Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Whose Eye is this anyway?

The Egyptian eye is probably one of the most widely recognized Egyptian symbols. From the fancy make-up and tattoos to the amulets in the museum the icon has become a widespread image. Sometimes we see it called the Eye of Ra and others, the Eye of Horus.

Like most people, for years I was confused about what this symbol actually was. It was so often that both illustrations looked exactly the same and heads or tails couldn't be made for when to tell them apart. In fact, if you do a google search the exact same images will come up for the "Eye of Ra" and the "Eye of Horus". It took me many years, almost 20 now, to get to the bottom of this mess about which one is which. Just this past year I found a text, both a translation and images of the original Papyrus of Turin, that told me once and for all what the difference was.

Before we get into how to resolve this problem of determining what is and is not whose eye we can start by talking about those things we do know. There are times in mythology and writing where one of these eyes is referred to and not the other.

The Eye of Ra
The Eye of Ra is defined universally as several things that are never given the name Eye of Horus. These include the goddesses. Sekhmet, Hathor and Bastet are often given the name Eye of Ra and associated with the symbol. When we see these goddesses and the eye symbol we can be certain that this is in fact the Eye of Ra. The Eye of Ra is also a common theme in creation myths to light up the water of Nun. The eye of Ra can be shown alone or as a pair.

The Eye of Horus
Horus, and that is Horus the Elder brother of Set and not Horus the Child, had his eye ripped out by Set in the first battle that Set waged against his family. This eye was then healed by Thoth or sometimes Isis depending on the version of the myth you are actually reading.
........But wait, there is actually a second Eye of Horus. Set must have a tendency for eye removal as some myths state that he also removes the eye of Horus the Child just before the other gods tell them enough fighting and force them to go to trial. The eye of Horus, no matter the Horus, is almost always a single eye and usually a right one.

..........AND then the Egyptian make it exceedingly complicated.
A god named Re-Horakhty or Ra-Horakhty, if you like, comes on the scene. This god is a merger of Ra and Horus, the child in this case. Now whose eye is it? Is it the Eye of Horus? The Eye of Ra? Do we have a third Eye of Ra-Horakhty? How do we figure out what to call the eye associated with this god?

There is an explanation!
Until just last year I would have been sitting there scratching my head just as most people do when faced with this conundrum of eyes. I told you that I had found a myth from a papyrus that clears this up once and for all. The myth is a common one telling the story of how Isis used magic and trickery to force Ra to divulge his true and secret name. Most of the versions of this myth Isis only asks for Ra's name. However, in some versions, such as the 20th dynasty one in the Papyrus of Turin, Isis adds another stipulation that Ra give Horus his eyes as well or die in agony. The writer of this myth even states that there after the Eyes of Ra are called the Eyes of Horus by men. EUREKA! There seems to be an answer, that though we call it the Eye of Horus all of the eyes are actually Ra's.

There is one loose end though. What about the eye of Horus the Elder? This eye is named in a few myths but the Eye of Horus the Elder is rarely, exceedingly rarely, used outside of the mythology of his battle with Set. Usually, we are looking at amulets, artwork or tattoos designed for protection. The Eye of Horus the Elder is never given the attributes of protection so we can usually rule that name out for items that are designed to give protection. If we are picking up an eye to use as a religious item it has to be either Ra or Horus the Child whom that eye belongs to.

The question remains do we call it the Eye of Horus or the Eye of Ra? Honestly, it can be either. The Eye of Ra is the original form, the owner of the eyes and reference to either Bastet and/or Sekhmet/Hathor. We could use the Eye of Horus as well but it comes with the mythology of these eyes truly being the stolen property of Ra. Though, occasionally we can use the Eye of Horus as the one Set removes but having your eye plucked out hardly sounds like an image of protection to me. It is an interesting set of mythology.

If you want to read a translation of this myth check out Legends of Ancient Egypt by M.A. Murray.

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