offering meal and by means of it was recalled to life. It thus became the guarantee of life and of the regeneration of life. The fact that offerings are called 'the Eye of Horus" indicates that they are considered participants in the preservation of life. This designation also characterizes the offering as divine substance and even allows for discussions about the transubstantiation of the material of the offerings. The Eye of Horus is the greatest gift of all, and it constitutes the quintessence of gifts.
Hence, the sacred eye could also function as a symbol of offerings. Frequently in the art of the later New Kingdom, a personified eye presents incense or other offerings as the deceased as he kneels before the throne of Osiris. As sacred solar animals, baboons are also frequently shown presenting Wadjet eyes to the rising sun.
The (left) Eye of Horus was considered the most powerful of protective amulets. Abundant examples with many variant forms and materials have survived from all subsequent dynasty periods. Despite the uncertainties surrounding the origin and significance of the sacred eye symbol, its use in Egyptian iconography is widespread and relatively clear. Above all, the eye was a protective device, and this is seen in the countless representations of the Wadjet which are found in amulets and jewelry and on the protective plaques which were placed over the embalming incision on mummies. This protective aspect is probably at least part of the significance of the two eyes which were commonly painted on the left side of the coffins during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. Although the mummy was often placed on its left side in these coffins, suggesting that the eyes may have served as a "window" onto the word for the deceased, a protective function also seems likely. In the same way, the Horus eyes painted on the bows of boats both protected the vessels and "saw" the way ahead. More directly, in the New Kingdom, representations of the sacred eye is often depicted with wings, hovering behind kings and gods as an emblem of overshadowing protective forces.
The composition of the of the symbol itself is not completely understood though it seems to represent a human or falcon eye (depending on the individual representation) above the distinctive cheek marking of the falcon. The stylized, spiral "tear line" below the eye is somewhat like that found on the face of the cheetah, which was also associated with the heavens in early Egyptian mythology for various reasons.
The left (Horus) and right eye (which could be the Eye of Re) were usually depicted very similarly, with little difference other than one was a left and the other was a right eye. Of course, representations of the eyes frequently included other representations specific to each one. However, it should be noted that their orientation was not always reliable as an indicator of the lunar or solar eye.
Eye of Re (the Right Eye of Horus, the Solar Eye)
At some point, the right eye of Horus, with its solar symbolism, was naturally associated with Re, and became the Eye of Re (Ra). Re was said to be the "father of the gods," for he was their head and king, as well as the father of humanity, and, according to some ancient myths, all living creatures that were believed to grow from his sweat or tears. The tears were produced from the Eye of Re, which was separable from him with a mind of its own. Once when it did not return, Re sent Shu and Tefnut to get it, the Eye stubbornly resisted, and in the struggle shed tears; from the tears, men grew. Perhaps this myth emerged because the Egyptian words for "tears" and "men" share a similar sound.
There were variants of the story concerning the Eye of Re. One legend was that the Eye was sent by Atum to search for Shu and Tefnut who were lost in the waters of Nun; being placed on Atum's forehead rewarded the Eye. Another story is that The Eye one wandered on its own accord, and Re sent Thoth, the moon, to fetch it back; upon returning the Eye discovered that it had been replaced by another Eye, perhaps the moon. Thoth, however, mollified the original Eye, and Re pacified it by placing it, in the shape of the uraeus serpent, on his brow "where it could rule the whole world." The Eye, as uraeus, would become the effective ruler of the world, and as such would be worn by pharaohs as a symbol of their majesty and their descent from the sun god.
It came to exist as a separate entity, independent of the god himself. The symbolism of the eye of Re, associated with a number of goddesses, was complex and diverse.
Sekhmet, another version of the eye, took the form of a savage goddess who reveled in the slaughter of humans as the instrument of the sun-god's wrath. There are a number of versions of it found in various royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. In this story, Her Father Re dispatches Hathor in the form of the lioness goddess Sekhmet in order to punish the transgressions of mankind, who had become willful and rebellious. She slays men, leaving them in pools of blood in the deserts where they had fled. In the process, She becomes overzealous and nearly wipes out humanity. In order to stop her, Re sends for His High Priest at Iunu to obtain red ochre from Elephantine, which is ground and mixed with beer. Seven thousand jars of this mixture are spread over the land of Egypt, turning it into what looks like a sea of blood. When Sekhmet (Hathor) awakens in the morning and sees it, she begins drinking voraciously. In the process, she becomes quite intoxicated and is unable to continue slaughtering. She is coaxed to return to Her benign aspect of Hathor, and mankind is saved. However, from such stories, the Eye of Re lives on in the form of the original "Evil Eye".
On the other hand, the Eye of Re could also be a protective force, particularly for the king, evidenced by its identification with the Wadjet, the divine personification of the uraeus. These two versions of the eye were essentially the two sides of the personality of the goddess.