The Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra: Not the Same

The Eye of Ra and the Eye of Horus are literally as different as the sun and moon. They pertain to deities with similarities in their iconography and a certain overlap in their roles and attributes, but the eyes in question have very clear and distinct meanings; when capitalized, it is in fact one eye only for each god that is intended.

Horus was the first chief god and royal patron in Egyptian history, both protecting the king and being incarnated in him for several centuries before Ra-Atum, the sun god of Heliopolis, became the focal point of the royal cult. Unsurprisingly for a god typically represented as a falcon, Horus was a sky god. His right eye (the senior and more important one) was the sun, and his left was the moon.

When we speak of the Eye of Horus, however, it is the left eye that we mean. The left eye was injured during one of his battles with Set, and it fell to Thoth to heal the eye. The consequences of these acts are complex in Egyptian thought and magic. Firstly, it explains the waxing and the waning of the moon. The full moon represents the healthy eye, and the partial phases the injured eye; after the New Moon, however, it begins to heal under Thoth’s influence, and returns in time to the full state. Secondly, this myth accounts for the fact that the moon is an attribute both of Horus (as his left eye) and of Thoth. Finally and most importantly, the healed left Eye of Horus (or Wedjat) becomes an important symbol of healing, and of the prevention of harm, as a result of one of the most basic traits of Egyptian magic. In Egyptian magic, one of the strongest ways to accomplish one’s end is to identify onself (or the person one is intending to help, or both) with one or more of the gods. In the case of the Eye of Horus, one wears an amulet bearing this symbol so as to associate oneself with the great god Horus, in order to prevent harm, or to encourage healing where harm has already taken place. This amulet becomes a favorite in the funerary cult.

Ra, who becomes a kingly god when the Third Dynasty kings first take him as a royal patron, is also a sky god, but his role is fundamentally solar in nature. In the Heliopolitan myth, the sun is identified with the fiery eye of Ra, but this is only one interpretation of the visible phenomenon that is the sun. The same complex of myths, for example, thinks of the sun at dawn as the ball of dung rolled over the hill by the sun god in his form as the celestial beetle, Kheper. Both interpretations exist side by side, and they are not considered to be contradictory. Rather, they are viewed as partial understandings of complicated and sacred reality that is ultimately beyond human comprehension.

The Eye of Ra, when so capitalized, refers to a myth in which Ra removed his eye after his children went out to explore the primordial waters and got lost. He sent his eye, with its fire to illuminate the darkness, separately to look for them. The eye returned with the children in tow, but in the meantime Ra had grown a new eye. The Eye of Ra became jealous of its lost position; it was not merely a body part of the sun god, but also his daughter, variously identified with goddesses like Wadjet, Hathor and Sekhmet. Ra welcomed her back, however, and placed her at his forehead to protect and illuminate. In this case, it is the cobra goddess Wadjet (not to be confused with the entirely different word Wedjat) that is intended. The cobra goddess perched on the forehead of Ra is the model for the Uraeus, or cobra sculpture that adorns the crowns of Egyptian kings.

The Eye of Ra does refer also to the great goddesses Hathor and Sekhmet, respectively the wives of Horus and of Ptah of Memphis. When it is Sekhmet that is identified with the Eye of Ra, it is meant to emphasize the destructive power of the sun’s heat, focused against an enemy or even a victim. The sun’s fiery gaze can wither instead of giving life, and in an age long before the germ theory, this withering effect seemed to explain some catastrophic diseases. Sekhmet became a goddess of plague, but also of healing and of the prevention of disease. This duality is also evident in Hathor, perhaps the supremely feminine and gracious goddess in Egyptian belief. She is a patroness of healing, the arts, and human love, all things that flourish under the benevolent gaze of the sun. She is theoretically capable, however, of all of the savagery of Sekhmet. According to one myth, Ra decided to punish mankind, and sent his Eye as Hathor in a fearsome guise to accomplish the task. The rampaging cow-goddess became so caught up in her work that she exceeded her mandate, and Ra needed to stop her before she could wipe humanity out completely. In the end, it was a massive pool of beer, colored to look like blood, that distracted her from her task and returned her to her characteristically benevolent role.

The Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra are therefore profoundly different symbols, founded on initially separate (but ultimately intertwined) myth-cycles and playing different roles in Egyptian magic and ceremony. At the same time, overlapping characteristics point to the flexible and syncretic nature of Egyptian religion, which always found ways to adapt an old idea when adopting a new one. The fact that the Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra, or for that matter the gods Horus and Ra, existed side by side throughout the remainder of Egyptian history speaks to this truth.


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