The Eye of Ra is a being in ancient Egyptian mythology that functions as a feminine counterpart to the sun god Ra and a violent force that subdues his enemies.
The Eye is an extension of Ra’s power, equated with the disk of the sun, but it also behaves as an independent entity, which can be personified by a wide variety of Egyptian goddesses, including Hathor, Sekhmet, Bastet, Wadjet, and Mut.
The Eye goddess acts as mother, sibling, consort, and daughter of the sun god. She is his partner in the creative cycle in which he begets the renewed form of himself that is born at dawn.
The Eye’s violent aspect defends Ra against the agents of disorder that threaten his rule. This dangerous aspect of the Eye goddess is often represented by a lioness or by the uraeus, or cobra, a symbol of protection and royal authority.
The Eye of Ra is similar to the Eye of Horus, which belongs to a different god, Horus, but represents many of the same concepts. The disastrous effects when the Eye goddess rampages out of control and the efforts of the gods to return her to a benign state are a prominent motif in Egyptian mythology.
The Eye of Ra was involved in many areas of ancient Egyptian religion, including in the cults of the many goddesses who are equated with it.
Its life-giving power was celebrated in temple rituals, and its dangerous aspect was invoked in the protection of the pharaoh, of sacred places, and of ordinary people and their homes.
At times the Egyptians called the lunar eye the “Eye of Horus“, a concept with its own complex mythology and symbolism, and called the solar eye the “Eye of Ra“—Ra being the preeminent sun god in ancient Egyptian religion.
However, in Egyptian belief, many terms and concepts are fluid, so the sun could also be called the “Eye of Horus“.
The yellow or red disk-like sun emblem in Egyptian art represents the Eye of Ra. Because of the great importance of the sun in Egyptian religion, this emblem is among the most common religious symbols in all of the Egyptian art.
Although Egyptologists usually call this emblem the “sun disk“, its convex shape in Egyptian relief sculpture suggests that the Egyptians may have envisioned it as a sphere.
The emblem often appears atop the heads of solar-associated deities, including Ra himself, to indicate their links with the sun. The disk could even be regarded as Ra’s physical form.
At other times, the sun god, in various forms, is depicted inside the disk shape as if enclosed within it. The Egyptians often described the sun’s movement across the sky as the movement of a bark carrying Ra and his entourage of other gods, and the sun disk can either be equated with this solar bark or depicted containing the bark inside it. The disk is often called Ra’s “daughter” in Egyptian texts.
Like the sun, the Eye of Ra is a source of heat and light, and it is associated with fire and flames. It is also equated with the red light that appears before sunrise, and with the morning star that precedes and signals the sun’s arrival.
The eyes of Egyptian deities, although they are aspects of the power of the gods who own them, sometimes take active roles in mythology, possibly because the word for “eye” in Egyptian, jrt, resembles another word meaning “do” or “act”.
The presence of the feminine suffix -t in jrt may explain why these independent eyes were thought of as female. The Eye of Ra, in particular, is deeply involved in the sun god’s creative actions.
In Egyptian mythology, the sun’s emergence from the horizon each morning is likened to Ra’s birth, an event that revitalizes him and the order of the cosmos.
Ra emerges from the body of a goddess who represents the sky—usually Nut. Depictions of the rising sun often show Ra as a child contained within the solar disk. In this context, the Egyptologist Lana Troy suggests, the disk may represent the womb from which he is born or the placenta that emerges with him.
The Eye of Ra can also take the form of a goddess, which according to Troy is both the mother who brings Ra forth from her womb and a sister who is born alongside him like a placenta.
Ra was sometimes said to enter the body of the sky goddess at sunset, impregnating her and setting the stage for his rebirth at sunrise. Consequently, the Eye, as womb and mother of the child form of Ra, is also the consort of the adult Ra. The adult Ra, likewise, is the father of the Eye who is born at sunrise.
The Eye is thus a feminine counterpart to Ra’s masculine creative power, part of a broader Egyptian tendency to express creation and renewal through the metaphor of sexual reproduction. Ra gives rise to his daughter, the Eye, who in turn gives rise to him, her son, in a cycle of constant regeneration.
Ra is not unique in this relationship with the Eye. Other solar gods may interact in a similar way with the numerous goddesses associated with the Eye.
Hathor, a goddess of the sky, the sun, and fertility, is often called the Eye of Ra, and she also has a relationship with Horus, who also has solar connections, that is similar to the relationship between Ra and his Eye.
Hathor can even be called “the Eye of Horus”—one of several ways in which the distinctions between the two eyes are blurred.
The Eye can also act as an extension of and companion to Atum, a creator god closely associated with Ra. Sometimes this eye is called the Eye of Atum, although at other times the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Atum are distinct, with Ra’s Eye the sun and Atum’s Eye the moon.
A myth about the Eye
A myth knew from allusions in the Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC) and a more complete account in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus from the Late Period (664–332 BC), demonstrates the Eye’s close connection with Ra and Atum and her ability to act independently.
The myth takes place before the creation of the world when the solar creator—either Ra or Atum—is alone. Shu and Tefnut, the children of this creator god, have drifted away from him in the waters of Nu, the chaos that exists before creation in Egyptian belief, so he sends out his Eye to find them.
The Eye returns with Shu and Tefnut but is infuriated to see that the creator has developed a new eye, which has taken her place. The creator god appeases her by giving her an exalted position on his forehead in the form of the uraeus, the emblematic cobra that appears frequently in Egyptian art, particularly on royal crowns.
The equation of the Eye with the uraeus and the crown underlines the Eye’s role as a companion to Ra and to the pharaoh, with whom Ra is linked.
Upon the return of Shu and Tefnut, the creator god is said to have shed tears, although whether they are prompted by happiness at his children’s return or distress at the Eye’s anger is unclear.
These tears give rise to the first humans. In a variant of the story, it is the Eye that weeps instead, so the Eye is the progenitor of humankind.
The tears of the Eye of Ra are part of a more general connection between the Eye and moisture. In addition to representing the morning star, the Eye can also be equated with the star Sothis (Sirius).
Every summer, at the start of the Egyptian year, Sothis’s heliacal rising, in which the star rose above the horizon just before the sun itself, heralded the start of the Nile inundation, which watered and fertilized Egypt’s farmland.
Therefore, the Eye of Ra precedes and represents the floodwaters that restore fertility to all of Egypt.
Aggressive and protective
The Eye of Ra also represents the destructive aspect of Ra’s power: the heat of the sun, which in Egypt can be so harsh that the Egyptians sometimes likened it to arrows shot by a god to destroy evildoers.
The uraeus is a logical symbol for this dangerous power. In art, the sun disk image often incorporates one or two uraei coiled around it.
The solar uraeus represents the Eye as a dangerous force that encircles the sun god and guards against his enemies, spitting flames like venom.
Four uraei are sometimes said to surround Ra’s bark. Collectively called “Hathor of the Four Faces“, they represent the Eye’s vigilance in all directions.
Ra’s enemies are the forces of chaos, which threaten maat, the cosmic order that he creates. They include both humans who spread disorder and cosmic powers like Apep, the embodiment of chaos, whom Ra and the gods who accompany him in his bark are said to combat every night.
The malevolent gaze of Apep’s own Eye is a potent weapon against Ra, and Ra’s Eye is one of the few powers that can counteract it. Some unclear passages in the Coffin Texts suggest that Apep was thought capable of injuring or stealing the Eye of Ra from its master during the combat.
In other texts, the Eye’s fiery breath assists in Apep’s destruction. This apotropaic function of the Eye of Ra is another point of overlap with the Eye of Horus, which was similarly believed to ward off evil.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.